Is Income Set to Become Dominant Driver of Global Food System?

US - Per capita income is set to eclipse population growth as the dominant driver of change in the global food system, says a Purdue researcher noted for his work on the economic impacts of global trade and environmental policies.
calendar icon 21 November 2013
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Thomas Hertel said that while population and income will remain the two most influential factors in determining global food demand and cropland expansion, their relative importance will be altered.

"For the first time in human history, income will have a greater influence than population growth on food security," said Hertel, distinguished professor of agricultural economics.

Thomas Hertel. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)
Thomas Hertel. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

"While the global population is estimated to jump from seven billion people to nine billion in the next four decades, the rate of population growth rate is slowing. Meanwhile, individual incomes are increasing in many parts of the developing world, and with that growth will come more demand for richer, more nutritional diets."

Hertel is the founder and executive director of the Purdue-based Global Trade Analysis Project, known as GTAP, a network of more than 10,000 researchers and policymakers in 150 countries that aims to improve the quality of global economic analysis.

Hertel spoke at the Research and Scholarship Distinguished Lecture on Monday (November 18) in Fowler Hall on the Purdue campus. He is the recipient of the university's inaugural Research and Scholarship Distinction Award, which recognizes faculty whose recent research and scholarship have made a major impact in disciplines outside of the natural sciences.

Higher incomes coupled with potential increases in the use of cropland for biofuels production would require global crop production to double by 2050, Hertel said. Increasing crop production while maintaining environmental sustainability presents a major challenge. For example, nitrogen fertilizers have boosted crop yields, but nitrogen runoff into natural water systems can take a toll on the health of lakes, rivers and oceans.

Rising average temperatures and a greater frequency of extreme weather could also reduce yields, said Hertel.

"Agriculture will be the area most significantly affected by climate change," he said.

Adverse climate conditions, higher energy prices and an increase in climate mitigation policies could combine to reduce cropland and increase food prices, he said.

Hertel sees technological progress as the key to future food security.

"We've tripled crop production in the last 50 years," he said. "If we can continue to make that kind of progress, we should be OK."

The potential for growth in production technology depends on public and private investment in research and development, said Hertel.

"What we do in the next decade will likely determine how successful we are in sustainably feeding the planet in 2050," he said.

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