The major factors influencing 2050 world food production - Veterinary Practice
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The major factors influencing 2050 world food production

Dr Tony Andrews, in the first part of this two-part article discusses the challenges facing food producers in feeding an expanding population and the need for changes in attitudes with increased co-operation.

CURRENTLY, annual consumer demand and world production of foods are relatively equal. However, uneven distribution and consumption have resulted in starvation in some less-developed countries and overindulgence and obesity in many so-called developed countries.

Using the world population projections which, at their average values, are usually underestimates and using the current assumption that, as economies improve, more animal products will be consumed, cereal production will need to more than double by 2050 and animal production greatly increase.

All those areas where food can be grown economically will need to be used. If this is to happen, however, it will require changes in attitudes with increased co-operation between countries and skilled personnel and technologies becoming embedded long-term into those countries with the potential to increase their food production.

Besides lack of suitable land, sustainable sources of suitable clean water will also be a major factor in increasing or restricting production. It is suggested that energy needs will increase but they will not be the major constraint on food production. Carbon footprints and greenhouse gas (GHG) production appear to be calculated in various ways and may often not take into account the importance of increased food production. Compromises will probably need to be made between meeting the projected demands for animal-derived food and the potential environmental damage that might be caused.


The author wrote a paper in 2011 about the problems of feeding the world in 2050 which was published the following year (Andrews, 2012). This was originally designed to be the first of at least two papers, with the second suggesting some of the possible solutions. For various external reasons the second paper was not completed, although I now have been encouraged to finish writing it.

Some of the points made in the first paper included:

  • Until the present time the agricultural and industrial revolutions have been complementary, allowing food production to keep up with demand.
  • In the 20th century, the world population consistently increased faster than official figures have suggested.
  • Few people/organisations have spoken out about population increase or how it needs to be controlled.
  • National (China or personal (India) family adjustments have resulted in unbalanced populations with an unhealthy predominance of male offspring.
  • In the European Union, the projected population in 2050 will have fallen, allowing export of food.
  • In the United Kingdom, projected population is set to rise and decisions will need to be made about whether to concentrate on food production or rely on imports.
  • There will be a global demand for more food production from a static or probably diminishing land area with pressures to use scarce natural resources such as energy, water, fertilisers, forage and animal feed more efficiently.
  • The Haber process allowing nitrogenous fertiliser production provided a major boost to arable and food production and other similar breakthroughs are again required.
  • Reappraisal of economic success may need to occur.
  • Increasing energy needs would mean a reappraisal of unpopular sources such as nuclear energy, as well as better usage of all energy sources.
  • If the correct decisions are made and innovations adopted, it should be possible to feed a world population of over nine billion.
  • In the UK it may be possible to supply the population with basic foods and still have areas for producing more niche-type products.
  • The future holds much for farm-animal veterinarians provided that they are able to adapt and remember they are an integral part of ensuring food safety, successful animal management, and healthy animal production with good welfare standards and a healthy environment.

Surprisingly, in the period since I wrote the first part some changes have already started to occur and attitudes and opinions in the media and elsewhere are starting to change. Some of the main overlying issues are set out below.

World population will increase

Although this article is concerned with feeding the world, the population rise cannot be ignored. The author previously suggested that populations were consistently underestimated. When the original article was written in mid 2011, the population in 2050 was projected to be 9 billion (7.6 to 10.6 billion),but by 2013 a United Nations report had increased it to 9.6 billion.

The general consensus is that, as countries develop, they tend to go through population patterns which involve:

  1. A large family size, hunger and disease, high mortality and static or slowly growing population numbers (Africa).
  2. A large family size, adequate nutrition and health and a large increase in population numbers (Asia).
  3. A small family size with good nutrition, health and longevity and a static population (Japan, Europe, North America).

There is a gradual ow from pattern 1 to pattern 3, but it is variable and can deviate and takes at least 50 years to accomplish. There are also other influences, which include religion, disease and improved health control, general education and birth control.

A 2013 UN report still agrees with the above with developed nations remaining roughly static in their population numbers but the 49 least-developed countries doubling their population size. Much of the rise will be in sub-Saharan Africa such as Nigeria and parts of Asia (Afghanistan; Timor-Leste).

Some of these countries involved have the ability to increase their food production if correctly managed and if the logistics of distribution are addressed. However, in several of the least developed countries it is likely to be impossible.

The above should be a worrying, if not frightening, prospect to everyone unless there is the political will to tackle it. Population increase is, in the author’s opinion, as important as climate change and the two are probably interlinked.

Both also have immense influences on the requirements for food production. The aim must be for all countries to produce as much of their own food as is economically and sustainably possible. In an ideal world, each country would produce sufficient food to be sustainable.

In settled areas and countries there is a continual drift of people away from the countryside to towns and cities. In other areas there is continuing and rising movement of people, much because of war and unrest, and also increasingly underlying some of this is starvation or destitution.

This migration is a potential threat to food production because, if people are attracted to more affluent areas, many of these will include those used for food production. Land is not expanding and if people start to inhabit fertile food-producing areas, then these areas will no longer be able to produce food.

There is no easy solution but as numbers of people rise and if climate change continues, ways will need to be found to allow those in the most threatened areas to remain within the local cities and townships so that fertile land continues food production.

This will require building suitable accommodation, mainly vertically, and containing urban sprawl. It will also require forms of work to be provided to allow the inhabitants to earn a living. As importantly, it will require an infrastructure throughout a country or region to allow the easy and rapid movement of food, etc., internally and externally.

It will take the combined efforts of many countries to ensure conditions of the least-developed countries are improved and thereby reduce the temptation or necessity to move. From this aspect one potentially positive trend in many countries is the drift from the countryside to conurbations rather than to other land areas.

Thus, if people are satisfactorily housed by building vertically rather than by urban spread and they are suitably mentally and physically satisfied, land threat could be minimised.

Bearing in mind human nature, this will be extremely difficult to achieve and will require much international co-operation and many resources. Perhaps civilian “armies” will be required to work with and alongside the local populations. This might be a cross between private enterprise to produce employment and voluntary overseas-type organisations, but on a large and paid basis with those involved living for long periods in a region or country. The areas or countries targeted should be “at risk” of food deprivation and ideally helped before troubles occur.

It could be argued that some of this already occurs, but when more than a small group is involved the system becomes very bureaucratic, wasteful and often with organisations vying for attention and resources. The model must be made to produce suitable sustainable local schemes which will be able to continue long after any “helpers” leave.

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