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A New Model

Food production may not need to double by 2050.

For decades, American agriculture has been a paragon of productivity, churning out record crops at a steady clip. We have exported both our farm products and our way of farming around the world, and global production has risen relentlessly.

Yet now there is concern that even this is not enough. Many assert that the world's cupboards may run bare as population and affluence drive food demand sky-high. To stave off starvation, it is argued, we must double food production by 2050, and we must do it without hurting the environment.

The common prescription is for a "sustainable intensification" of agriculture that both increases yields and reduces the harmful side effects of tilling and fertilizing billions of acres of land.

But do we really need to double food production? And what will it take for agriculture to be sustainable?

In an analysis published in BioScience, my co- authors and I offer a recalibrated vision of sustainable intensification. Our analysis updates the two most widely cited projections of food demand using the most recent available data, capturing the rapid increase in global production over the past decade.

We conclude that food production does not need to double by 2050.

Based on our projections, the world will only need 25 to 70 percent more crop output in 2050 than was produced in 2014. This range encompasses different scenarios of future economic growth and different assumptions about how growing wealth will affect human diets.

Hitting these lower targets will put much less strain on the global agriculture system--and the land, water, and air it depends on--than doubling production would. To double output, we would have to boost food production more rapidly than ever before, driving increases in soil tillage, fertilizers, pesticides, and water withdrawals for irrigation.

Our updated projections decrease that pressure. Food production will still need to keep growing to meet the updated goal of a 25 to 70 percent increase, but at a rate that is closer to the historical average.

This additional breathing room may be critical, because our analysis also shows that agriculture's environmental footprint must drop drastically to achieve sustainability.

For instance, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are crawling steadily upward, and must drop at least 80 percent by 2050 to stabilize the climate.

Likewise, nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, which predominantly originates with agriculture, needs to fall to about half of its historical baseline to reduce the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is not a pie-in-the-sky goal to make the Gulf pristine; the resulting dead zone would still be bigger than Rhode Island. Despite decades of effort, annual nutrient loads remain stubbornly high.

Given these challenges, we should be thankful that the world's appetite in 2050 may not be as voracious as we thought. And, especially in a time of plummeting farm profits, we should not wag our fingers at the farmers who have given us the food system we have now--with cheap, abundant food and its correlated health and environmental challenges--because this is what consumers and policy makers have demanded. Instead, we should look to the future and demand a food system that keeps people fed while focusing just as much on keeping ecosystems healthy.

As Congress crafts the next Farm Bill, it must support research efforts that can help us achieve this vision, and begin transforming the farm subsidy, crop insurance, and conservation programs to help farmers make changes on the ground.

There are no easy solutions to this problem, but there is also little that can't be solved if innovative farmers, researchers, and policymakers aim for the same goals.

-- Mitch Hunter

Mitch Hunter is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Plant Science at Penn State and a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow.