Where is the starting point to create a plan for feeding nine billion people 40 years from now?

posted in: Syndicated | 2

How Are We Going To Double Global Food Production Over The Next 40 Years? 
The Farm Gate, University of Illinois
December 22, 2010
Stu Ellis
With the US Census showing more than 308 million people, there is curiosity about how many people there are in the world. The current estimate of 7.5 billion is forecast to grow to nine billion by the middle of the century. They will be hungry and will need to be fed with food that very few of them can produce for themselves. Somewhere, global food production will have to increase 70% to 100% in the next 40 years. You may not have to worry about that but the younger generation on today’s farm’s will be involved with the care and feeding of nine billion hungry people. How are they going to do that?

The number of people expected in the global community is irrelevant, but what is a serious question is how will food production double in the next 40 years, given the challenges to food production that we have today? You are trying to grow corn for livestock, fuel, and export. It is the same for soybeans, and other grains. The challenge that today’s young farmers will have revolves around water, land use, yield increases, environmental regulations, and a myriad of other significant policy issues. Where is the starting point to create a plan for feeding nine billion people 40 years from now?

More than 50 global agricultural thinkers recently gathered in England to identify the top 100 questions that have to be answered to address the food demand in the year 2050. When you look at the list, it indicates a global effort was made, since only 7 were from the US, and the others came from every continent. Their effort generated 618 very significant questions that needed to be answered, and were distilled into the top 100, in which “The aim is to use sound scientific evidence to inform decision making and guide policy makers in the future direction of agricultural research priorities and policy support.”

Their report indicates that the goal of agriculture is not just to maximize productivity, “but to optimize across a far more complex landscape of production, rural development, environmental, social justice and food consumption outcomes.” And the agricultural thinkers say there are national and international challenges to development of the policies that will allow food to be produced in sufficient quality and quantity.

Their 100 questions were categorized in 14 areas, such as water supply, energy, pest management, livestock production, food supply chains, genetic improvement for crops, and several others. Without the space to list all of the questions, which are in the report, here are a dozen samples of the types of questions that will need to be answered:

Section 1: Natural resource inputs: 

1. What are the predicted critical impacts of climate change (e.g. changes in temperature, wind speed, humidity and water availability, storm intensity, crop water requirements, snowmelt and seasonal runoff, pests, water-logging, agro-ecosystem shifts, human migration) on agricultural yields, cropping practices, crop disease spread, disease resistance and irrigation development?

14. What are the world’s mobilizable stocks and reserves of phosphate, and are they sufficient to support adequate levels of food production globally for the next century?

22. Can payments for ecosystem services (e.g. carbon sequestration, green water credits, biodiversity enrichment) lead to adoption of recommended land-use and management practices by resource-poor farmers in developing countries?

Section 2: Agronomic practice: 

34. What are the benefits and risks of embracing the different types of agricultural biotechnology (environmental impacts; sensitivity/resistance to environmental stressors such as heat, drought, salinity; dependence on/independence from inputs; risks of accelerated resistance; food safety, human health and nutrition; economic, social and cultural impacts)?

37. What is the long-term capacity of fossil fuels and nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer stocks to support intensive production systems globally?

45. What is the efficiency of different ways to genetically improve the nutrient-use efficiency of crops and simultaneously increase yield?

47. What evidence exists to indicate that climate change will change pest and disease incidence?

57. What are the best means to encourage the economic growth of regional livestock markets, while limiting the effects of global climate change, and what can industrialized countries do to improve the carbon footprint of its livestock sector?

Section 3: Agricultural development: 

60. How much can agricultural education, extension, farmer mobilization and empowerment be achieved by the new opportunities afforded by mobile phone and web-based technologies?

72. Who will be farming in 2050, and what will be their land relationships (farm ownership, rental or management)?

Section 4: Markets and consumption:

80. Where is food waste greatest in food chains of industrialized and developing countries and what measures can be taken significantly to reduce these levels of food waste?

89. As energy prices rise, how can agriculture increase its efficiency and use fewer inputs and fertilizers to become economically sustainable and environmentally sensitive, yet still feed a growing population?

Who is going to answer these questions? The answers will not only come from high tech laboratories, but from local farm group meetings, coffee shops, and the Halls of Congress, as well as from global farmers who do not speak English.


Doubling global food output over the next 40 years will require numerous scientific advancements, but many governmental policy shifts, and societal change. Just identifying what information needs to be developed is the first step, and major headway has been made to create a list of questions that will need to be answered as the world prepares to feed future hungry mouths.

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.