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Sometime not too long after the year 2050, demographers tell us, earth's human population will top 10 billion people. How can they all be fed?

If you are nearing retirement age now, you were born into a world that had fewer than 3 billion people. If you are still alive in 2055, you will be living in a world that is likely to have 10 billion people.

Widespread famine has largely become a thing of the past, although there are still sporadic famines in sub-Saharan Africa. It has been over 50 years since mothers admonished their children to finish their plates because some poor starving child in China (which suffered 30 million deaths in the famine lasting from 1958 to 1961) or Ethiopia (which lost 1/3 of its population in a great famine in the 1890's and over 1 million people despite relief efforts in the 1980's) would be glad to have it. 

A big reason fewer people starve today is that farmers all over the world have access to better seeds, better fertilizers, and more modern methods of storage and distribution.

The "Green Revolution" of the 1940's through 1970's has more than tripled the world's food production, with the average person consuming 25% more calories in 2013 than in 1973, resulting an obesity epidemic in almost every part of the planet. But longer-term prospects are not entirely hopeful.

  • In most of the USA, wheat yields are increasing about 2% per year. In most of Europe, in Russia, in Australia, and in India, where about 40% of the world's wheat is grown, however, wheat yields are declining.
  • The USA, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, and, surprisingly, Haiti, are managing to continue to increase corn (maize) production. Most of the world is not.
  • Rice fields in Brazil are beginning to wear out from overproduction, as are rice production is declining in India, China, and the Philippines, although it is increasing in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand. Rice production is declining very quickly in North Korea.
  • Massive population growth is causing many parts of the world to run out of water, particularly India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the southwestern United States. About 1.7 billion people rely on wells that are gradually going dry.
  • The Ogallala aquifer, a vast underground lake underlying the irrigated fields of part of South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, is rapidly going dry, with many fields returning to native vegetation.
  • Cities and farms increasingly compete for water in California, which produces over 10% of America's food supply.

The simple fact is, scientists don't know how the world can increase its food production to keep up with billions of new humans without cutting down even more rain forests, draining even more underground water tables, damming even more rivers, and relying even more heavily on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMO). What can be done to prevent hunger after 2050? The likely answer is, a lot.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Foley JA, Ramankutty N, Brauman KA, Cassidy ES, Gerber JS, Johnston M, Mueller ND, O'Connell C, Ray DK, West PC, Balzer C, Bennett EM, Carpenter SR, Hill J, Monfreda C, Polasky S, Rockström J, Sheehan J, Siebert S, Tilman D, Zaks DP. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature. 2011 Oct 12. 478(7369):337-42. doi: 10.1038/nature10452.
  • Ray DK, Mueller ND, West PC, Foley JA (2013) Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66428. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066428.
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