WAUNAKEE, Wisconsin — The diet of every seventh person in the world fails to supply him or her with enough protein and energy. The world population will peak at around nine billion sometime during this century, but many experts—from scientists to policymakers—are struggling to figure out how to feed that peak population when feeding even seven billion has proven so difficult.
The bottom line: someone has to grow the food for feeding nine billion. Even though this necessity seems daunting, a 2008 World Bank report argued for an optimistic approach. Because 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and 86 percent of rural people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, an increased demand for agricultural goods could lead to poverty reduction.
Progress has already been made. From 1993 to 2002, the $1 per day poverty rate dropped 6 percent in developing countries, and most of that was due to a decline in the rural and not the urban poverty rate.
Thus, there are tacit benefits to buckling down and determining just how farming will feed nine billion people. Experts have recently started looking for ‘leverage points’—certain areas of weakness or potential in the current agricultural system that make the most strategic sense to devote resources to improving.
Here are six such leverage points.
Closing the Yield Gap
According to a recent study, agricultural yields in many countries are 50 percent below levels that can realistically be achieved—the “yield gap.” That yield gap is problematic because urban development is making it increasingly difficult to find additional land for farming. Farmers must find a way to grow more in the area they currently have available.
However, if NGOs, governments and the like focus on improving yields in the countries that are currently underperforming (India, Nigeria, among many others,) some experts estimate the increased production could meet the caloric needs of 850 million more people.
Reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions
Agriculture is a major culprit in stimulating climate change. Anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of GHG emissions come from the agricultural sector.
The high levels of GHG emissions contribute to climate change, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA.) The many possible impacts of climate change on agriculture can be both positive and negative, but scientists warn of many scenarios that could cripple food production. For example, the USEPA reports that warmer temperatures could prevent some grain crops, which are relatively cheap to grow and highly caloric, from maturing properly, leading to reduced yields.
However, by improving the efficiency of agriculture, which has to happen anyway if nine billion will have food, GHG emissions can be reduced. This reduction will protect agricultural enterprises across the globe.
Certain crops require more resources to grow than others. Cotton, maize and sugarcane receive 30 percent of the world’s irrigation water. As one study points out, sugarcane uses 2.4 times as much water as wheat. Farmers need to decide on which crops are worth pouring the resources into and which are not. Sugarcane may be worth the resources (it happens to be one of the most productive crops,) but experts are still undecided on that and many other crops.
People in richer countries tend to eat more meat and dairy than people in poor countries, and as populations become wealthier, their demand for meat and dairy products increases. This drives farmers to switch from crop to animal husbandry.
However, if all the cropland currently used for growing animal feed and plants for nonfood uses was redirected toward growing food for human consumption, four billion more people would have their basic caloric needs met.
Today’s ever-improving genetic techniques allow scientists to develop crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently, tolerate environmental stress better and have higher yields. Researchers are experimenting with plants like cassava and banana—staples for many of the impoverished.
GM technologies are still controversial, but as one group of researchers put it: “genetic modification is a potentially valuable technology whose advantages and disadvantages need to be considered rigorously on an evidential, inclusive, case-by-case basis.”
Food Loss Prevention
It has been estimated that as much as 50 percent of grown food goes to waste. Often, countries lack the food-chain infrastructure to preserve produce. India is a notable example. If governments and other organizations can develop the infrastructure, the food that farmers already manage to produce could sustain a larger global population than our current one.
When one asks which one of these six leverage points is the best strategically, a seventh strategy inevitably appears: the best strategy is in fact one that incorporates all six leverage points. Feeding the world’s peak population is a complex problem that happens to require a complex solution; thus, no single strategy will solve the problem, but a combination of all viable strategies just might.
– Ryan Yanke