How to Sustainably Feed Nine Billion People

Becoming self-sufficient in food production – what better way is there for countries to sustainably feed their growing populations? But, scratch the surface of this potential solution, and it doesn’t really stack up.
calendar icon 22 December 2014
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Global meat consumption is forecast to almost double by 2050, when there will be a projected 9.1 billion people to feed.

Populations are rising and so are incomes in developing countries. Industrialisation in India, China and in developing South-East Asian nations is mirroring the earlier paths of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

However, the biggest difference is that the already developed countries represent 4% of the world’s population, while the currently industrialising countries represent almost 50%. This has significant implications for the way the world’s resources are used to sustainably meet the growing demand for food.

On a global level, there are signs that the supply of agricultural products is constrained. Both developed and developing countries are running out of land to devote to agricultural production. Water for agricultural production is becoming increasingly limited and agricultural productivity growth rates are falling across most geographical regions and countries. The growth rate of average crop yields has been slowing since 1990.

Declining productivity growth rates, combined with increased demand, have driven global food prices higher since the turn of the century.

Sustainably feeding nine billion people will require action at global, national, regional and local levels. It will involve shifting perceptions, separating fact from fallacy and encouraging countries with the right resources and environments to focus on what they’re good at – sustainably producing food.

What’s not the answer?

Government and consumer preferences towards self-sufficiency, buying local produce and using food for non-food purposes all place constraints on the ability to feed nine billion people.

Self-sufficiency policies
A common government policy response to the looming food shortage and higher prices is the pursuit of self-sufficiency; however, self-sufficiency can result in reduced food security and higher prices.

Buying local

In attempting to support local production, the consumer-led ‘buy local’ movement aligns with the self-sufficiency objectives of many governments.

The costs of agricultural production depend on natural resources such as temperature, rainfall, sunlight and soil quality. Different agricultural products demand different conditions. It makes economic and environmental sense to focus production in the most suitable areas.

That is why California, with mild winters, warm summers and fertile soils, produces all US-grown almonds and 80% of US strawberries and grapes. It is also why Australia produces surplus beef and lamb and exports it to the world.

Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localising means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, which is detrimental for global sustainability.

Similar to this is the ‘food miles’ fallacy, where the cost or emissions of buying local can actually be higher than buying from a supplier with a comparative advantage. For example, research has shown that carbon dioxide footprints are lowered by producing dairy and meat products in New Zealand and then shipping them to the United Kingdom, rather than those products being produced and consumed in the UK.

Food for fuel

The use of food for non-food purposes through artificial policy incentives such as mandated ethanol production in the US has resulted in higher corn prices. Corn prices were around 30% higher between 2006 and 2011 than they would have been without the mandated increase in corn-based ethanol production.

And the solution...

At a policy level, governments can assist in the pursuit of sustainably producing food, but individuals also have a role to play.

Improving diets

A starting point would be to change western diets to diets more in keeping with high nutritional levels, low obesity rates and low environmental impact.

The Australian diet, like most western diets, is high in non-core ‘junk’ food groups.

These foods are nutrient poor, contribute to obesity and are resource and emissions intensive. Reducing consumption of these types of foods could lead to major savings in greenhouse gas emissions and resources.

Increased R&D investment

The rate of increase in global agricultural research has been slowing in developed countries. Without a renewed focus on research, increasing on-farm efficiency and productivity to meet the agricultural challenge of sustainably providing more food for the global population will be difficult.

Reducing trade barriers

A recent MLA-funded study estimated technical barriers cost the Australian industry more than $1 billion a year.

High tariffs and technical barriers to trade remain in place for many meat products – tariff rates in excess of 30 per cent for meat products are not uncommon.

Freeing up trade allows countries with the natural resources to produce agricultural products for the world’s growing population to do so sustainably.

December 2014

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