Population increases will result in food challenges

posted July 17, 2017 9:31 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor | jim.massey@ecpc.com

World hunger continues to be a growing concern, and it doesn’t appear the issue will be going away anytime soon.

According to a report issued by the United Nations in June, the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. 

That’s a lot more mouths to feed.

The new projections include some notable findings at the country level. China (with 1.4 billion people) and India (1.3 billion) remain the two most populous countries, but in roughly seven years, the population of India is expected to surpass that of China.

Among the 10 largest countries worldwide, Nigeria is growing the fastest. Consequently, the population of Nigeria, the world’s seventh largest, is projected to surpass that of the U.S. and become the third largest country in the world shortly before 2050.

Most of the expected increase in global population is attributable to a small number of countries, according to the UN report. From 2017 to 2050, it is expected that half of the population growth will be concentrated in India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia and the U.S. 

The 47 least-developed countries continue to have a relatively high level of fertility, which stood at 4.3 births per woman from 2010 to 2015.

Africa continues to experience high rates of population growth. By 2050, the populations of 26 African countries are projected to expand to at least double their current size.

The UN reports that the countries of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen collectively face one of the world’s largest food crises. About 20 million people in those four nations are at risk of famine, a figure that could grow to 30 million if there is no additional action.

Eighty percent of the 20 million people at risk of famine rely on agriculture for a living, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in an appeal for funds for emergency aid to help cultivators and graziers “kick-start food production” with vegetable and crop seeds, fishing kits and dairy kits.

“We must invest now in pulling people back from the brink ... Agriculture cannot be an afterthought,” the FAO said. 

More than two-thirds of Yemen’s population struggle to feed themselves. An estimated 17 million Yemenis are severely short of food. 

Officials estimate that approximately 646 million are food insecure around the globe, with diets of less than 2,100 calories a day, in the 76 low- and middle-income nations that are current or traditional food-aid recipients.

There is some good news in this otherwise bleak picture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says the food insecurity rate will drop from its current 17.7 percent to 8.9 percent in 2027, thanks to rising incomes and stable food prices.

ERS economists Birgit Meade and Karen Thome predict that food insecurity is projected to become less intense over the coming decade as the “food gap” — the amount of food needed so everyone has enough to eat — is expected to decline from 28.5 million tons in 2017 to 17 million tons in 2027.

The reports seem to be somewhat in conflict, with the UN saying rising populations will lead to more hunger while the FAO says there will be less food insecurity in the nations that currently receive food aid. 

It’s likely that no one can really estimate what the future holds when it comes to food insecurity. It is hard to know how quickly other countries will build their food-production capacity, if current population trends will continue or what governments worldwide might do to help themselves or other countries.

But one thing is certain — the growing world population will need more food in the future, and lots of it. Farmers across the U.S. and throughout the world will have to get even better at producing more food on less land. For that matter, they already have.

Until about 40 years ago, almost all agricultural growth was due to farmers simply planting more crops on more acres. But in recent years, the real growth has been in higher yielding varieties, better and healthier plants, and more technologically adept farm equipment. 

Higher yields can’t be expected to keep up with demand forever. One issue that has to be addressed is food waste. The FAO estimates that one-third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is annually lost or wasted along the chain that stretches from farms to processing plants, marketplaces, retailers, food-service operations and home kitchens. 

At 2.8 trillion pounds, that’s enough sustenance to feed 3 billion people. If that food could be distributed properly and ultimately consumed, most of the extra people expected to join the planet by 2100 could be fed. 

Food distribution and waste have been problems for centuries and will continue to be, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be addressed. When we waste food, we also waste all the resources it takes to bring it to our plates — from farmland to energy to water. 

There are no easy solutions to these problems. If there were, the problems would have already been solved. As farmers and researchers put their heads together to figure out how to produce more food on less land, others around the world must contemplate how the food those farmers produce can be distributed and consumed most efficiently.

Because one starving child is one too many.

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