Feeding 9 Billion by 2050

A team of researchers has proposed a plan to feed us all without sacrificing the environment.
With a population of 9 billion by 2050, the world will need some practical solutions for feeding its inhabitants. (Tim Green aka atoach/Creative Commons via Flickr)
Oct 14, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

With a projected 9 billion mouths to feed by the year 2050, many people are wondering: will there be enough food to go around? Can we feed everyone without devastating the planet?

According to researches from the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Germany, we can—if we heed four pieces of advice.

In an article published in the online edition of the science journal Nature, researchers delineate four key pieces that are necessary to solving the puzzle of feeding billions.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.

Stop Expanding Agriculture

Expansion into “sensitive ecosystems”—such as tropical forests—can have devastating effects on biodiversity, carbon storage, and environmental servies.

Each year, 5-10 million hectares of tropical forest are cleared for agriculture. Many of those forests have low yields compared to more temperate regions. Those that do have high yields—areas of sugarcane, oil palm and soybeans—typically “do not contribute much to the world’s total calorie or protein supplies, especially when crops are used for feed or biofuels.” Slowing, and eventually ceasing, the practice will contribute positively to a more ecologically sound agricultural system.

But won't this reduce crop production? Losses will be minor, the researchers say, and “can be offset elsewhere in the food system.”

Close Yield Gaps

Crop yield gaps are defined as “the difference between crop yields observed at any given location and the crop’s potential yield at the same location given current agricultural practices and technologies.” In short, even with similar growing conditions, some areas are yielding greater amounts of crops.

The researchers suggest reducing gaps on 16 crops: barley, cassava, groundnut, maize, millet, potato, oil palm, rapeseed, rice, rye, sorghum, soybean, sugarbeet, sugarcane, sunflower and wheat. Improving use of existing crop varieties, managing current crops better, and improving genetics of crops could increase current food production nearly 60 percent, they say.

Increase Agricultural Resource Efficiency

Current use of water, nutrients and ag chemicals are distributed erratically on a global scale: too much in some places, too little in others. Efforts should be focused on tempering the imbalances. In areas where water for irrigation is scarce, for example, good water and land management is key. The researchers recommend “targeting particular ‘hotspots’ of low efficiency” and strategically reallocating resources.

Increase Food Delivery by Shifting Diets and Reducing Waste

Animal feed and biofuels are currently competing for space with the human food supply. One way to up global food production is to re-think that model.

“Simply put, we can increase food availability (in terms of calories, protein and critical nutrients) by shifting crop production away from livestock feed, bioenergy crops and other non-food applications,” the researchers say.

They admit, however, that the current distribution of crops has benefits that extend beyond human food consumption, namely economic and social benefits that are unlikely to be receptive to change. Still, some progress is better than no progress. “...even small changes in diet...and bioenergy policy...could enhance food availability and reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture,” they say.

See the full report here.

Photo: Tim Green aka atoach/Creative Commons via Flickr
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