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The long view on food: Who wins?

For most of the 20th century, we heard predictions that food production couldn’t keep up with population growth. Even today, that Malthusian scenario of widespread famine is frequently quoted. It implies very high food prices and high profitability for agriculture. But what are the facts?

Slower growth in mouths to feed

On the demand side, population growth will continue to slow down due to declining birth rates. From today’s 7.2 billion world population, recent U.N. projections stand at 9.6 billion in 2050. Population growth could come to a halt at about 11 billion by the end of this century. Global growth in food demand is a finite phenomenon after all.

No doubt, meat consumption will grow, driving up the demand for grains. That said, the issue appears less acute than once feared. China, for instance, already consumes meat at levels close to some developed countries, fast approaching 130 pounds per person per year. Plus, China’s population will stabilize between now and 2030.

India, the other population giant, is unlikely to become a big meat-eating country for ingrained cultural reasons.

Africa is expected to make much progress in productivity and to feed itself at somewhat higher levels of meat consumption.

Given these facts and others, whether we will need to produce 60% or 70% more food between now and 2050 is a matter of annual growth of 1.6% or 1.9%. Either rate is far from the exponential growth predicted in the past.

“The gap between population growth and food production has shrunk, and it is likely to continue to do so over the next 50 years,” says Josef Schmidhuber, former head of the Global Perspective Studies Unit at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. “Overall, feeding the world has become more manageable.”

 Future food. Where?

Still, food production needs to grow at least by the 1.6% annual rate. Where and how will that happen?

China is seeing major increases in productivity based on mechanization and fertilizer use. It is close to reaching the limit of its resource base in land, water, and other inputs. China will be a feed and meat importer. Economics would dictate it focus on importing meat, as feed conversion factors are better in the U.S. It is unclear if that will be the case.

Brazil has put new acreage into production and adopted modern technologies.

Central Asia, after abandoning arable land when the Soviet Union disintegrated, has brought most of it back into production.

Small farms in the southern hemisphere (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) will restructure into larger units and adopt technologies to improve productivity.

Europe, on the other hand, will continue on the road of perceived quality improvements in foods, with less focus on quantity.   

U.S. sweet spot

The U.S. is not to be left out of this discussion. U.S. farmers have increased production with the world’s most advanced seed genetics and precision inputs.

“U.S. farmers will remain the world’s low-cost producers of grains for the foreseeable future,” says Schmidhuber. “They have the size, the technology, the management skills, and the climate, at least in the Midwest. That also gives them leverage in pork and poultry production.”

The U.S. also will benefit from the breakthroughs that have happened in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) now used extensively in Holland and Japan.

“For several high-value crops like tomatoes, cucurbits, lettuce, and bell peppers, these advanced greenhouse systems now compete directly with traditional open-air systems in California and Mexico,” says Gene Giacomelli, a biosystems engineer at the University of Arizona.

In the next decade, U.S. farmers will adopt and improve on the CEA systems, he predicts.

“The impact of technology on agriculture is mostly positive,” says Schmidhuber. “The timing, however, is difficult to predict. The short-term impact tends to be overestimated; the long-term impact tends to be underestimated. In other words, the impact will happen, but perhaps later than we hope or expect.”

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