Feeding 10 billion: can we do it?

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


Global meat-eating is on the rise, bringing surprising benefits. (2019, May 02). Retrieved May 12, 2019, from https://www.economist.com/international/2019/05/04/global-meat-eating-is-on-the-rise-bringing-surprising-benefits

Hancox, D. (2018, April 01). The unstoppable rise of veganism: How a fringe movement went mainstream. Retrieved May 12, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/01/vegans-are-coming-millennials-health-climate-change-animal-welfare

Huston, T. (2017, September 13). How do we feed the planet in 2050? Retrieved May 12, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/preparing-for-9-billion/2017/sep/13/population-feed-planet-2050-cold-chain-environment

Moore, H. (2016, October 09). Can agroecology feed the world and save the planet? Retrieved May 12, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/oct/09/agroecological-farming-feed-world-africa

Reeves, T. G., Thomas, G., & Ramsay, G. (2016). Maize, rice and wheat: A guide to sustainable cereal production (Rep.). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.


https://www.wur.nl/en/newsarticle/Feeding-10-billion-people-by-2050-within-planetary-limits-may-be-achievable.htm i

9 thoughts on “Feeding 10 billion: can we do it?

  1. Hi MariaCatharine, thanks for your blogpost! Indeed, food security is a pressing issue, and a rather painful one if you consider that, for example, in the US about 150,000 tons of perfectly edible food is thrown away every day. You talk a lot about potential solutions to the issue, which are primarily aimed at increasing food production or decreasing demand. These measures are all concerned with making sure that we have enough to feed the world population. However, if you consider the amount of land that is available, we should, in theory, be able to feed all people (though this of course depends on the type of diet that is adopted; if the whole world adopted a US diet we would need more habitable land than there is available), but there is also the issue of unfair distribution. It would then seem that fighting food insecurity is only possible if it goes hand in hand with policies aimed at poverty reduction to increase access, especially in rural areas in least developed countries.


  2. Thanks for the interesting blogpost! Food shortages will become even more severe in the future and finding a solution to this problem is very important but difficult. You highlight the increase in yield of food production, which was made possible in the 20th century by inventions such as genetic modified crops, synthetic fertiliser, and scaling-up of agriculture. These inventions clash with the now fashionable movement of cultivating organic crops. On the one hand, the food demand will increase sharply in the coming decades, while on the other hand food supply will be decreasing when the crops will be grown in a traditional way. There are many advantages to the more traditional agriculture as you describe (less eutrophication, salinisation etc.), but I wonder whether it would possible to feed the world without these agricultural innovations.


  3. Thank you for your post! Personally, and perhaps controversially, I think we are looking at food scarcity from the wrong angle. Instead of preparing for a world with 10 billion human beings–at which point scarcity will not only be for food, but myriad other resources–we should stagnate population growth. There are measurable and effective options such as sexual education in poverty-stricken countries, better access to contraception, and even paternity leave. Where we invest our money will always be a point of contention, but perhaps it is time to prioritise before we reach tipping point.


  4. In response to the comment of Saranmits
    Although limiting population growth might seem like a solution to this problem, we must not forget that most of the population growth that will occur not as a result of more children being born, but from people’s life expectancy increasing. When people live longer, more people are alive at the same time this effect will be the main cause of the increase of the world population to 10 billion. In the last decades life expectancy has increased immensely in for example Africa, while the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime has decreased globally. Therefore, while I still think it would be beneficial to increase sexual education, access to contraception and paternity leave, I do not think these interventions would solve the food supply problem.


  5. In response to the comment of Milocornelissen

    I indeed agree with you that I doubt if we could feed the world population without intensive agriculture. On the one hand with intensive agriculture farm land can become so degraded that it cannot be used to produce food for a while, depending on the cause of the degradation (for example soil erosion or salinization) it can take many years before the land can be used again. However, on the other hand, I am also doubtful that we can produce enough food with the smaller yields of traditional agriculture also since this form of agriculture would thus require more arable land in order to feed everybody.


  6. In response to the comment of Julia.s
    I indeed agree with you that an equal distribution of food would prevent a lot of malnutrition issues. However, I also think this goes hand in hand with reducing food waste: if less food is wasted during production in developing countries more would be available for the local population. In addition, if less food is wasted in developed countries more food would be available in developing countries since developed countries import a lot of their food from developing countries.


