Bolstering Global Agricultural Production to Feed Ten Billion People

Published on: 09:00AM Aug 02, 2019

In June 2019, the United Nations updated its global population projections for the rest of the 21st century--by 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion, and nearly 11 billion by 2100.  Within that estimate, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050, and at current population growth rates, India is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2027.

In addition, a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution found that the global middle class, defined as those with daily spending between $11 and $110 based on purchasing power parity estimates, now account for half of the global population--about 3.8 billion people--and is the fastest growing segment of that population.  By 2030, the global middle class is projected to include 5.3 billion people, who typically consume significant amounts of animal protein and fresh produce in their diets, in addition to staple foods.

In order to meet the additional demand created by these two trends, it is estimated that global agricultural production will need to increase by between 50 and 70 percent by 2050 from current levels.   This increase must be realized during a period when climate change has been and will continue to put considerable stress on both the crop and livestock production sectors in terms of having to deal with enhanced temperatures and more variable precipitation levels.  

Such events are already disrupting agricultural production in key producing countries.  For example, the spring flooding in the U.S. Midwest and continued heavy rainfall during planting season has created a situation in which perhaps 10 to 20 million acres of corn and soybeans were prevented from being planted across the country, and the crop that did get planted is not in very good shape.  According to the USDA Weekly Crop Progress report released on July 29, both the corn and soybean crops are well behind normal growing stages at this point, and only 58 percent and 54 percent of the corn and soybean crops respectively are deemed to be in good or excellent condition, as opposed to 72 percent and 70 percent of the corn and soybean crops in the same categories last year at this time. 

While the U.S. Midwest is still struggling with the effects of too much rain, wide swathes of Western Europe, West and Southern Africa, and South Asia are suffering from drought conditions.  Over the last few weeks, dozens of cities in Western Europe, experienced all-time record high temperatures.  On July 25, Paris recorded a high temperature of 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit, in the midst of the second major heat wave of the summer.  

In order to produce enough food to meet expected demand in 2050, robust investments will need to be made in agricultural research to increase productivity, as the capability to pull in more arable land will otherwise be limited in many parts of the world.  Expected sea level rise over the next few decades will likely render some farmland in coastal regions less suitable for agriculture, due to saltwater intrusion in those regions’ groundwater supply and increased salinity in the soil. One study on the impact of sea level rise on Bangladesh found that average rice yields in such fields could decline by nearly 16 percent by 2050.  In addition, those regions will be vulnerable to greater storm surges from tropical storms or hurricanes that are increasingly likely to be super-charged by climate change.

Globally, it is estimated by the FAO that more than 830 million hectares of land are already salt-affected, and two million more hectares fall into that category annually.  Promising research is already underway which could provide some assistance to farmers facing greater risk from saltwater intrusion over the next several decades.  In Vietnam and Bangladesh, both major rice producing nations, scientists have been working on developing rice varieties that are more tolerant of high salinity soils, in cooperation with scientists of the International Rice Research Institute, a CGIAR center headquartered in the Philippines.   Such varieties of rice have already been released in these two countries as well in India and Sri Lanka.  However, much less work has been focused on developing salt tolerant varieties of wheat and corn, which are also commonly grown in coastal regions in Asia and Africa.

Scientists at Stanford University are working on developing crop varieties that are able to absorb iron directly from the soil.  Success in this area would allow farmers to grow crops under irrigation in arid regions that have not previously been available for such uses, such as in the western United States, because the alkaline nature of the soils has rendered the iron inaccessible to most commercial crops to take up.  The Stanford researchers are looking at how to modify corn and wheat to behave like Arabidopsis thaliana, a relative of cabbage and mustard, which can absorb iron from the soil thanks to the ability of its roots to secrete coumarin, an organic molecule that breaks down alkaline soils to allow iron absorption. 

Significant progress has been made in incorporating drought tolerance in corn varieties grown in Africa, made possible through investments made in efforts such as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, with research conducted by scientists working for the agricultural research agencies in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, and Uganda, the CIMMYT research center, and Monsanto (recently acquired by Bayer).  The work was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.  Such varieties have now been distributed widely in Africa, and corn seed with drought tolerance as a trait was planted on 18.6 million acres in the United States in 2016.  Work is now underway to develop drought tolerant varieties of other key crops, such as wheat and soybeans for commercial release.