Feeding 9.6 billion in 2050

"Flatter, hotter, more crowded" state of world will make providing nutrition for the globe very challenging.

Increasing Future Food Production (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Increasing Future Food Production
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
In order to feed the roughly 9.6 billion people who will likely inhabitant this planet in the year 2050, government officials must work to spread out investments strategically and launch socially guided policies, according to an expert from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The expert, Prof. Sonny Ramaswamy, was speaking a conference titled “Increasing Future Food Production: Challenges and Opportunities for the New Era,” held in Beit Dagan at the Volcani Center campus of the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Research Organization – in honor of the ARO’s 90th anniversary – on Monday.
Policymakers must join forces with NGO leaders, entrepreneurs and academics to encourage sustainable, efficient farming practices as well as minimize waste that is generated by both producers and consumers, explained Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food & Agriculture at the US Department of Agriculture.
“In the developing countries of the world almost half the food is lost before the dinner table, and in the developed world almost half is lost after the dinner table,” Ramaswamy said.
Prior to his appointment by US President Barack Obama to the NIFA directorship in May, Indian-born Ramaswamy was the dean of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Oregon Agricultural Research Station. He was a professor and faculty member at several other American universities in his field of entomology before joining Oregon State.
Figuring out how to “ensure that the future is going to be protected” in what Ramaswamy described as a “flatter, hotter and more crowded 2050” is going to be incredibly challenging, as even today there are a billion people going to bed hungry, he explained. Today’s population is roughly 6.9 billion.
The biggest of the “wicked problems” contributing to this challenge is population growth – at the current consumption rate, two more Earths will be required to feed the 2050 population, food production needs to be doubled and waste generation needs to be cut in half, according to Ramaswamy. From the larger population problem stems a wide range of other smaller problems, such as food security, water, environment, climate change, energy, health and poverty, he added.
Food itself has become a public health issue, because while a billion might be going hungry, there are another billion people around the world taking medications for preventable health problems.
“Food is a public health issue,” Ramaswamy said. “It’s not just enough that we’re going to have to put calories on the table.”
Meanwhile, although farmers will be forced to increase production, they will need to reduce their ecological footprint simultaneously – two tasks that are in many ways contradictory, he explained.
Yet another challenge will continue to be agricultural competitiveness and maintaining a labor force willing to actually grow the crops, according to Ramaswamy. Without a pipeline of young people willing to stand in the hot sun or feed the cattle in the frigid cold at 4 a.m., farms will be more than a challenge to sustain, he said.
An additional issue will be the question of bio-economy and bio-fuels – the fuel versus food debate and how exactly to transform agricultural commodities into renewable, useable energy, Ramaswamy said.
In future farming systems, everything grown must be utilized for various purposes, embodying an intense but sustainable production mechanism, he explained.
Tools like “smart farming” apps on phones and other types of technology will allow for a more efficient flow to the system.
Taking a specific look at Israel and its development, Ramaswamy lamented the fact that only a small percentage of Israelis are still involved in the kibbutz movement and suggested that the world perhaps turn back time to this once popular cooperative model. Kibbutzim, he said, were the epitome of effective farming strategy to him when he was growing up in India – “the thing to live up to.”
Ultimately, however, there will not be one single solution to the food crisis – only “a portfolio of approaches” – and people will have to spread their focus beyond one “next best thing,” according to Ramaswamy. Likewise, governments and agricultural investors will need to spread out their finances strategically, in partnership with the various NGOs, enterprises and academics creating headway in food production, he added.
“There’s no panacea to be able to put food on this table for the 9 billion people,” he said.
Pointing to his PowerPoint presentation, which at the top-right corner had a realtime clock constantly updating the latest global population number, Ramaswamy stressed that “the clock is ticking.”
“In the last hour I’ve been speaking we’ve had an incredible increase in that population,” he said.