Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment, is looking to change the dominant narrative on the global food supply. He writes for ensia:
There’s a powerful narrative being told about the world’s food system — in classrooms, boardrooms, foundations and the halls of government around the world. It’s everywhere. And it makes complete sense when you listen to it. The problem is, it’s mostly based on flawed assumptions.
You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started.
To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.
To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.
Changing Diets, Not Population Growth, is the Dominant Driver of Food Demand
While we often hear that population growth, and the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, is the driving issue for agriculture in the coming decades, the math doesn’t add up.
There are more than 7 billion people on Earth today, and we’re expected (if current demographic trends continue unabated) to reach 9 billion by mid-century. Two billion more people in the next 40 years — that’s roughly a 28 percent increase. If those additional 2 billion people were to eat the average diet (which is actually unlikely, since most of these people will be added to the poorest regions of the world, where diets are very minimal) that would mean we need roughly 28 percent more food. It’s just simple math.
It’s crucial to note that we’re talking about the world’s choices, not a predetermined path. What we choose to do about population growth, and especially what we do about diets, will determine how much food the world ultimately needs.
So where does the “twice as much” idea come from? Mostly from assumptions about changing diets, not population growth alone.
In fact, ecologist David Tilman, a friend of mine, and his colleagues have shown that changes in diet will likely be the dominant driver of future food demand. The reason is simple: While population is projected to grow by 2 billion between now and 2050, there are about 3 to 4 billion people on Earth already who are getting richer — mainly in China, India and some other countries — and, if recent history is a guide, these richer people are expected to eat richer diets. That means 3 to 4 billion more people eating more meat, more dairy products, and other rich foods, putting tremendous pressure on the global food system…
[continues at ensia]