Feeding a growing population without plowing in the planet

The outlook for feeding a growing global population may not be as bleak as some fear, says a new study by InSTePP researchers at the University of Minnesota.

The report, A Bounds Analysis of World Food Futures, challenges many perceptions about the prospects for global agriculture in the coming decades. Population, income and biofuels growth lead many to conclude that demand for agricultural output will double by 2050, and some foresee looming land shortages. In contrast, the study's authors find in favor of a future in which agricultural consumption grows more modestly.

The researchers applied a new bio-economic, spatially-explicit approach to modeling global agricultural futures, stressing the implications of uncertainties in key factors that shape agricultural consumption and production worldwide. They consider the influences of an increasingly richer, but aging and mostly slower-growing population, coupled with continued biofuels usage from the production of food, feed and fiber. Whether and how these consumption needs might be met hinges on prospective changes in where agriculture takes place, and the projected productivity performance of the sector.

The study shows that it will be possible to meet food, biofuels and fiber needs with modest growth in agricultural land use. However, to do so requires adequate and sustained global investments in the agricultural research and development that maintain agricultural productivity.

International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center (InSTePP) authors Philip Pardey, Jason Beddow, Terrance Hurley, Vernon Eidman, and Timothy Beatty prepared this report with support from the University of Minnesota and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation by way of the HarvestChoice project. Photo by Malcolm Carlaw