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Is There Enough Food Out There For Nine Billion People?

Sometime around 2050, there are going to be nine billion people roaming this planet—two billion more than there are today. It's a safe bet that all those folks will want to eat. And that's... an incredibly daunting prospect. Right now, an estimated one billion people go hungry each day. So add two billion more people, a limited supply of arable land, plus the fact that rising incomes will boost demand for meat and dairy products, plus the fact that many key natural resources (fisheries, say) are already being overexploited… and it's hard to see the situation getting better. And that's before we get into the fact that the planet's heating up, which is expected to wreak havoc on agricultural yields.

Still, not everyone's convinced that feeding nine billion people—and doing it in a sustainable fashion—is a totally impossible task. A new paper published this week in Science, written by Britain's chief scientific adviser John Beddington along with nine other experts, outlines a way this could actually be done. The catch? Doing so would require "radical" changes to the current global food system. The paper's a great synthesis of a wide range of different food issues, and I'll just pull out the main ideas:

Boosting crop yields: If the supply of farmland is ultimately finite, then boosting yields is the only way we'll get more food. Now, this subject usually gets tangled up in heated debates about the virtues or evils of genetically modified foods—and the study authors do recommend GM crops as a "potentially valuable technology" that "should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed." (Imagining that fancy technology will just solve all these food problems, though, is likely misguided.) But there are plenty of smaller, more mundane yield-boosting approaches, too—right now, there are plenty of small farmers in the developing world that could get more out of their land right now with better training or access to financing. (This is known as the "yield gap.")

Stop tossing out so much food: The study estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the world's food is thrown out each year. In poorer countries, this typically happens because the food-chain infrastructure is shoddy, or storage facilities are inadequate—something that's pretty straightforward to fix. In wealthier countries, the causes of waste are a lot more varied: Cheap food, the craze for supersized portions, the fact that stores throw away perfectly edible food because it's not as visually appealing, an overreliance on use-by dates "whose safety margins often mean that food fit for consumption is thrown away." Fixing all this would require major advocacy campaigns—though, no, it doesn't mean we'd all have to become freegans.

Fewer hamburgers: Can't imagine this one will go over well, but the authors do suggest that people will probably have to reduce their meat consumption slightly to feed nine billion people. This doesn't mean going vegetarian. A recent study from Germany's Potsdam Institute found that if everyone had a diet equivalent to eating meat three times a week, it'd be perfectly doable to feed nine billion people and rein in some of the gruesome excesses of factory farming. But if the whole world adopted a Western meat diet, we'd need to start razing forests for additional land—three million square kilometers all told, an area about two-thirds the size of the current Amazon rain forest. (Or, who knows? Maybe by 2050 we'll all resort to in vitro meat instead.)

A slew of green technical stuff: Of course, all those other measures will only go so far. There are also some serious threats to the long-term sustainability of agriculture lurking out there. Global warming's a big one. But then also water shortages due to over-extraction. Soil degradation due to poor farming techniques. Loss of biodiversity due poor management. The fact that fisheries are being ravaged (so something like a cap-and-trade system for fish could help here). A lot of the fixes here are dry and technical, and they tend to get discussed as wonky enviro ideas that might be nice to do but aren't essential. Except that, as the Science study makes clear, they really are crucial—at least if all those nine billion people want enough to eat.

P.S. Oh yes, forgot one: biofuels! It's probably going to be hard to find enough food for nine billion people if we're still diverting vast swaths of farmland for crop-based ethanol. (Though maybe by then we'll have moved on to algae fuels or electric cars or some other fancy technology.)

(Flickr photo credit: Orhan Tsolak)

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