How to feed 9.8 billion people by 2050

A strategy to end global hunger while protecting ecosystems

Landscape in Kenya. CIFOR/Tim Cronin
22 July 2019
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Increasing the efficiency of natural resource use is the single most important step toward meeting sustainable environmental and food production goals to feed a growing global population.

So says a new report from the World Resources Institute (WRI), which recommends wide-ranging changes. Among them, reducing deforestation and restoring abandoned and unproductive land.

Some 820 million people are already undernourished, yet demand for food is projected to soar more than 50 percent by 2050 as the population increases to 9.8 billion people. Demand for animal-based foods is projected to increase 70 percent over the same time period.

“Frequent claims that the world already has an overabundance of food and could meet future needs without producing more food are based on an unrealistic, even if desirable, hypothetical,” the report states. 

Agriculture currently uses about half of vegetated land mass, and agriculture and related land-use change generate a quarter of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

A FIVE-COURSE MEAL

The report takes the view that three major challenges, described as “gaps,” must be addressed by farmers, businesses, consumers and governments if the planet is to sustain itself amid increasing food demand while avoiding encroachment on forests and woody savannas.

  • The food gap: the difference between the amount of food produced in 2010 and the amount needed by 2050, a requirement of 56 percent more crop calories.
  • The land gap: the difference between global agricultural land area in 2010 and the area required by 2050, estimated to be 593 million hectares, almost twice the size of India.
  • The greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation gap: the difference between likely annual GHG emissions from agriculture and land and the level needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperature levels. The researchers estimate this gap at 11 gigatons.

It suggests ways to fill the gaps in a series of 22 menu items, which are divided into the five “courses” of a fictitious meal.

The five courses include recommendations for:

  • reducing growth in demand for food and agricultural products
  • increasing food production without expanding agricultural land
  • exploiting reduced demand on agricultural land to protect and restore forests, savannas and peatlands
  • increasing fish supply through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture
  • reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production 

REDUCING MEAT CONSUMPTION

All land that produces plants is sacred because it has an enormous potential to store carbon, which means it has enormous opportunity costs, said Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at WRI and technical director of the report, titled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.”

“The average American’s diet produces about as many emissions from diet as from energy consumption. if we can hold down our consumption of ruminant meat, that can make an enormous impact,” he said at the launch of the report in Washington. Slowing demand for food must involve shifting diets from meat to plant-based diets, in addition to reducing food waste and loss.

Ruminant livestock, including cattle, goats and sheep, use two thirds of agricultural land and contribute half of agriculture’s production-related emissions. Demand is projected to grow 88 percent between 2010 and 2050, but to close the land and GHG mitigation gaps by 2050, the 20 percent of the world’s population who consume the most meat must reduce their average consumption by 40 percent from 2010 levels.

PRODUCTION PUZZLE

On the one hand, the challenge of simultaneously closing these three gaps is harder than often recognized. On the other, the scope of potential solutions is often underestimated, Searchinger said.

For example, to raise productivity and avoid expanding the agricultural land footprint, food output must be increased and crop and pasture productivity must exceed historical rates of yield gains. This requires innovation: breeding improved crops is credited for around half of all yield gains, the report states. While debate swirls around pest control traits offered by genetically modified organisms, gene editing has far greater potential to help crops build resilience to disease. 

“If agricultural production and food consumption were to stay on the same trajectory until 2050, we might lose much of the world’s remaining forests,” said Tim Christophersen, coordinator of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 at UN Environment, which collaborated on the report.

“Thousands of species would be lost and post-industrial warming would go through the roof, exceeding the 1.5 degree and 2 degree Celsius targets agreed in the U.N.’s Paris climate agreement,” he said.

Revitalizing degraded soils, which affect about a quarter of the planet’s cropland, could also help boost crop yields. Conservation agriculture techniques involving low tillage and retaining crop residues on fields instead of burning and clearing. Agroforestry can also play a key role.

Land-use decisions must be made to enhance efficiency for carbon storage and ecosystem services as well as agriculture. Additionally, agricultural yield gains must be linked with efforts to protect natural lands.

“As we increase our demand for food, we clear more land, and if we were lucky enough to reduce our demand for agricultural land, we could restore that land, which is a necessary part of every climate solution,” Searchinger said. Rates of growth are anticipated to exceed those achieved between 1962 and 2010, a period when synthetic fertilizers and scientifically-bred seeds became widespread and irrigated areas doubled.

FOOD VERSUS FORESTS

Agricultural land is not only expanding but it is also shifting to developing countries, the report states. This is because population growth, which is mainly occurring in developing countries, is leading to greater food demand, as well as shifting to different land types, causing deforestation. These lands do not reforest when they are abandoned, and replanting forests elsewhere is not carbon-neutral.

“Conversion of natural forests, which is occurring mostly in the tropics subtropics, tends to release more carbon per unit of food and harm more biodiversity than reforestation of abandoned land offsets elsewhere,” Christophersen said. “The losses of carbon during land conversion also occur quickly, whereas rebuilding carbon in vegetation and soils occurs gradually over longer time periods, exacerbating climate change in the interim.”

Abandoned land is often converted to single-species forest plantations, reducing carbon and biodiversity. Governments should commit more efforts to natural reforestation of marginal lands and place greater emphasis on establishing diverse natural forests, the report states. It also recommends an infusion from international climate funding.

The highest priority for immediate restoration and re-wetting should be the world’s carbon-rich drained peatlands, it adds. The recently discovered Congo rainforest peatland is the largest in the world. It stores an estimated 30 gigatons of carbon, equivalent to about 20 years of fossil fuel emissions in the United States. While some countries have restored peatland areas, a massive effort is needed worldwide.


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