  7. Food scarcity scares me. If already a billion of us suffers from malnutrition on a daily basis, I am afraid to even think of what will happen when climate change will turn the heat up.
    It doesn’t seem right that most of the food waste is due to lack of refrigeration. Is that really true? My impression is that most of it is thrown out due to the regulations with respect the best before date. In that regard, I hope that other countries will follow France’s lead, where they forbade supermarkets to throw out food.
    You mention that global meat consumption is on the rise, regardless of recent efforts in the Western world. As far as I know, meat serves as a cultural signal of wealth in many developing countries. Do you know of any efforts in subverting this social signal? Plastic pollution has come knocking on the door (https://youtu.be/YZdl7BgIVsY) which has called for societal change and governmental help, maybe a similar connection could be brought up with meat and its environmental footprint.


  8. Nice blogpost! I think it is also important to take into account that food scarcity is not only scarcity in calories but also scarcity in micronutrients. This is important because ‘intensifying’ usually means increasing monocultures of staple crops that offer little in terms of micronutrients. Personally, I think there are additional strategies in fighting world hunger that are often overlooked (large agribusinesses have financial interest in centering the debate on the need for artificial fertlizer, pesticides, GMOs etc.). An important one is supporting smallholders in terms of finances and education as smallholders provide most of the food for people suffering from undernourishment. I agree that a combination of strategies is probably necessary but besides behavioural change and decreasing waste, I think that supporting farmers is also important.


  9. I’m very interested in food scarcity/food security. You mention that none of the three options is sufficient but perhaps all three of them is needed. You might be right, but I want to highlight and question the use of ‘intensive’ farming. First, I want to differentiate between intensive farming and industrialized agriculture. Intensive farming, for me, just means how much yield you get out of the land per square meter, independent of your form of agriculture. Industrialized agriculture refers to the mode of farming brought about by the Green Revolution. I am an advocate of intensive farming but not of industrialized agriculture.

    As you say yourself, industrialized agriculture depletes the land and renders it useless after a while. Also, industrialized agriculture promotes monoculture farming, which endangers the food security of large farming populations. This is due to the fact that if an entire region is farming potatoes (or palm oil), they cannot guarantee their own food security as they can either not consume the crop as food or cannot only consume that crop as their only food. For me, knowing that in the long-term industrialized agriculture is not sustainable is reason enough to not promote its continuation and further adoption. Although, it’s interesting to point out that this depletion of land that we often speak of in relation to industrialized agriculture has been slow to appear or even be mentioned as a problem amongst farmers in massive agriculture areas. For example, the Mekong River Delta, known for its rice production, has reported increasing yields for years, continuously, despite studies suggesting that there will be a 6-12% decrease in productivity due to unsustainable farming practices. The Green Revolution is still proving its immense productivity.

    Still, continuing to farm with techniques that we know deplete the land, but that we trust will nonetheless yield ever-increasing numbers of crops is a risk that we should not be willing to take. ‘Organic’ farming, inclusive green growth, agroecology, whatever you want to call it, has real potential that is easily dismissed. Research in Africa shows that planting seeds that are native to the area increases yields. Research in South America shows that ‘fertilizing’ land with carbon, adding worms, and planting native seeds can increase yields just as much if not more than synthetic fertilizers. Research also shows that having multiculture farming in small plots of land makes for more intensive farming; multiculture farms have managed to yield more of one crop per square meter than monoculture farms, this is due to farming techniques being more intense per crop when less land is dedicated to them.

    I could name more things, but what I’m saying is that research suggests that organic farming has the potential to be able to feed the population if it is done correctly. See for yourself:

    Lappé, F. M. (2016). Farming for a small planet: Agroecology now. Development (Basingstoke), 59(3–4), 299–307. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41301-017-0114-9

    Patel, R. (2009). What does food sovereignty look like? Journal of Peasant Studies (Vol. 36). https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150903143079

    NOGUERA, D., LAOSSI, K.-R., LAVELLE, P., CARVALHO, M. H., ASAKAWA, N., BOTERO, C., & BAROT, S. (2015). Amplifying the benefits of agroecology by using the right cultivars, 25(6), 1447–1455.

    Altieri, M. A., Nicholls, C. I., Henao, A., & Lana, M. A. (2015). Agroecology and the design of climate change-resilient farming systems. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 35(3), 869–890. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13593-015-0285-2

    Pereira, L., Wynberg, R., & Reis, Y. (2018). Agroecology: The future of sustainable farming? Environment, 60(4), 4–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.2018.1472507

    Suárez-Torres, J., Suárez-López, J. R., López-Paredes, D., Morocho, H., Cachiguango-Cachiguango, L. E., & Dellai, W. (2017). Agroecology and Health: Lessons from Indigenous Populations. Current Environmental Health Reports, 4(2), 244–251. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-017-0146-z


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