Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Right-sizing the 2050 calculus on food and population

with 2 comments

A man walks away with a bag of rice at a food distribution centre in Tarenguel, Gorgol region, in Mauritania in May 2012. A full third of the country’s population, amounting to around a million people, are at risk of severe malnutrition if rain doesn’t fall by July. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Susana Vera

Ever since October 2011 when the world’s seventh billion person was born, there has been a new flurry of articles and prognoses about the need to increase ‘global’ food production to feed a ‘global’ population. While this may be all very well for earth systems scientists and researchers who are accustomed to dealing with planetary scale, those in charge of planning for agriculture at national and sub-national levels find it difficult enough relating to their own numbers (in India, the population of the smallest states are between 1 and 2 million, while that of the largest, Uttar Pradesh, is close to 200 million (!) which if it were a country would be placed between the fourth and fifth most populous countries – Indonesia and Brazil).

Through this year, numerous inter-governmental agencies and large organisations – including the FAO, WFP and IFAD – have discussed the need to be able to feed a population of nine billion, which we are expected to be in 2050 or thereabouts. And so says, recently, the ‘Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth And Bridging The Gap For Small-Family Farms’, which is the ‘Interagency Report to the Mexican G20 Presidency’ (12 June 2012).

Explaining that “the growing global demand for food, feed and biofuel is well established”, this inter-agency report has said that income growth will increase the quantity and change the composition of agricultural commodity demand. I find this approach a troublesome one because on the one hand there is growing recognition (even if corrective action is small and mostly symbolic) that consumption is to sustainable the way energy efficiency is to total energy use. Why are large agency and inter-agency reports continuing to skirt a matter which should be dealt with head-on – that consumption of food by the populations of ‘developing’ countries, on the lines of that practiced by the populations of OECD countries – cannot be encouraged by the food MNCs and the global food retail consortia?

A man gestures at a compound belonging to the World Food Programme as it is being looted in Abyei, in this United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) handout photo taken in May 2011. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Stuart Price / UNMIS

It is because of this consistent refusal to see – and name – the elephant in the room that this report, to the Mexican G20 Presidency, has said: “Significant increases in production of all major crops, livestock and fisheries will thus be required”.

What are the estimates provided? “Estimates indicate that by 2050, agricultural production would need to grow globally by 70% over the same period, and more specifically by almost 100% in developing countries, to feed the growing population alone… ” I am puzzled by the easy acceptance of this simple equation by the following agencies and institutions, all of whom have contributed to this report: Bioversity, CGIAR Consortium, FAO, IFAD, IFPRI, IICA, OECD, UNCTAD, Coordination team of UN High Level Task Force on the Food Security Crisis, WFP, World Bank, and WTO.

There is a mathematics here that is eluding me. The estimate is that from now until 2050, world population will grow around 30% – from the current 7 billion to an estimated 9.1 billion. However, if population grows at 30%, why must the available food (excluding biofuels demand) grow at 70% over the same period? It is extremely difficult for most people (earth system scientists excluded) to make sense of such large numbers. In order to break up large numbers into more familiar terms, I have (from UN’s World Population Prospects 2010) extracted the following data. These are the populations of France, DR Congo, Thailand, Turkey and Iran, these are the world’s 21st to 17th most populous countries (in that order).

People buy food at a vegetable market in Tripoli in August 2011. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Youssef Boudlal

In 2012 their populations are: France 63.5 million, DR Congo 69.6 m, Thailand 69.9 m, Turkey 74.5 m, and Iran 75.6 m. Let’s not try to strain to look ahead as far as 2050 (by which time some of us will have returned to our ecosystems as dust or as ashes) but look to 2027, or 15 years ahead. Then, the populations will look like this: France 67.7 million, DR Congo 99.6 m, Thailand 73.1 m, Turkey 85.1 m and Iran 83.7 m.

Thus we see that, as the ‘Interagency Report to the Mexican G20 Presidency’ has explained, it is indeed some ‘developing’ countries which will need to provide for considerably more food being grown and made available – DR Congo will have, in this short span of years, 30 million more people! Turkey will have more than 10 million more! The growth – again for the 2012 to 2027 period alone – is France 7%, DR Congo 43%, Thailand 5%, Turkey 14% and Iran 11%.

Does it then still make sense to speak of 2050 horizons and 2.1 billion more people when we are at best talking to national planners, sectoral administrators and thematically-oriented agencies accustomed more to district boundaries than continental spreads? I say it doesn’t – and the less time and money and conferencing we expend on these beyond-humanscale numbers the more sense we will make to those in need of guidance. The question then resolves itself as being more prickly, and more in need of hard answers – if the 30 million additional people in DR Congo are to choose a diet that has 50% less meat and 50% more indigenous vegetables and tubers and roots in it, will DR Congo still – over this period alone – need to plan for growing 43% more food (grain) to keep pace with population growth? Will Turkey need to do the same (time to encourage more çorbasi and less schwarma perhaps!)?

2 Responses

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  1. I disagree with the projections too, but I believe that they reflect an increasing consumption of meat and fish, and that the livestock will be fed on specifically-grown food.

    Jeremy Cherfas

    June 19, 2012 at 13:49

  2. […] tackles the fact-assumption disconnect in future food […]


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