The challenge of feeding an expected world population of over 9 billion in 2050 — at least 2 billion more than today — has attracted considerable attention, resulting in a wide range of responses. A year and a half ago, the expectation was that the world’s agricultural production would have to increase by 70 percent over the following 38 years. In our November 11, 2012 column, we pointed out that using conventional technology we were able to move from feeding a world population of 4 billion in 1974 to feeding 7 billion in 2012 — an increase of 75 percent over a 38-year period. The expected population increase between 2012 and 2050 was 28 percent.
But the challenge is not simply one of meeting the needs of more than 2 billion additional people — plus the 850+ million who currently are unable to meet their nutritional needs. With rising incomes in the major developing countries, the demand for animal-based protein also increases the need for the production of gains and oilseeds. Taken together—along with a slight increase in the projected population — it is now expected that crop production will need to double by 2050.
In an article in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic, titled “A Five Step Plan to Feed the World,” Jonathan Foley argues, “It doesn’t have to be industrial farms versus small, organic ones. There’s another way.” Foley directs the Institute on the Environment at the University of Chicago.
Foley begins his article by identifying the environmental problems created by current agricultural practices: the release of methane from “cattle and rice fields, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of forests to grow crops or raise livestock.” He also says that agriculture is both a big consumer and polluter of water and it “accelerates the loss of biodiversity.” He makes it clear in his article that agriculture needs to both reduce its negative environmental impact and increase its effective agricultural output if agriculture is to feed the 2050 population in a more sustainable way.
He also identifies the all too familiar battle between those who believe that conventional agriculture is the only way to meet the coming challenge and “the proponents of local and organic farms.” He argues that elements of both arguments are part of the solution to meeting the needs of the increasing demand for agricultural production.