The Rapidian

Can we feed everyone?

The world population is expected to be 9 billion by 2050. Having enough food in the right places will be a bigger challenge than it is today.
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By the year 2050 it is projected that the world population will rise to by 2 billion people to 9 billion.  With food prices today having increased beyond the level they were in 2008, sparking riots in the poorer regions of the world; it seems that even today we can’t feed everyone.  How will it be possible to feed almost 30% more hungry mouths?

 

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the late 1970s, the Green Revolution helped to increase agricultural yields dramatically.  The combination of improved irrigation systems, development of new varieties of grains and better herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers ushered in an era of low grain prices.  But about fifteen years ago yields per acre began to level off and the days of cheap food were numbered.

 

That means that today we have more people competing for the same amount of food as was being produced in the 1990s.

 

It isn’t just other people competing for the food.  Our automobiles are competing for it in the form of bio fuels.  An increasingly affluent Asian population is consuming more meat, which consumes many more pounds of grains and vegetables than it produces.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) forecasts that the demand for meat for consumption will be more than twice as large as the demand for cereals by the year 2050.

 

The Malthusian theory of population said that population growth would eventually outpace agriculture growth.  The Green Revolution seemed to have invalidated that theory.  Even as late as 2007 a New York Times article claimed that the Industrial Revolution had enabled the world to go beyond the constraints of the Malthusian growth model.  (See article: bit.ly/kDTSdd).  Four years later the likelihood that Malthus was wrong is not as certain, at least on a global basis.

 

Do we need to worry about producing more food?  Shouldn’t rising prices put a damper on demand and bring the market into balance?  After all, enough calories are being produced today to meet the dietary needs of the world population.  By some measures more than twice the minimum nutritional need is being produced.  In the United States almost one in three people are overweight.  Mexico isn’t far behind in that unflattering category.  The simple answer is to redistribute the calories to those who need them and the world hunger problem is solved.

 

Too bad the answer isn’t that simple.  Despite the mass of calories being produced, food isn’t where it needs to be and redistribution isn’t easy.

 

Complicating the issue are prices.  Price volatility in the past four years has been much greater than it has been for decades.  Volatility by its very nature creates uncertainty.  Uncertainty makes it difficult for farmers to know how to plan their crops or how to invest their capital.  Price volatility is even more harmful to consumers, especially the poor, who are in danger of not being able to afford basic foods.

 

Increasing supplies is easier than improving the logistics of food distribution, but it won’t be easy.  With a billion people going hungry today and a projected 2 billion more people in the world in forty years there is a need to produce much more.   The good news is that the population increase from 2010 to 2050 is 30%, far less than the 80% increase from 1970 to 2010.  The bad news is that consumption of wheat, maize and rice grows faster than population growth.

The FAO estimates that total demand for food will rise about 70% by 2050 from current levels or more than twice as much as demand for cereals. That is less than half as much as the rise in food production in the 40 years from 1970 to 2010. So according to the FAO, producing enough food to feed the world in the next four decades should be easier than in the previous four.

 

It should be, but it won’t be.  That’s because increasing yields by 70% over today’s high level won’t be as easy as having increased them by 150% of 1970’s much lower level.

 

For most of us in Grand Rapids, the amount of food available is more of a humanitarian issue than a personal issue.  It’s the poor who will be disproportionately affected by mankind’s ability to produce enough food for everyone.  That is always the case.  In that way Grand Rapids is a microcosm of the world.

 

With minimal, if any disposable income, the poor have greater difficulty to absorb higher food prices.  The poor are also more vulnerable to distribution problems.  The amount of food that goes to waste because it can’t be cannot be redistributed before it goes bad is vast.  For those two reasons the poor in our area are likely to go as hungry, or at least as undernourished, as the poor elsewhere in the world over the next forty years.

 

Feeding the nine billion people won’t be easy.  The methods we have been employing for the past forty years were sufficient for the past forty years.  They won’t however, be enough for the next forty.  Some combination of increased yields, more efficient distribution and improved technology will be necessary if the world is to be fed in 2050.

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