With the world’s population growing, it’s reasonable to expect an increase in the demand for food to feed additional people.
In this guide, we look at whether the world will have enough food in the future to feed that growing population, and outline some of the important factors that may play a role.
Summary – Will The World Have Enough Food In The Future?
What we already know right now is that:
But, roughly 800 million people still go hungry worldwide (and some projections expect that number to increase another 2 billion in the future by 2050).
Poverty and living in low income regions of the world, and lack of resources and purchasing power are seen as some of the main cause of this, as it leads to uneven distribution of the food that is produced (wealthy countries and regions have more purchasing power to get access to the food, and use agricultural land for producing products of their choice e.g. even though some people go hungry, some agricultural land is used for biofuel production when in theory it could be used for food)
Future Population Growth
What we might consider for future population growth is:
Estimates of the future world population range anywhere from 9 to 10 billion for the year 2050, and 10 to 13 billion by the year 2100
Based on those estimates and current food production numbers, we can see that even now we produce enough food for the lower limit of the year 2100 estimate
But, there are factors that could impact food production, population numbers, agriculture, and related areas in the future
Factors That Might Impact Food Production In The Future
These factors that could play a role in the future might include:
Which countries are going to grow the most in population size, and which ones will stay stable or decrease in size
Purchasing power of consumers in different countries, levels of poverty, affordability of nutritious food, food security, and how much help farmers from poor areas get in terms of money, resources and technology available to them to farm
[It matters where majority of people are geographically located (wealthy or low income country), and their means to access affordable and nutritious food regularly]
The countries that are producing the most food, the foods they produce, and the logistics of transporting food from farm to businesses and consumers
Alternate ways to produce food, such as lab grown meat
Agricultural technology, advancements and enhancements – the use of GMOs, scientific technology that impacts soil, growing more food with less land and increasing yields and productivity of existing land
The impact of global water issues like water scarcity and water stress in the future, and how much water is available for irrigation in the future. Agriculture/irrigation is a major freshwater user in society
What climates will be like in different geographic areas – changing climates could lead to more favorable or less favorable agricultural conditions, and this impacts agriculture in the areas
Soil health (pH levels, salinity, ability to retain moisture and so on)
Suitability of land for agriculture – How much cropland and grazing land we currently have, and suitability of unused land for productive agriculture in the future
What our food diets look like, and the types of foods we produce … different diet types like vegetarian and vegan have different potential carrying capacities compared to other diet types like animal meat and animal product heavy diets. Different foods also use more land than others at the farming stage
Piggybacking on the above point – could we use more land to grow food directly for humans instead of using land to grow animal feed for livestock?
Environmental impact of agriculture, and the impact on biodiversity and wildlife – can we keep using synthetic nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers at current levels and not cross planetary boundaries? The same goes for pesticides, greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural waste, and so on
Whether or not the yield of certain staple crops can be increased any further
Will agricultural land currently being used for fibres or biofuel be converted to food producing land? Electric vehicles and renewable energy may play a part here and reduce the need for biofuels
Whether food waste and food loss at the farm, transport, storage, and retailer and consumer are addressed in developed and developing countries
Solutions To Feeding The World Population In The Future
Solutions to feeding the world population in the future might centre around these food production and agricultural factors
Another point to note is:
The rate of food production has outpaced population growth throughout the past few decades
Do We Currently Have Enough Food To Feed Everyone In The World?
We have 7.7 billion people in the world as of 2019
As of 2019, the world produces enough food to feed about 10 billion people, or roughly just under 1.5x the current world population number
Estimations For World Population In The Future (By 2050, & 2100)
A few different projections:
By Year 2050
[The population by 2050 is expected to reach around 9.74 billion people]
About two thirds of the predicted growth in population between 2020 and 2050 will take place in Africa
By Year 2100
By 2100, the world’s population is projected to reach approximately 10.9 billion
The UN projects that the global population increases from a population of 7.7 billion in 2019 to 11.2 billion by the end of the century.
By that time, the UN projects, fast global population growth will come to an end
Factors That May Impact Global Food Production, & Distribution Of Food To The World Population In The Future
Some factors affect the world as a whole, whereas some factors affect only specific geographic locations.
The factors that could impact food production, agriculture, and feeding the world population in the future might include:
– Which countries are going to grow the most in population size, and which ones will stay stable or decrease in size – population growth in poor regions that already face hunger issues is probably going to be far worse than population growth in wealthier countries
– Purchasing power of consumers in different countries, levels of poverty, affordability of nutritious food, food security, and how much help farmers from poor areas get in terms of money, resources and technology available to them to farm – there’s the producer side and the consumer side to consider here.
