The "need" for food in 2050: How much is 9 1/2 billion?
An extremely common framing of how humanity will impact the environment in coming decades is that we need to increase agricultural production by 70% or more between now and 2050, to feed a global population expected to reach 9.5 billion by that date. This “need” is often taken as a given, with discussion proceeding directly to how and even whether this population can be fed. It often serves as a justification for approaches to increasing agricultural yield such as high input levels and GMO crops and livestock, as well as casting doubt on whether humanity can “afford” not to destroy forests and other ecosystems.
I reviewed the basis of the forecasts of future food needs, which combine population growth and diet trends. I compared predictions of population growth to 2050 to actual data from the last several decades, and reviewed recent trends in total fertility rates (TFR) and the demographic transition. I also examined the variables on which predictions of diet change are based, particularly those involving future consumption of different kinds of meat.
Population increase accounts for about 30% of the predicted 70% demand growth. It corresponds to a population growth rate of only about 0.75%/year, compared to over 2% annually in recent decades. This drop is due to the demographic transition that is ongoing in important developing regions, including Latin America and Asia.
The majority of the predicted growth in food “need” is due to diet shifts. These predictions are mostly based on expected economic growth combined with the relationship between per-capita income and meat consumption. These forecasts have generally not differentiated among kinds of meat with very different land needs, climate impacts and rates of per-capita consumption growth (e.g. beef vs. chicken). The predicted income growth on which the diet forecasts are based will mostly be among middle-income populations, not the poor or the hungry. The forecasts also assume continuation of high-environmental-impact diets in wealthy nations.
This deconstruction of the “70% more by 2050” forecast calls into question whether it can reasonably be described as a showing “the need to feed a growing population.” Rather, it is an economic and demographic prediction of demand, which is just as subject to human choices and policies as supply.