This mantra has been pounded into the agriculture industry for the past decade: “Food production must double by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population.” Just Google that statement and watch scores of results appear. There’s just one problem – this assertion isn’t supported by the latest data, according to research just published in the journal Bioscience.
Mitch Hunter, Penn State doctoral student in agronomy, says production still needs to increase over time – just not as fast as many have claimed. A more reasonable estimate is a 25% to 70% increase in food production needed by 2050.
“In the coming decades, agriculture will be called upon to both feed people and ensure a healthy environment," he says. "Right now, the narrative in agriculture is really out of balance, with compelling goals for food production but no clear sense of the progress we need to make on the environment. To get the agriculture we want in 2050, we need quantitative targets for both food production and environmental impacts.”
The Penn State analysis doesn’t necessarily dispute two existing projections from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman. But Hunter says food production must be considered separately from food demand, and that doing so reframes the story. For example, Tilman’s study showed the world will need 100% more calories in 2050 than it did in 2005, but as of 2014, food production would only need to go up 68% to hit that target. In the FAO projection, which used different assumptions and projected a lower demand, food production would only have to increase 26%, according to Hunter.
“Given how much production has increased recently, it is pretty misleading to continue to argue that we need to double our crop output by 2050,” he says.
In fact, it’s not possible to double yields in some areas without severely impacting the environment, Hunter adds. The researchers are arguing for research and policies that will identify and promote farming that meet growing global food demands and still meet sustainability targets.
“Even with lower demand projections, growing enough food while protecting the environment will be a daunting challenge,” Hunter says. “We call on researchers, policymakers and farmers to embrace this recalibrated vision of the future of agriculture and start working toward these goals.”
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.