– In poor regions, both the financial resources available to consumers and farmers will need to improve if there is to be food available, and for people to be able affordably access nutritious food
– The countries that are producing the most food, the foods they produce, and the logistics of transporting food from farm to businesses and consumers – unless countries are able to import food at an affordable price, they will need to be able to produce a certain % of their own food, and ideally a range of foods for a balanced diet
– Alternate ways to produce food, such as lab grown meat – technology that moves food production from the farm to the lab for example could change the future of food production
– Agricultural technology, advancements and enhancements – the use of GMOs, scientific technology that impacts soil, growing more food with less land and increasing yields and productivity of existing land – all of these things could help produce more food in total, and make agriculture easier
– How much water is available for irrigation in the future – issues like water scarcity, water stress, water pollution and contamination, and so on could impact how much water is available to agriculture and irrigation in the future.
This is especially noteworthy as agriculture tends to be the major user of water in many economies
– What climates will be like in different geographic areas – changing climates could lead to more favorable or less favorable agricultural conditions (changing rainfall, hotter or colder temperatures, evaporation, changing growing seasons, changing suitability of growing certain crops, and so on).
Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change as a whole play a part here.
For example, corn yields are expected to be decreased in the US Midwest regions, and countries and regions like Brazil and Indonesia, according to some sources
– How much topsoil we have in the future – we are losing topsoil worldwide. Losing more topsoil could create big problems for agriculture and food production
– Levels of land and soil degradation – land degradation issues can impact agricultural land and productivity.
– Soil health (pH levels, salinity, ability to retain moisture and so on) – many factors impact soil health.
Good soil health is imperative for agriculture and food production, especially for crops
– Suitability of land for agriculture, and having enough land – How much cropland and grazing land we currently have, and suitability of unused land for productive agriculture.
Arable and fertile cropland in particular is finite, compared to grazing land and lower quality agricultural land which may be more readily available
– What our food diets look like, and the types of foods we produce … different diet types like vegetarian and vegan have different potential carrying capacities compared to other diet types like animal meat and animal product heavy diets
– Piggybacking on the above point – could we use more land to grow food directly for human consumption instead of using land to grow animal feed for livestock?
In the US specifically, two-thirds of calories from crops produced are used to feed animals.
If these calories were instead directed toward humans, the U.S. could feed nearly three times as many people as it currently does.
The efficiency of conversion of animal feed to food is a consideration here
– Environmental impact of agriculture, and impact on sustainability – can we keep using synthetic nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers at current levels and not cross planetary boundaries?
The same goes for pesticides, greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural waste, and so on.
There’s also depletion of resources and biodiversity issues rising from industrial and large scale agriculture
– Whether or not the yield and agricultural efficiency of certain staple crops and staple foods can be increased any further, or whether there has to be a change in something else in order to produce enough food for the population.
Just four crops—maize, rice, wheat, and soybeans—provide two-thirds of the calories we harvest from fields. In many parts of the world, the yields for these crops are not rising.
– Will agricultural land currently being used for fibres or biofuel be converted to land used for producing food for direct human consumption instead?
Electric vehicles and renewable energy may play a part here and reduce the need for agricultural land to be used for biofuels.
– Whether food waste and food loss at the farm, transport, storage, and retailer and consumer are addressed in developed and developing countries – less food waste and loss may lead to more resources being available.
It’s estimated that only a third of the food we waste is inedible, and also that we could realistically cut food waste in half.
There’s also the consideration that food waste also indirectly results in wasted agricultural inputs
How To Feed The World’s Population In The Future – Factors To Consider, & Potential Strategies & Solutions
There’s two key factors that contribute to feeding everyone in the world:
– Producing the total amount of adequately nutritious food required to feed the population
– Ensuring that that the produced food gets distributed to everyone in the world who needs it, and it’s also affordable
The main solution might be (based on what is thought to be the main cause of the current world hunger issue):
Addressing poverty, lack of wealth and resources, lack of purchasing power, and low incomes in poorer regions of the world – for both consumers (who need to be able to buy affordable and nutritious food), and also farmers (who need to be able to produce food and make money doing so).
There are many ways to address poverty and a poor economy
[For example, one broad approach might be to] address unemployment, underemployment and lack of social welfare/social protection for the poorest people in the world who can’t afford food from their leftover disposable incomes.
Job growth and social protection is needed to stimulate growth and bring money in.
Governments from developing countries and external country governments can help provide this stimulation and growth.
This will give them more disposable income to buy food.
The world can afford the needed investment … it would cost the equivalent of 0.3% of the world’s 2014 income. Wealthier countries would need to provide budgetary support and technical assistance to the low-income countries that need it. (Most middle-income countries can afford the needed financing themselves.) (weforum.org)
So, pro poor and pro poverty investment is needed.
Also, specifically look at helping lift out of poverty people living in rural areas … almost four-fifths of the world’s poor live in rural areas, though those areas account for less than half of the world’s population.
