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Food for Nine Billion: Perspective on Global Agriculture in 2050

06 May 2013


Dr Dominique van der Mensbrugghe of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gave the second lecture in the Teagasc/RDS lecture series. Here, he summarises the main points of his lecture entitled, 'Will we run out of natural resources needed for food production?'.

Dr Dominique van der Mensbrugghe,
Senior Economist & Team Leader, Global Studies Perspectives Team, FAO

Concerns about the planet’s ability to feed a growing population date back to at least the beginning of the 19th century with Reverend Malthus’ dire warnings, and were echoed again in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite these warnings, global population increased by 3.5 billion between 1960 and 2005, and global output and agricultural production increased by factors of six and three respectively. Since 1970, average caloric intake in developing countries has jumped from just over 2,000 per person per day to over 2,600. Despite these achievements in meeting food needs, there remain nonetheless significant pockets of poverty and undernourishment, and the sustainability of agricultural practices is a major concern.

The more recent agricultural price spike has rekindled this age old debate of agricultural production and sustainability. A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2012) argues that with decelerating population growth and saturation of diets in many parts of the world, agricultural production growth will increase by some 60 percent between 2005 and 2050 – a huge drop from the 170 per cent increase observed between 1960 and 2005. The report highlights, nonetheless, that concerns about poverty and undernourishment and agricultural sustainability will persist in the future. Beyond these traditional concerns, the potential impacts of climate change and the emergence of bioenergy will undeniably shape the future – even if their impacts are still highly uncertain.

The Main Drivers: Population and Income

The slowing of world population growth over the next 40 years, an additional two billion people, means that agricultural production and consumption are also expected to grow less rapidly. The growth rate varies across countries, however, and those countries whose populations continue to increase rapidly are precisely those that currently exhibit high levels of undernourishment.

Nearly two-thirds of the expected population increase will occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Global GDP is projected to grow 2.5-fold by 2050, resulting in a world that is richer and with less-pronounced income gaps between developed and developing countries. But global income growth alone is not expected to eliminate poverty and undernourishment.

Pictured at the Teagasc/RDS lecture series are (from left): Dr Lance O’Brien, Teagasc; Colm Hayes, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; speaker Dr Dominique van der Mensbrugghe, FAO; Dr Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary, Global Forum on Agricultural Research; Dr Cathal O’Donoghue, Teagasc; and Professor Jim Phelan, UCD.

Structural Change in Demand

While population and income growth in developing countries will spur demand, significant parts of the world will approach saturation of per capita consumption levels. The result is a halving of annual demand growth to 1.1 per cent per annum. Convergence towards developed countries’ consumption patterns is not inevitable everywhere, however, if only for cultural reasons. Demand will increase at all income levels, even where current levels appear adequate and additional growth may cause health concerns. This may happen even in countries where undernourishment remains significant.

The 1996 World Food Summit adopted a target of halving the number of undernourished people in developing countries by 2015 – to a level of some 405 million. With rising populations and uneven income growth, this target remains elusive and the report indicates that it may not be achieved until after 2040 even if the proportion of people who are undernourished is expected to fall by about four percentage points by 2015.

How Will Production Respond? Contributions to Growth

Yield growth has been the mainstay of historic production increases and will continue to play this role into the future. Some regions, notably sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, may see more rapid growth in yields, closing the substantial “gap” that exists between actual and potential yields, provided that economic and institutional conditions are conducive. Local constraints to increasing yields remain a significant concern in many countries, threatening improvements in local food supplies in countries where they are most needed.

Some estimates suggest that there exists some 1.4 billion hectares of prime land that could be brought into cultivation. Much would come at the expense of pastures, however, and would require considerable investment to make the land suitable for production and more accessible to markets. Globally, land under crops is projected to increase by some 70 million hectares by 2050. The spare land is concentrated in a small number of countries; constraints may be very pronounced in other regions. Where these constraints are coupled with fast population growth and inadequate income opportunities, land scarcity can lead to more poverty and migration, and will remain a significant constraint in the quest for achieving food security for all.

Water is another critical resource, and irrigation has played a strong role in contributing to past yield increases. World area equipped for irrigation has doubled since the 1960s, but the potential for further expansion is limited. While water resources are globally abundant, they are extremely scarce in the Near East and North Africa, South Asia and in northern China, where they are most needed. Most of the world’s irrigated agriculture currently occurs in developing countries (almost half of this in China and India), where it accounts for some 60 percent of cereal production. A net increase of 20 million hectares is expected by 2050; nevertheless, investment needs in irrigation to 2050 will need to be much higher to account for depreciation of existing infrastructure.

Global Resources are Sufficient but the Outlook is Uneven

Evidence cautiously suggests that, at the global level, agricultural production can be increased enough to satisfy the additional 60 percent growth in demand projected to 2050, considering both food and non-food uses. However, resource availability, income and population growth are unequally distributed. Food security will remain a challenge at local, household and individual levels, and some countries will need to increase food demand more quickly than in the past, and through a broader-based economic growth if they are to achieve it. Such countries are typically those characterised by persistent poverty and high population growth.

Risks and Uncertainties Remain

The scenario depicted in the report is certainly not inevitable, nor is it necessarily optimal from some perspectives.

Healthier diets, reduction in waste and losses, the elimination of hunger, improved food security (at all levels of society), and sustainable farming practices should be primary objectives of agricultural and food policies looking forward.

Even taking the 'glass half-full' perspective, there remain many risks in the outlook. The scenario assumes sufficient investment and policy support in the agriculture sector. The emerging linkages between agriculture and energy present both an opportunity and a risk in relation to food security. Significant changes in energy prices would potentially divert commodities and land to renewable energy production, increasing the demands on the agriculture sector. Moreover, the projections are set in a future where the impact of climate change is not yet fully understood.

Each of these assumptions is a source of uncertainty that could alter the ability of the agriculture and food sectors to meet demand and reduce undernourishment.


FAO (2012) ‘World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision’, ESA Working Paper, No. 12-03, June, FAO, Rome.

May 2013

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