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Feeding 10 billion people: trends, challenges, climate and natural resources

Posted on May 29th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications


The World population is growing by about 80 million per year.  The forecast puts the total population at 9-10 billion by 2050, a number at which it is projected to level.  Meeting the needs of so many people will put significant stress on the natural resources and climate.Food is a vital requirement for every human being.  That necessitates planning and preparation to ensure everyone can be fed sustainably.  The issues pertaining to food are complicated for a number of reasons.  They include the vast differences in diet, income, food prices, education and other demographics among the various areas of the World.  The important trends and challenges related to food are discussed in this post.


The world‚Äôs population would grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, boosting agricultural demand ‚Äď assuming modest economic growth ‚Äď by about 50% relative to 2013. Growth in the income of low- and middle-income countries has accelerated transition of diets towards consuming more meat, fruits and vegetables, relative to that of cereals.¬† Shifts in output to accommodate the diet changes required place increased pressure on natural resources.¬† According to the World Health Organization ‚ÄúThere is a strong positive relationship between the level of income and the consumption of animal protein, with the consumption of meat, milk and eggs increasing at the expense of staple foods.‚ÄĚ

Decline in agriculture as a share of total production and employment is taking place at different rates and poses different challenges across regions.  Despite boosting productivity through agricultural investments and technological innovations growth of land yields has slowed to the point of creating concern about feeding growing populations.  A significant proportion of agricultural output is lost as unconsumed food losses and waste.  Reduction in food loss can take away some of the pressure from production increase. Another major barrier to acceleration in productivity growth is the degradation of natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, and the spread of pests and diseases of plants and animals across borders.  Some of those diseases are becoming resistant to antimicrobials, which is quite worrisome.

Climate change appears to impact food-insecure regions like Africa disproportionately thus impacting crop, livestock and fish production detrimentally.  Attempting to increase agriculture output with existing farming practices is probable to lead undesirable outcomes.  They include ever more competition for natural resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and more deforestation and land degradation by overuse.

Hunger and intense poverty has decreased around the world since the decade of 1990’s.  In spite of the progress around 700 million people still live in extreme poverty.  There has been appreciable progress in reducing rates of undernourishment and improving the levels of nutrition and health.  Still, there are still 800 million people who suffer chronic hunger.  An additional 2 billion humans suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.  If additional measures are not taken, some 653 million people will remain undernourished in 2030.  Even where poverty has been reduced nagging inequalities have hindered its eradication.

A manifestation of the worldwide inequality among nations is the vast differences in the percentage of individual income used to pay for food and child hunger.  Table 1 presents data for annual income spent on food, child hunger and income per capita for several countries.  The richest countries, as indicated by income per capita, spend a significantly smaller portion of their income on food than poorer countries.  In general child hunger (below age 5), with some exceptions, increases when per capita income decreases.  For example, Saudi Arabia is considered a wealthy country with a per capita income just under that of US.  Yet 20-30% of Saudi Arabian children below age 5 suffer from hunger.

Table 1 Annual Income Spent on Food and Child Hunger

world hunger

There are worrisome trends on the horizon of food systems.  Important parts of food systems are becoming vertically integrated.  Consequently the food supply system is becoming more capital-intensive, and concentrated in fewer hands.  This is happening from input provisioning to food distribution. Small-scale producers and landless households are the first to lose out and increasingly seek employment opportunities outside of agriculture.

Conflicts, crises and natural disasters are increasing in number and intensity. They reduce food availability, disrupt access to food and health care, and undermine social protection systems, pushing many affected people back into poverty and hunger, fueling distress migration and increasing the need for humanitarian aid. Violent conflict also frequently characterizes protracted crises. On average, the proportion of undernourished people living in low-income countries with an on-going crisis is between 2.5 and 3 times higher than in other low-income countries.


The trends described pose a number of challenges to food and agriculture.¬† The existing farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation (Figure 1), water scarcities (Figure 2), soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production. Innovative systems are needed that both protect and enhance the natural resource base, while increasing productivity. To accomplish those goals a transformative process towards ‚Äėholistic‚Äô approaches must be designed.¬† Examples include agro-ecology, agro-forestry, climate-smart agriculture and conservation agriculture. The indigenous and traditional knowledge must be built upon wherever possible.

agricultural land

Figure 1 Changes in agricultural and forestland use between 1961 and 2013

world map

Figure 2 Freshwater withdrawals as a percentage of total renewable resources

Technological improvements, along with major cuts in economy-wide and agricultural fossil fuel use, would help address climate change and the intensification of natural hazards, which affect all ecosystems and every aspect of human life. Greater global collaboration is needed to prevent the looming trans-boundary agriculture and food system threats, such as pests and diseases.  Rooting out severe poverty and preventing its recurrence where people have emerged out of poverty requires coordinated global action to reduce inequalities.

To eliminate poverty several issues must be addressed including inequalities both between and within countries, in levels of income, in opportunities and in ownership of assets, including land.  The most effective approach is implementation of growth strategies that ensure the weakest participate in the benefits of market integration and investment in agriculture.  These strategies improve income and investment opportunities in rural areas and address the fundamental reasons for migration. But action must go beyond agriculture, by involving both rural and urban areas and supporting job creation and income diversification.

The challenges of ending hunger and addressing the burdens of malnutrition through healthier diets must be addressed. Permanently eliminating hunger especially among children, rooting out malnutrition and extreme poverty also requires building resilience to protracted crises, disasters and conflicts, and preventing conflicts. Rethinking and redesigning of food systems and governance is critical for meeting future challenges involving 10 billion people.

Vertically coordinated, more organized food systems offer standardized food for urban areas and formal employment opportunities. But they need to be accompanied by responsible investments and concern for smallholder livelihoods, the environmental footprint of lengthening food supply chains, and impacts on biodiversity. These concerns need to be addressed by making food systems more efficient, inclusive and resilient.

On the path to sustainable development, all countries are interdependent.¬† One of the greatest challenges is achieving coherent, effective national and international governance, with clear development objectives and commitment to achieving them. United Nations‚Äô 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development embodies such a vision ‚Äď one that goes beyond the divide of ‚Äėdeveloped‚Äô and ‚Äėdeveloping‚Äô countries. Sustainable development is a universal challenge and the collective responsibility for all countries, requiring fundamental changes in the way all societies produce and consume.

Watch this space for future posts about food and agriculture.

(Sources: 1. Extensive use of the UN report РThe future of food and agriculture РTrends and Challenges, pub by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2017. 2. The World Fact Book, Central Intelligence Agency,, 2017.)


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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