Food for 9.3 billion… 10.1billion?

Pius Utomi Ekpei/Agence France-Presse — Getty Image

An Exploding Population:

On May 3, 2011 the United Nations (U.N.) released its “World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision”.  The U.N.’s Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) conducts by-annual global demographic estimates and projections for the world population.  It takes into account changing global trends in fertility, mortality, migration, and age distribution in analyzing population change.  The 2010 Revision issues five-year period population projections from 2010 to 2100 and gives five-year period population estimates from 1950 to 2010.

The 2010 Revision Press Release reports that the world population currently is close to 7 billion.  The projected global population by 2050 will be 9.3 billion and will continue growing albeit more slowly, to 10.1 billion people by 2100.  The Press Release says that “[m]uch of this increase is projected to come from high-fertility countries”.  High-fertility countries are defined as those where women have “more than 1.5 daughters”.  These countries, which represent a bulk of the developing world, are predominately found in Africa; Africa has 39 high-fertility countries which accounts for 67% of this classification.  Asia has the next most with nine high fertility countries (16%).  The Economist cites a nice graphic from the U.N. report and notes that “[i]n 1950, 32% of the worlds people lived in today’s rich countries [but] [b]y 2100, only 13% will.”

The Impact of 10 Billion:

The projections of a population explosion have fueled debate about how states will manage feeding 10 billion people.  Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, explains that “[w]e currently use 33 percent of the Earth’s surface for food“, to support almost 7 billion people.  He further explains that in order to sustain the eating habits of our current population, let alone feeding a population at the size of 9.3 billion in 2050, the expansive consumption of land resources over the next 40 years will mean we will have ‘”eaten [through] nearly all the remaining natural habitat on earth.”   Clay emphasizes that with growing per capita consumption rates, “by 2100 we’ll need to produce an amount of food that is 2.5 times the amount that all human societies have produced in the last 8,000 years.”  Quite a daunting prospect.

This newly revived concern over feeding the worlds growing population and the worlds growing resource scarcity has also been linked to a reemergence of a Malthusian trap.  Thomas Robert Malthus, the British scholar, whose major contribution was sighting the relationship between food supply and population growth, argued that when populations grow faster than their means of survival and without being “checked by moral restraint or disaster (as disease, famine, or war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result.”  Technological advancement helped to curtail this concern during the Industrial Revolution and again in the 1970’s.  William Gaud, a former administrator of USAID and Executive VP of the IFC, coined the term “Green Revolution” in the 1970s to describe how technological advancements in high yield crops (HYCs) helped to facilitate “agricultural breakthroughs [that] could better feed poor countries.”

But as this issue of geometric population growth resurfaces and resources become further constrained the realized concern is again on how this will affect development in the worlds poor countries and feeding a world of 10.1 billion.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that “[n]ew and traditional demand for agricultural produce will [additionally] put growing pressure on already scarce agricultural resources.”  The greater share of agriculture that is going to bio-fuels, the dynamics of volatile weather patterns, the rising prices of cereals, agriculture’s increased competition with growing urban populations for water resources, and the environmental degradation caused by the need for more farm land help to raise questions on what new technologies are needed to feed the world and what level of aid is needed to help see that development is not hampered by growing food needs.

How to solve a Food Scarcity Problem:

The FAO projects that there will need to be an annual net investment of $83billion (in 2009 U.S. dollars) in the developing world to support the needed expansive agricultural output.  The FAO analysis also included that “agricultural production [will] need to grow globally by 70 percent… (by almost 100 percent in developing countries) to feed [a 34% larger global] population, because of a shift in demand towards higher value products of lower caloric content and an increased use of crop output as feed to meet rising meat demand.”

Some of the potential solutions floated to help meet this need for increased agricultural output include the belief held by Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, that “genetically-modified crops have to play a part“.  Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, also argues that agro-ecology must play a part in meeting growing food needs.  He says that agro-ecology is a sustainable means of scaling up production, which requires increased investment in agricultural research and extension services.  Arthur Max, of the blog African Agriculture, says that the “Future Farm” may even be a “sunless, rainless room indoors”.  This might be particularly fruitful in developing areas that are affected more adversely by drastic weather swings.  Such an option can also alleviate concerns of deforestation, water scarcity concerns, and transportation problems as such “climate chambers” can be located in the urban areas they supply.

Feeding a growing global population, which is predominately located in the developing world, will require continued investment.  It will take continued research and a continued commitment to technological advancement.  But the developing world’s ability to fill the larger investment gap needed to meet these requirements is limited.  According to the High-Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050, “[g]iven the limitations of alternative sources of investment finance, foreign direct investment in developing country agriculture could make a significant contribution to bridging the investment gap”.  In 2009, the most recent data available, the largest amount of FDI, according to the OECD, committed to agriculture came from Canada, at $2.9billion, and the U.S., at $1.9billion.  


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