Food figures need a pinch of salt


Isobel Tomlinson
Isobel Tomlinson


The idea that the world needs to double its food production by 2050 in order to feed a growing population is wrong, says Isobel Tomlinson from the Soil Association. In this week’s Green Room, she says the misuse of data could be used to allow even greater intensification of the global agricultural industry.
Vegetables (Getty Images)
 It is important that scientific research is now done to show how a better future is possible 

In the last couple of years, scientists, politicians and agricultural industry representatives around the globe have been using two statistics: the need to increase global food production by 50% by 2030, and for food production to double by 2050 to meet future demand.

These figures have come to play a significant role in framing current international policy debates about the future direction of global agriculture.

These apparently scientific statistics have been dominating the policy and media discourse about food and farming, leading almost everyone to assume we need vast increases in agricultural production to feed a population of nine billion people by the middle of this century.

While ensuring an equitable and sufficient future food supply is of critical importance, many commentators are using this to justify the need for more intensive agricultural practices and, in particular, the need for further expansion of GM crops.

Cooking the books

When the Soil Association, in its report Telling Porkies, looked into the reported sources for these figures, none of the sources actually stated that global food production needs to increase by 50% by 2030, or to double by 2050.

Spider's web covered in frost

The food web is complex and tough to break down into simple soundbites

What the reports on which the claims are based do say is that certain sectors, in certain parts of the world, may have to increase food production by significant amounts.

For example, for cereals, there is a projected increase of one billion tonnes annually beyond the two billion tonnes produced in 2005.

For meat, in developing countries only (except China), the reports say that some of the growth potential (for increased per capita meat consumption) will materialise as effective demand, and their per capita consumption could double by 2050.

So this is a projected doubling of meat consumption in some developing countries – not a doubling of global food production.

Indeed, recent calculations show that the key source for the “doubling” claim – a 2006 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – implies that global food production for 2006-2050 would need to increase by around 70%, not 100%; a difference that is equivalent to the entire food production of the continent of America.

But while a re-evaluation of the veracity of the claim that food production needs to double by 2050 is to be welcomed, simply switching to the figure of 70% does not solve the problem.

Food for thought

The statistic of a 70% increase is still predicted on the same “business as usual” model as the “doubling” figure and that is problematic for several reasons:

Rice cultivation
Some region will have to produce considerably more food

First of all, the projections reflect a continuing pattern of structural change in the diets of people in developing countries with a rapid increase in livestock products (meat, milk, eggs) as a source of food calories.

However, the continuation of dietary transition in developing countries, as assumed by the modelling work, is likely to cause worsening health problems as such diets are a leading cause of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

Secondly, the data used to measure food security focuses attention on the level of agricultural production without considering access to food, distribution, and affordability which are all important in ensuring that people do not go hungry.

Thirdly, the projections assume that the developing world continues to import growing quantities of staple food stuffs when, in fact, increasing local production of staple foods is vital in ensuring food security.

Finally, according to these scientists, meeting these projected food demand targets will not solve food insecurity anyway. Indeed it is predicted that there will still be 290 million under-nourished people worldwide in 2050.

The assumptions and projections in this modelling reflect the authors’ vision of the “most likely future” but not necessarily the most desirable one.

At the Soil Association, we now want to have an honest debate about how we can feed the world in 2050 in a way that doesn’t lead to the further increases in obesity and diet related diseases, ensures that the global environment is protected, and that puts an end to hunger and starvation.

The misuse of the doubling statistic, based as it supposedly is on just one particular forecast of future demand for food, has prevented alternative visions of food and farming in 2050, which do not rely on the further intensification of farming and use of GM technologies, from being taken seriously in food security policy circles.

It is important that scientific research is now done to show how a better future is possible.

One recent scientific study has examined how we can feed and fuel the world sustainably, fairly and humanely. It explored the feasibility of feeding nine billion people in 2050 under different diet scenarios and agricultural systems.

The study showed that for a Western high-meat-diet to be “probably feasible” would require a combination of massive land use change, intensive livestock production and intensive use of arable land.

This would have negative impacts for animal welfare and lead to further destruction of natural habitats like rainforests.

However, the study also provides evidence “that organic agriculture can probably feed the world population of 9.2 billion in 2050, if relatively modest diets are adopted, where a low level of inequality in food distribution is required to avoid malnutrition”.

Isobel Tomlinson is the policy and campaigns officer for the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic organisation

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website


Do you agree with Isobel Tomlinson? Is it wrong to suggest that the world needs to double its food production by 2050? Will it lead to the intensification of the globe’s agricultural industry? Or do we just have to accept that there is never going to be universal food security, and develop ways to help as many people has possible with the resources we have?

