0306F-3613a Penn State/Randy Kilmer
WIDER VISION NEEDED: Food needs and the environment must be balanced, with greater focus on environmental research, suggests this study.

2050 world food needs vision is overblown

Penn State study suggests widely accepted vision for world food insecurity and production needs is inaccurate and misleading.

You’ve heard it so many times you believe it: "Food production must double by 2050 to feed the world's growing population."

But this truism may not be true, alleges a new Penn State University study. Research recently published in Bioscience suggests that production likely will need to increase only 26% to 68% to meet 2050 food demand.

The assertion that we need to double global crop and animal production by 2050 isn’t supported by the data, argues Mitch Hunter, co-author of the research study and a Penn State agronomy doctoral student. Production needs to keep increasing, he adds, but not as fast as many have claimed.

The “double by 2050” analysis was based on two commonly cited food-demand projections, one from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and one led by David Tilman, a prominent ecologist at the University of Minnesota. The Penn State analysis didn’t dispute the underlying projections — just updated them to reframe the narrative.

The baseline years were more than a decade old now, explains Hunter. Global production has ramped up considerably since then.

Tilman's study showed that the world will demand 100% more calories in 2050 than in 2005. That’s equivalent to only a 68% increase over 2014 production levels. To meet the FAO projection, which used different assumptions and projected lower demand, production would have to increase only 26% from 2014 levels. "Given how much production has increased recently, it’s pretty misleading to continue to argue that we need to double our crop output by 2050," he adds.     

Agriculture’s larger role
Meeting future food demand is only part of the story, contends Hunter. “In the coming decades, agriculture will be called upon to feed people — and ensure a healthy environment. Right now, the narrative in agriculture is really out of balance, with compelling goals for food production,” he contends, “but no clear sense of the progress we need to make on the environment. To get the agriculture we want in 2050, we need quantitative targets for food production and environmental impact."

“Food production and environmental protection must be treated as equal parts of agriculture's grand challenge," adds David Mortensen, the study’s co-author and Penn State professor of weed and applied plant ecology. He also suggests that the new findings have important implications for farmers:

• Lower demand projections may suggest that prices won’t rise as much as expected in coming decades. However, economic forecasting models already are based on up-to-date quantitative projections, so price forecasts may not be greatly affected.

• Agriculture's environmental impacts are increasing and must drop dramatically to maintain clean water and stabilize the climate, according to Hunter and Mortensen. Farmers will need to ramp up efforts to hold nutrients on their fields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve soil health.

• Aiming to double food production makes it much harder to move the needle on our environmental challenges, they contend. To double food production, global agricultural output would have to increase faster than ever before.

The developed world already is pushing farming systems to the max. “We don't know how to double yields in these systems, especially without multiplying our environmental impacts," says Hunter.

• Sustainability of the food system is widely defined, ranging from "not increasing agriculture's environmental footprint" to achieving "major reductions in environmental impact." In terms of global greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, the data show that agriculture's environmental performance is going in the wrong direction, with aggregate impacts steadily increasing.

Science-based goals indicate these impacts must fall sharply over the coming decades to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and reduce the size of the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Hunter and Mortensen argue for research and policy efforts to help identify production methods that can meet growing global food demand while also hitting sustainability targets.

The National Science Foundation and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported the research. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and Colorado State University also contributed.

Source: Penn State University

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