Sometimes I wonder about the sustainability of our food production. Given that our world population is expected to increase from 7 billion today to about 10 billion within this century, and given the fact that we already face food shortages today: almost 1 billion people suffer from chronic malnutrition today, I wonder if we will be able to feed our future world population.
Although many people do not have enough food on a daily basis, a lot of the food that is available to us is wasted. To put an exact number to it: about one third of the total amount of food that is produced globally is wasted: half of which during production, the other half during the consumption phase. Thus perhaps reducing the amount of food wasted would be a great opportunity to produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. Indeed we actually already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people today. However, decreasing the amount of wasted food might not be as simple as it sounds. Namely, one reason why a lot of food goes to waste in developing countries is a lack of refrigeration of perishable food. Thus in order to prevent this waste, a large system change would need to occur. Specifically, a so called ‘cold chain’ would need to be installed: a transport system which ensures a constant low temperature for the transported good through the use of refrigerated warehouses and trucks. This, as you might imagine, will require huge investments which are unfeasible in a lot of developing countries.
Thus only focusing on food waste prevention might not be the solution for feeding 10 billion people. So let’s have a look at some other options we might have. Let’s for example have a look at how far we have come with increasing food production in the past to see if there are lessons to be learned to face our upcoming challenge. In the past we have actually made major steps in increasing global food production. Since the 1960s the Green Revolution took off: this was a development of many agricultural technical advancements which were also exported to developing countries. Examples of these advancements are fertilizer and pesticide use. These developments lead to enormous increases in yield. The global yield of rice, wheat and maize increased up to a threefold by the year 2000, for example. These past increases in food production have allowed us to feed the ever growing world population. However, will we be able to keep increasing our yield with these kinds of practices in the future? Although the use of fertilizer and pesticides has brought us many advantages, more recently we have also started to see the dark side of this development. As for example a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed, our intense agriculture has lead to a large variety of environmental problems. Examples of these include soil degradation for example by eutrophication and soil salinization as a result evaporation of irrigated water. In addition, the extensive use of pesticides has led to pest resistance to these chemicals and irrigation, requiring large amounts of fresh water, to depletion of water resources. Thus we might wonder how sustainable our current intense agricultural system is and if we could still increase the efficiency so much that we can feed the future global population.
Thus trusting that our ability to increase our agricultural output through increasing the intensity of our agriculture might not be a good solution to the future food supply problem, so let us have a look at the consumption side next. A current trend when it comes to food that might come to mind when you think of changed food consumption behavior is the rise in vegetarian- and veganism. In Britain alone the number of vegans increased by 350% in the period from 2006-2016 adding up to a total of about a half million vegan people. Given the fact that a large portion of the food that we produce if fed to animals: about four-fifth of our agricultural land is dedicated to the growing animal feed, switching from a meat eating diet to a vegetarian or vegan diet saves all the food that would otherwise be needed as animal feed. Thus if this trend continues might this be the solution to the possible future food crisis? Well probably not, although in developed countries we see this trend, in developing countries a very different trend is occurring. Specifically, an increase in wealth in, for example, Asia, has led to an increase in meat and dairy consumption. In fact, this trend far outweighs the opposite trend in richer nations, so much so even that global meat consumption over the last decade has increased by 1.9% each year.
Having looked at 3 possible solutions for feeding a world population of 10 billion, namely decreasing food waste, increasing agricultural intensity and changing our food consumption behavior, none of these seemed to be the silver bullet to this problem. All of these had large disadvantages: with a decreasing food waste will come large financial investments in developing countries, with increasing agricultural intensity other environmental problems and with a trend in decreasing meat consumption in developed countries an opposite trend came that outweighed this trend. However, perhaps combining all the above mentioned solutions and others might send us into the right direction to feed 10 billion people. e
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