We have to plan infinite things to satisfy one unplanned thing i.e. Growth of human population. Either, there are ‘without power’ powerful leaders, who can not speak on the most basic issue or there are ‘genuine’ powerful leaders who are wasting their power in neutralizing the frivolous issues raised by their opposition and media. Most of the places, we are handling the results of the problem. Why do not we hit at the source? Why do not we raise the most basic issue? Why not this issue is getting importance in my own country? Not a single political leader is realizing the abnormal growth of human population.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

If more were done to encourage people to have fewer babies, then, whatever the statistics, less food would be needed to feed the global population.
Venetia Caine, Poitiers, France

The FAO was very quick to adjust their projection to a 70 per cent increase after the initial quote got out and most commentators adjusted accordingly long ago, so it’s a bit disingenuous to extend the critique of an estimate that has already been refined and will continue to be. To quibble about how big an increase will be required diminishes the matter at stake, but of course that’s the objective of the article. To sum it up: FAO has made a credible forecast; we’ll never know for certain until it’s all over and we certainly can’t wait till then to do something about it. It’s our food supply after all. Whether we need to increase production by 50 or 70 or 100 percent is not the point. What’s really important is that the population of Europe and the world will continue to increase and food supplies will have to be boosted in the face of critical challenges (climate change, availability of water, environmental protection, biodiversity, distribution, affordability etc). The big question is whether we are going to increase the agricultural land base (and cut down more forests to grow food) or become more productive in a sustainable way on existing farmland. Deforestation is agriculture’s single biggest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of biodiversity. It’s a fact that organic methods require more land to grow the same amount of food (up to three times) and the crops are by far more susceptible to the pests and disease that have plagued food production throughout human history when the whole of agriculture was “organic”. Organic is fine in some circumstances and not in others, but it’s not the answer to the food supply challenge, which is very likely the biggest we face. It would be very helpful if every stakeholder in the agricultural and food policy community accepted this cold, hard fact as soon as possible. It’s not a matter of the right or wrong ideology of farming. It’s about resisting the age-old human solution to hunger which is to expand farmland. It’s about efficiency and productivity, quality and affordability, and the full and rational application of science and technology to sustaining the our food supply sustainably. Phil Newton, ECPA (European Crop Protection Association)
Phil Newton, Brussels

One would hope that long before 2050 or even 2030, we in the so-called Developed World will have realised that we are eating far too much. I was born in 1969, and everyone I grew up with was slim during the 1970s and 80s. Now 1 in 3 are overweight or obese. And guess what, our calorie intake is much higher. The answer is to drop back down to a more reasonable level of personal consumption – which will also overcome many of the diseases of excess such as heart disease and tumours. Then make projections on what is likely. The fact is that, much as advertisers would like us to, we don’t need to all eat a burger and chips and chocolate diet.
Andrew Smith, Milton Keynes, UK

You can’t believe anything when it comes to food. We’re all on a healthy eating kick now. Due to the large number of centenarians in the Mediterranean countries, we’ve been coerced and bullied into changing our diet. Now we find that most of these 104 year olds have been dead for decades while their families continued to claim their pensions.
Alan, UK

Food equality is the key issue. Global production of food in vegetable form is twice what is needed to feed the world’s population – 4,200 calories per person per day. But it’s not so unequally distributed, and much is wasted. E.g. about 40% of global food production is fed to animals not people, and the meat produced contains less than a third of the calories of the animal feed. So I think we urgently need an open debate on alternatives to “business as usual”. We don’t need high-tech, but we do need high-ethic.
Phil Entwistle, Beverley

Nobody should take any prediction that far into the future seriously. On the other hand, the Soil Association wants to move the world backwards in agriculture, not forwards. They and the rest of the anti-technology anti-GM comfortable middle class (i.e. rich) are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
W Boucher, Cambridge, UK

It’s certainly a question of how food is produced, rather than just focusing on how much is produced. As mentioned recently on BBC News – looking at bees shows a clear indication of increasing broad scale mono-culture is unhealthy, and ultimately unsustainable. Here in Australia, there are many examples of farmers applying ecological perspectives in land management, utilising natural services and producing greater yields more “naturally”.I also agree that much of the western diet and food management creates both needless health problems and excessive waste. Isobel is correct in saying that we need to “have an honest debate about how we can feed the world in 2050 in a way that doesn’t lead to the further increases in obesity and diet related diseases, ensures that the global environment is protected, and that puts an end to hunger and starvation.” There is great potential for improvement which should lead to greater efficiency (and ultimately reduction in cost of food, plus health related issues). However, the problem is as much social – where it’s cheaper to grow (often with transport being cheap, this leads to what seems odd choices), what is culturally desired etc. Eventually you’ll find that you’re no longer looking at food production, but how we choose to live. Asking questions here will lead to even greater resistance. But again – real debate and discussion, based on solid evidence, is the only way forward. I also feel it premature to rule out GM as playing any role – not that I’m advocating GM over all else, but I do feel that it must play an important role in some way.
Tim Lubcke, Adelaide

I think the most important thing is to tell some countries and people stopping produce more human beings, slowing down the depletion our limited resources, recycling everthing as much as we can. Don’t chase the luxury life, have a comfortable and happy life.
Caren Wang, China

I have mixed feelings,it is very essential to explore how globalization, broadly conceived to include international human rights norms, humanitarianism, and alternative trade, might influence peaceful and food secure outlooks and outcomes. It should review studies on the relationships between (1) conflict and food insecurity, (2) conflict and globalization, and (3) globalization and food insecurity. Next, it would be analyzed country level, historical contexts where export crops, such as coffee and cotton, have been implicated in triggering and perpetuating conflict. It suggest that it is not export cropping per Se, but production and trade structures and food and financial policy contexts that determine peaceful or belligerent outcomes. Export cropping appears to contribute to conflict when fluctuating prices destabilize household and national incomes and when revenues fund hostilities.
Engr Salam, LGED, Bangladesh



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