New projection shows global food demand doubling by 2050

November 21, 2011
Global demand for food could double by 2050, newly released projections show. Credit: USDA-ARS

Global food demand could double by 2050, according to a new projection by David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences, and colleagues, including Jason Hill, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Producing that amount of food could significantly increase levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the environment and cause the extinction of numerous species. But this can be avoided, the paper shows, if the high-yielding technologies of rich nations are adapted to work in poor nations, and if all nations use nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently.

"Agriculture's could double by 2050 if current trends in continue," Tilman said. "Global agriculture already accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions." Much of these emissions come from land clearing, which also threatens species with extinction.

The article shows that if poor nations continue current practices, they will clear a land area larger than the United States (two and a half billion acres) by 2050. But if richer nations help poorer nations improve yields to achievable levels, that could be reduced to half a billion acres.

The research, published Nov. 21 online by the , shows that adopting nitrogen-efficient "intensive" farming can meet future global food demand with much lower environmental impacts than the "extensive" farming practiced by many poor nations, which clear land to produce more food. The potential benefits are great. In 2005, for the wealthiest nations were more than 300 percent higher than yields for the poorest nations.

"Strategically intensifying crop production in developing and least-developed nations would reduce the overall caused by food production, as well as provide a more equitable food supply across the globe," said Hill.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations recently projected a 70 percent increase in demand. According to Tilman, either projection shows that the world faces major environmental problems unless agricultural practices change.

The environmental impacts of meeting demand depend on how expands. Clearing land for agriculture and the use of fuel and fertilizers to grow crops increases carbon and nitrogen in the environment and causes species extinctions.

In the paper, Tilman and his collaborators explore different ways of meeting demand for and their environmental effects. In essence, the options are to increase productivity on existing agricultural land, clear more land, or do a combination of both. They consider various scenarios in which the amount of nitrogen use, land cleared, and resulting greenhouse gas emissions differ.

"Our analyses show that we can save most of the Earth's remaining ecosystems by helping the poorer nations of the world feed themselves," Tilman said.

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5 / 5 (1) Nov 21, 2011
(Sarcasm alert) Only one solution, Eat the Rich! (end Sarcasm Alert).
not rated yet Nov 22, 2011
Lets see, Big business buys up all the agricultural land for economies of scale production of food. Then all those people that formally grew and ate their own food move to the city and become cheap labour or living in slums. Then after a generation we educate their young and perhaps they find gainful employment. Then they want leasure activities and a house in the country.

We are back to clearing more land, because all the other land is already owned by corporations. Possibly shipping supplies off-shore to preferred customers in specific countries.
not rated yet Nov 22, 2011
I have no doubt that by 2050 we will be growing meat. I wonder how that would affect the food demand and environmental effects.
Jahfre Fire Eater
not rated yet Nov 22, 2011
There is NO SUCH THING as global demand for anything. All demand and all supply is local. The aggregate local demand is useful information but morphing that notion in to "global demand" is political and manipulative.
1 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2011
There is NO SUCH THING as global demand for anything. All demand and all supply is local. The aggregate local demand is useful information but morphing that notion in to "global demand" is political and manipulative.

Basically incorrect. OK, not even basically. You're essentially challenging a term that has a specific meaning because you have a better idea of what the term should mean. Of course, every locality rolls up into a region, into a state/province/whatever. Eventually, we tally it all up as "global demand". This is not political. It is not manipulative. It is common sense and convenience.

OR, to simplify it:

If Ban Ki-moon asks about food production for the next ten years, should his advisers just read him a list of the 50,000 or more "local" producers? lmao, of course not.
1 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2011
I have no doubt that by 2050 we will be growing meat.

Probably, or as soon as the process could be perfected.

I wonder how that would affect the food demand and environmental effects.

Interesting point. Of course, these two items will flow directly from the results of the technology created in the first part of your post. If it's cheap, easy-to-create, and doesn't fall into monopolistic hands, it could be a real boon to economies and ecologies. But, I can see a lot of ways that it could also cause as many problems as it solves. Like, if there's a dangerous by-product in the production process.

1 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2011
How valid were previous projections?
1 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2011
How valid were previous projections?

Good question. I'm guessing somebody around 1970 did something similar. Might be interesting to look at.

The problem with these predictions, of course, is that they're so far in the future that predictive ability is more like speculative ability.

Can you imagine how many things someone from 1970 would have gotten wrong in an "estimate" of anything? It's one of the reasons I have a hard time reading my old Asimov books sometimes. They span from the 50s through the 80s (90s?), and I'll be reading along when some whizdinger like this comes up:

"John wanted to get the information to his friend quickly, so he got out a pen and paper, jotted a note, and then sent it by super-atomic robot courier."

And Asimov, of course, was hailed worldwide as a genius who spent his whole life thinking about future trends.
1 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2011
Predictions were made in the 70s, it was called "Limits to Growth".
It inspired a contemporary critique called "Models of Doom".
Should be available on Amazon or ...

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