A difficult balancing act might be sustaining local farmers whilst also providing local people enough food to eat – as help such as food aid can eliminate demand for local agricultural products
As a side note to this – wealthy countries tend to consume far more per capita, and have far more food waste at the consumer level than poorer countries, despite having smaller populations.
This trend is expected to continue in the future where wealthy countries are expected to make up 2/3 of future food consumption, despite majority of population growth not expected to take place in these countries
In wealthier countries, issues mainly stem from unsustainable farming practices, diets that are resource heavy to produce, overconsumption by consumers, and food and resource waste.
Additionally, other solutions might include:
– Monitoring and controlling population size if it reaches a point where it becomes unsustainable to provide food for – particularly in low income and poorer regions of the world where there is already a lack of access to affordable food.
In basic terms, more people means a higher demand for food, and a higher required supply
– Ensuring each country has the means to either produce their own food, or import food as required, and also affordably transport, store and refrigerate that food as required
– Looking at alternate options to traditional agriculture, such as lab grown meat, and seeing whether they can sustainably and viably take pressure off land and livestock based farming
– Increase yields of existing crops where possible – [Key areas where production could be increased, bringing yields closer to their potential, include wheat in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, rice in South Asia, and maize in East Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, yields of cassava, maize, and sugarcane could also be greatly improved] (environmentreports.com).
Specifically with agricultural assessment of yields – it needs to get more detailed by food type and measurement metric.
For example yield is different when comparing tons per acre, compared to tons per input of water or energy, compared to yield per unit of calories, protein and other nutritional units.
– Looking at technological and science based agricultural advancements and enhancements, and seeing how they can help improve soil health, increasing yield and productivity, or helping make agriculture easier and more profitable.
The use of GMOs might be one example of this
– Sustainably and effectively managing freshwater supplies so there is enough water for irrigation (avoiding water issues like water stress and water scarcity), and also investing in water efficient irrigation systems and technology.
Drought prone areas and water scarce areas in particular might diversify their water sources, and have a diversified food production strategy that involves importing certain water hungry food when water supplies are low.
– Consider the impact of a changing climate, temperatures and weather patterns on different geographic regions around the world (some climate and agricultural conditions may change for the better, and some for the worse) – consider how greenhouse gas emissions and factors affecting climate change plays a role in this – consider adaptations and mitigation of a changing climate
– Consider the role of healthy topsoil in agriculture – place more emphasis on preserving the topsoil we have left
– Minimize land and soil degradation, especially to agricultural land
– Place more emphasis on soil health (pH levels, salinity, ability to retain moisture and so on), and consider how different farming practices like organic or sustainable farming can help improve soil health
– Using the existing grazing and cropland we have more efficiently, and assessing how we might best use the agricultural land currently not being utilized around the world (and whether it can be used at all).
Keep in mind that fertile arable land in particular is a finite resource
– Farmers might look at growing foods that have higher carrying capacities, and that use less land, as well as other resources.
Food produced though still needs to be healthy, nutritious and cater to people with specific dietary requirements.
Also, farming is a business as well – and farmers need to be subsidized or financially supported if they are to take risks or be forced to implement new practices or to grow new products
– Consumers might look at changing food consumption behaviour and changing lifestyles to align with more efficient and sustainable farming and agriculture (eating healthy foods, but also foods that are more resource efficient).
The trend is that as countries become wealthier (and have more disposable income and better purchasing power), they tend to consume more resource heavy foods like animal meat – so, this is a consideration
[Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to have higher carrying capacities over diets based around animal meat, animal products, sweeteners, and food products included in a typical Western diet]
– Specifically with land use – we might weigh up how inefficient it is to continue to use land to produce animal feed for livestock (where an energy conversion process takes place), when the land could be used to grow food directly for human consumption.
[The US and Brazil send a lot of their crop calories to animal feed. India and Europe are quite good at sending crop calories to feed people first (before animals and before making biofuels). China could do better with sending their crop calories to people (although the total number of people they have to feed is obviously significant because of population density)] (environmentreports.com).
[… much of the crops currently being grown are not destined for people (only 59% of calories that we grow do we actually consume – (environmentreports.com).
The more developed a country’s agricultural system, the more crops tend to be used to feed animals or make biofuel (U.S. croplands produce a lot of calories, but an astounding two-thirds of calories are used to feed animals.
If these calories were instead directed toward humans, the U.S. could feed nearly three times as many people as it currently does).
Regarding feed grown for livestock – only about 14 percent of global livestock feed (measured in carbon mass) is from pasture totally unsuitable for growing crops – so there is a lot of potential there to use land more efficiently for human food (environmentreports.com)]
– Also specifically with land use – we might consider changing over from using land to produce biofuels, to use the same land to produce food for the hungry (indirectly, further development of renewable energy and electric vehicle technology could help here)
– Considering how the environmental impact of agriculture could be lessened – in regards to the use and impact of synthetic nitrogen, phosphate and potash fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural waste (such as manure from livestock), greenhouse gas emissions, water/soil/air pollution, and so on.
