Farmers and futurists ponder how to feed 9 billion people inhabiting Earth by 2050

With an estimated 9.3 billion people expected to populate the planet by the year 2050, finding a way to feed them is one of science and agriculture’s greatest challenges.

In 2011, the United Nations (UN) predicted that the earth’s population, currently over 7 billion, will increase to 9.3 billion by the year 2050. Dr. Rick Foster, W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair for Food, Society and Sustainability at Michigan State University, predicts that the world will have to double its current food production while using half the water and energy inputs that are used today.

While 2050 is 37 years away, we might stop and consider the question, “How will this affect the food system from which I get my food?” The UN predicts that most of the world’s growth during this time will come from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America. However, demand for food from these high-growth countries will be felt in our local communities, too. Farmers in the United States that produce high volume grain crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans sell their products to a world market that is unconcerned with geographic boundaries.

Foster predicts that the Earth’s residents in 2050 will get their calories from large-scale global agriculture. Calorie-dense foods are high in calories and low in nutrients such as bread, pasta, full fat milk and cheese. He predicts we will get our nutrition from local agriculture and food systems. Nutrition-dense foods are high in nutrition and low in calories such as spinach, broccoli, lettuce, strawberries and blueberries, to name a few.

The scenario Foster describes provides many opportunities for local food systems. Since it is also predicted that 70 percent of the world’s population in 2050 will live in cities, it is likely that solutions can be located in or near large population centers. These include indoor and vertical growing, small scale, niche or urban agriculture systems.

You may be asking yourself, “If the world’s population isn’t doubling, why do we need to double food production?” In 2012, the UN estimated that almost 870 million people, or 1 in 8, were chronically undernourished. While the world produces enough food for everybody, the present system is inequitable, creating surpluses for some and shortages for others.

Additionally, as populations grow and become wealthier in places such as China, people will eat more, especially meat products. The use of grain products for the production of biofuels also means agricultural production will need to increase faster than the rate of population growth. According to Mark Seamon of Michigan State University Extension, “In 2012, the United States produced approximately 14 billion gallons of ethanol (mostly from corn grain) and 1 billion gallons of biodiesel (mostly from soybeans), nearly a 50 percent increase since 2008.”

Finally, too much food goes to waste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Food waste in the United States is estimated at roughly between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants, and homes never made it into people's stomachs. The amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at almost $390 per U.S. consumer in 2008, more than an average month's worth of food expenditures.” Increased understanding of the food waste problems along the food supply change can increase efficiency and better prepare producers for meeting future food demands.

On a planet of 9.3 billion eaters, both large-scale agriculture and local food producers must become allies as both will play important roles in feeding the world in 2050 and beyond.

MSU Extension has community food systems educators who provide technical assistance and information about community food systems. Use MSU Extension’s Find an Expert search function using the keywords, “Community Food.”

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