Business As Usual Will Not Feed Nine Billion People By 2050

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A Soy Bean Field in Southeastern Brazil

With the world’s population still forecast to grow from 7 to 9 billion by 2050 (all of a sudden 39 years doesn’t seem so far away) despite the 2008 global recession, The Economist has a special report on the state of the world’s food supply chain in its February 26 issue.

As food commodity prices for wheat, soy, corn and rice spike mainly due to a weather-related grain shocks in Russia, Argentina, Canada and Pakistan, never more has the global food supply been more volatile.

And now with oil prices soaring, the price of agricultural inputs — fuel, nitrogen fertilizer — rise in proportion to crude’s spike. Finally, weak currencies such as the dollar, make it cheaper for countries to restock in their local currency creating further barriers on trade, raising transaction costs on the transfers of food to where it is needed.

The analysis is a must read for anyone interested in not only the environmental impacts of increased agricultural production, particularly the rise in animal protein consumption from burgeoning middle classes in China, India and Brazil, but also for those keen on understanding what sort of structural, technological and public policy instruments will be needed to avoid a Malthusian scenario.

A few fascinating tidbits from the piece:

  • Crop yield rates (measured in bushels per hectare) have begun to lag behind population growth rates
  • Solutions are myriad and complicated, but The Economist argues a reasonable starting point may be rising prices which would induce farmers to increase production since they would receive higher returns
  • This could lead to better yields
  • 2 more billion people by 2050 is the equivalent of adding two more Indias to the word
  • Consumption of dairy and animal proteins in the developing world will rise by 9% as a share of total calories by 2050

Image credit by Jeff Belmonte via Flickr under a CC license

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