– Considering how farming and agriculture can become more sustainable – in regards to depletion of resources, wildlife and biodiversity, and looking at other farming methods such as organic and sustainable farming practices, and weighing them up against conventional farming practices
– Considering what to do about staple crops and staple foods that have peaked in terms of yield rate … where will future food production come from if the population keeps growing? In the past – to increase food production – we’ve expanded global croplands, increased harvested land, and increased crop yields.
But, we can’t keep doing this because crop yields are declining for prominent crops in parts of the world (due to heat stress, high night temperatures, depleted soils, erosion, and disease), and we are edging up on using nearly all of the land that’s suitable for agriculture already (environmentreports.com).
Expanding and intensifying agriculture and food production can only take us so far.
For example, at the farming and pre consumer stage in developing countries (refrigeration and better food storage could play a part here), and at the retailer and consumer stage in developed countries.
A reasonable goal to aim for might be to halve all of current food waste (theguardian.com)
It’s also worth knowing that only a third of current food waste is truly inedible (theguardian.com)
[In developing countries especially … of all perishable food produced in the world today, only 10% is refrigerated. There is a huge opportunity to cut food waste and improve food distribution by implementing cold chain technology … [to do this effectively] we need to understand local needs …the first challenge to developing an adequate cold chain in countries like India is the cost of refrigerated trucks [and other refrigerated tech like refrigerated warehouses] – the equipment needs to be affordable. The second challenge is finding resources to pay for that equipment. That’s where businesses can make a difference … (theguardian.com)]
Diversify and decentralize agriculture (medium.com)
Although some solutions can be applied generally, other solutions and strategies need to be implemented after an analysis of the local food economy, and related sectors and conditions have taken place.
There would then need to be co-ordination taking place on the local, State, national and international levels between farmers, suppliers and processors, transport and freight, supermarkets and retailers, consumers, governments, and so on.
A strong local economy shields nations from the global market, and in the event of a local event that puts food security at risk, food can be imported.
Developed countries are going to face very different challenges to developing countries, and will likely have more capacity to create change and invest or help.
msutoday.msu.edu indicates that:
[to feed the future population, we will need to change how] we lose or waste food, or we will need to boost food production to feed that many people.
[Population size/growth, and having a finite amount of agricultural land, as well as the quality of this land … are factors that can be difficult to modify or improve]
[With environmental stresses for agriculture such as a varying climate in the future, and pests, pathogens/diseases, and other factors making agriculture more difficult for conventional crops … GMO crops might present some help or another option in this regard]
How Might The World Increase Agricultural Output Into The Future
There’s a big difference in how developed vs developing countries farm, and the output of these countries.
According to investopedia.com:
Developed countries already have well developed infrastructure, and already make use of a lot of land, pesticides and fertilisers, as well as advanced technology, irrigation and machinery.
Technology advancements, efficiency of farming method, and scientific methods like GMO crops are likely to be where output increases.
Less developed countries do not have advanced technology, infrastructure or scientific methods available, so simply increasing use of resources, building up infrastructure and introducing technology and modern machinery and systems may see an increase in yield and output.
… in developing countries, 80% of the necessary increases in food production keep pace with population growth are projected to come from increases in yields and the number of times per year crops can be grown on the same land. Only 20% of new food production is expected to come from expansion of farming land (who.int)
In terms of increasing food production in the future …
Developed countries may have reached the point of diminishing returns in terms of increasing agricultural output significantly
Technology advancements, efficiency of farming methods, and scientific methods like GMO crops might be where output increases are available in the future
Developing countries might look to bringing in more commercial, industrial and mass scale developed country farming techniques to increase agricultural output – although, this depends on factors like investment, finances and suitable land (amongst other factors)
Studies On Food Production For The Population In The Future
One study provides these comments on food production meeting population size by 2050:
The current production of crops is sufficient to provide enough food for the projected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, although very significant changes to the socio-economic conditions of many (ensuring access to the global food supply) and radical changes to the dietary choices of most (replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and greater acceptance of human-edible crops currently fed to animals, especially maize, as directly-consumed human food) would be required.
Under all scenarios, the scope for biofuel production is limited.
Our analysis finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals, which reduces calorie and protein supplies.
If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119% increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050.
8. Max Roser (2020) – “Future Population Growth”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth’ [Online Resource]
13. Berners-Lee, M., Kennelly, C., Watson, R. and Hewitt, C.N., 2018. Current global food production is sufficient to meet human nutritional needs in 2050 provided there is radical societal adaptation. Elem Sci Anth, 6(1), p.52. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.310. Available at https://www.elementascience.org/articles/10.1525/elementa.310/