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Doubling Food Production by 2050

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Mar 03, 2011 at 19:53:38 PM PST

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Have you heard that we need to double food production by 2050 in order to feed a population of 9 billion people? I have. I've heard it ad nauseum. Today, I was reading through some transcripts from the 2009 Borlaug Dialogues, and nearly every speaker noted that we need to double food production by 2050 but no one cited their source. It was just a given, something everyone already knew.

I started Googling and ended up emailing colleagues for the original source of this figure. And, to the best of my knowledge (I haven't given up yet), THERE ISN'T ONE. That's right. No source. There IS a claim by Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the FAO from January 2009 - but no source. Where did he get his information? What were the assumptions used to calculate it?

UPDATE: I've done some more checking on this. The FAO, the source cited for saying we must double food production, says we need to increase it by 70 percent. Not double.

More below.

Jill Richardson :: Doubling Food Production by 2050
Emails began coming back from people far more knowledgeable and experienced in this area than I, first pointing me to a 2006 FAO report that says a lot of things, but doesn't say we need to double food production. The same email contained a link to an article about the UK's Soil Association calling out the "double food production" claim as B.S. From their own report, they found that the supposed source (the FAO report) never says "double food production," and its numbers actually call for increasing food production by 70 percent by 2050.

The number 70 percent is calculated with a number of assumptions, such as a doubling of meat and dairy consumption worldwide. And in case you don't want to take the Soil Association's word for it, you can have that 70 percent figure attributed to the UN from the Global Harvest Initiative (a.k.a. ADM, Monsanto, and John Deere) as well.

In a separate study done by the Global Harvest Initiative, they project that food production must increase by 86 percent by 2050. Their number is higher than the UN number, but it still isn't "double."

Also notable are the Soil Association's critiques of the UN's methodology in determining the needed increase in food production:

These projections are based on the following assumptions:
* Increases in global population and economic growth.
* Increased per capita consumption of calories in developing countries.
* Continuing growing imports of food by developing countries.
* Structural change in diets of people in the developing world (nutrition transition) to include more meat and dairy products.

There are four key problems with these projections:
*  Our diet in the developed world is causing serious disease and obesity problems and these are now starting to increase in the developing world.
* The data used to measure food security focuses attention on the level of agricultural production without considering access to food, distribution, and affordability which are all important in ensuring that people do not go hungry.
* The projections assume that the developing world continues to import growing quantities of staple food stuffs - in fact, increasing local production of staple foods is vital in ensuring food security.
* According to these scientists, meeting these projected food demand targets will not solve food insecurity anyway. diet-related ill-health, including heart disease,  some cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

If this is in fact the truth - if there is NO basis to support needing to double food production by 2050 - then I find it absolutely incredible the extent to which world leaders and other powerful people continue to repeat it without questioning it.

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Why would you find that absolutely incredible? (4.00 / 3)
World leaders and politicians are always going on with predictions way out in the future with almost nothing to go on. My favorites are their Social Security guesses.

I've read world population data for 2050 when nobody has a clue so how are they going to figure how much food we will need? Truth is it will be somewhere between zero and 20 billion but scientist predict between 7 and 11 billion, so politicians say it will be 9 billion. Scientist say "this is our best guess" on all sorts of predictions and dimwit politicians just lash on.

What do you expect? Since they are all so busy denying science how will they figure out how to actually read it?

Bloomberg released PlanNYC and it claimed the NYC population will be 20 million in 2030. How do they even have a clue? Between poisoning the drinking water upstate and raising the water levels in the Hudson and East River by three feet the population of Manhattan might be living in Inwood Hills Park and collecting drinking water from cisterns.  

When I was ten years old they were saying the city's population would be 20 million by the year 2000 and we would be taking vacation's on Mars while commuting back and forth to work in Jetcars. And that was back when America was a scientific nation.

Not that I have any answers but I've been around long enough to know that predictions are usually just scientific speculation turned into facts by lesser men.

Pretty incredible, huh? (4.00 / 3)
but I guess if you consider that we have a country that believes in death panels and a Kenyan Muslim as our president, you can sneak just about anything past time.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
I think it's just easier (4.00 / 3)
for these people to repeat things they've heard like "we need to double food production by 2050 in order to feed a population of 9 billion people" because it makes them sound smart. But they would really BE smart if they would consider what it would take to feed the people we have here and now. (Hint: not increased production.)

9 billion (4.00 / 3)
I remember that magic number, and I remember how I thought about it, but I can't finger exactly when it came out. It did come from the UN, and I think the estimate is rather old. It asserted that humanity would steadily grow, and then magically level off because Europe had grown like that and had leveled off like that.

Just like magical thinking leads to sloppy and catchy-sounding food requirement estimates, so did magical thinking assume such a huge number of human beings in our future utopia.

Considering... (4.00 / 2)
I just read this morning that we here in the US have considerably MORE acreage in lawn than in corn, and that we only grow a percentage of our food that's in the single digits...

I don't think it would be such a stretch to increase the amount of food we have here. Worldwide, it's a different story.

more information please (4.00 / 1)
we only grow a percentage of our food that's in the single digits

What's that about?

[ Parent ]
worldwide it would be very possible (4.00 / 2)
to increase food grown dramatically. I'll have a piece out on it in a week with details to back that one up.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
increase food grown (4.00 / 1)
How about increasing food available? Let's decrease food waste, for example. Let's improve protection of grain harvested for both food and seed, say by hermetic sealing.

[ Parent ]
I don't think the problem is food production (4.00 / 2)
The problem has a lot of heads:

(1) Areas where food is grown are a long way from population centers, leading to transportation costs becoming a part of food cost, plus spoilage during transport

(2) Poor farmers must grow non-food cash crops to survive (chocolate, cotton, coffee, palm oil) taking arable land out of food production

(3) Armed conflict drives farmers from land, disrupts food transportation and destroys irrigation infrastructure.

(4) So much profit is extracted by middlemen so as to make it difficult for farmers to survive.

(5) Control of land and water by those with no interest in production of food. "Profit over people."  

increased consumption (4.00 / 1)
Jill points out that whatever the needed increase would be (70%, 86%, or 100%), one of the base assumptions is increased caloric consumption. Apparently the Soil Association's critique focused on increase in developing countries, but in World agriculture: towards 2015/2030: Summary report (FAO, Rome, 2002), estimates are made for the world as a whole and for various categories thereof.

NOTE: these numbers are for 2030, not 2050.

Developing countries...................................2681................2980
Sub-Saharan Africa
Idem, excl. Nigeria
Near East and North Africa
Latin America and Caribbean
South Asia
East Asia
Industrial countries.....................................3380.................3500
Transition countries....................................2906.................3180

So just until 2030, the (old) estimate was for all developing nations to increase per capita consumption by 300 calories while industrial countries increase by only 120 calories. (I haven't read the 2050 update.) Anybody see anything wrong with that analysis? Seems to me that in times of scarce resources, industrial and transition countries will be impacted less severely than developing countries. Also, seems to me that USAID, Gates, CropLifeGlobal, World Bank, etc. are trying to increase ag production in developing nations to feed industrial nations.

I know that nobody is less welcome at a dinner party than some smartass who tells other people what to eat, but gosh, 3380 calories seems awfully high. 3500 calories seems worse. Not for Joanne, but seems to me that most Americans probably would do very well on 2500 calories or less, if the calories were chosen well.

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