Population Growth Projected to Drive a Third of Future Food Demand:
Let’s Talk About a Practical Solution

The bread baskets and rice bowls of the world will need to get a lot breadier and ricier in the coming decades if we’re going to feed all 9 billion people projected to be on the planet in 2050. A new report from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota proposes the following:

We have enough food for the roughly 7 billion[i] people alive today, but nearly a billion are hungry or malnourished, mostly due to poverty and unequal distribution. To feed those who are currently hungry—and the additional 2 billion-plus people who will live on the planet by 2050—our best projections are that crop production will need to increase between 60 and 100 percent.[ii] “Business as usual” could lead to a doubling of demand for agricultural production.

Of that doubling of demand, population growth will be responsible for 28%, the researchers estimate in “Is There Enough Food for the Future?” Two-thirds of the increased demand will result from a growing middle class that will want more animal protein in their diets. (The remaining 6%—or 9%, depending on whether you read the text or look at the pie chart—in demand will come from biofuels and other industrial products.)

We’re already using half the world’s arable land for agriculture. Producing more food that actually reaches people’s plates, say the study’s authors, will require that we do a combination of the following:

  1. Boost yields on existing cropland,
  2. Convert more land to agricultural uses, and
  3. Improve food distribution, curb food waste, and eat lower on the food chain.

The first two strategies come with major downsides:

  1. The most effective methods of increasing crop yields will further threaten the insect population, pollute waterways, and contribute to climate change.
  2. Converting more land from wilderness to crops will result in further deforestation and habitat loss.

The third strategy has no clear downsides as far as I am aware.

This all leads me to draw two commonsense policy implications:

  1. We must aim to unlink affluence and animal protein, and make more sustainable, plant-based foods at least as enticing (and affordable) as meat, dairy, and eggs.
  2. We must ensure universal access to voluntary family planning, which is the key to ending population growth.

And yet, there is not one single mention in the report of population projections’ dependence on fertility rates, or of the achievability of stabilizing the human population in order to reduce future demand on food systems. This is a massive omission, since more people to feed = more crops to grow.

There’s one world region that stands out as needing the most help: In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one in five people already suffers from chronic food deprivation. This is the region where agricultural practices are most rudimentary and where poverty is most widespread. It’s also the region with the highest fertility rate, at 4.75 children per woman, and the highest unmet need for family planning, at 21% of women of reproductive age.

Sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than any other world region. The current population of 1.08 billion is projected to grow to 2.17 billion in 2050—doubling in just three decades. In other words, half of the people added to the planet in the next thirty years will be living in the region the least equipped to feed them (among other things).

The authors of the Minnesota study close the piece by saying, “…we could produce enough food for the future, though the health of the environment and hunger depend on how we do that.”

Here’s a solution that doesn’t harm the environment: funding 100% of the global demand for modern contraception. The fourth broad solution the authors should have proposed to this challenge? Ensure that every woman who wants modern contraception can get a method appropriate for her, at an affordable price.

[i] The authors used quite outdated population projections, from 2012. The latest UN estimates put the 2019 world population at 7.7 billion, and project that it will be 9.8 billion in 2050 (according to the medium-fertility variant).

[ii] From 2005 levels

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