Growing Populations, Growing Challenges

In 2011, humanity welcomed its seven-billionth member. At the current birth rate, experts predict we will reach more than 9 billion by 2050. To feed everyone, we’ll need to double the amount of food we currently produce.

But the challenge of feeding everyone isn’t just an issue of volume. It’s also an issue of what type of food is needed, and where.


On our way to more than 9 billion

For most of human history, the earth’s population has increased at a slow, steady pace. However, in the past 120 years, the number of human beings who need to be fed by our planet has increased from 1.5 billion to 7 billion. There are many reasons for this. In part, it’s due to longer life expectancies made possible by advances in medical care. But another big reason is agriculture itself: considered on a global scale, food is generally easier to get and more nutritious than ever before.

As life expectancies and quality of life increase, birth rates tend to go down. But even allowing for a decrease in the current global birth rate, experts still project that our population will add more than 2 billion within the next 40 years.

Changing diets

Determining the amount of food that’s required to feed the world is more complicated than it might seem. We can’t just increase production by the same percentage that the population is increasing, for several reasons.

To begin with, food is not a resource that is evenly distributed. In more affluent, developed areas food tends to be abundant and relatively affordable. In the poorer, less developed areas, there are still millions who go hungry and malnourished. As people in developing nations such as China and India become more prosperous, they are able to buy not just more food, but also more protein. Since cows, chickens, pigs and other animals require multiple kilograms of feed for each kilogram of meat they produce, a modest increase in the demand for protein is actually a huge increase in the demand for grain, water and land.

Unequal distribution of technology

Another hurdle to meeting the world’s food demand is the huge technological gap between farmers in developed countries and those in developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—the two areas where populations are growing the fastest—most farmers still work without access to the best agronomic practices and technologies, including more advanced seeds. This is due in part to barriers such as government regulation, lack of infrastructure and training.

In rural economies, women often have limited access to technology, capital and land. Additionally, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a report in 2011 citing the need to better educate young women in rural economies. Specifically, the study mentions that girls are most negatively impacted by extreme situations and are removed from school more often than boys to contribute to household income and help with domestic responsibilities.