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The Great Balancing Act: 3 Needs for a Sustainable Food Future

This post is the first installment of WRI’s blog series, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” The series explores strategies to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050. All pieces are based on research being conducted for the forthcoming World Resources Report.

How can the world feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 in a manner that advances economic development and reduces pressure on the environment? This is one of the paramount questions the world faces over the next four decades.

Answering it requires a “great balancing act” of three needs—all of which must be met simultaneously.

Balancing 3 Needs

  1. The world needs to close the gap between the amount of food available today and the amount required in 2050. According to new WRI analysis, we’ll need about 60 percent more food calories in 2050 than in 2006 if global demand continues on its current trajectory. This gap is in part a function of increasing population and wealth. The United Nations projects that the global population will likely grow from 7 billion in 2012 to 9.3 billion by 2050. At least 3 billion more people are likely to enter the global middle class by 2030, and they will almost certainly demand more resource-intensive foods like meat and vegetable oils. At the same time, approximately 870 million of the world's poorest people remain undernourished even today.
  2. The world needs agriculture to contribute to inclusive economic and social development. Agriculture employs more than 2 billion people around the world—more than 28 percent of the global population. And according to the World Bank, growth in the agricultural sector can reduce poverty more effectively than growth arising from other economic sectors. We need a strong agricultural sector if the world is to develop in a way that reduces poverty, alleviates hunger, generates revenue and jobs, and benefits women.

  3. The world needs to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment. For instance, agriculture was responsible for approximately 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 and therefore contributes to climate change. Agriculture is the dominant driver of tropical deforestation. Furthermore, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of all the freshwater withdrawn from rivers, lakes, and aquifers.

Of course, there are ways to meet any one of these needs in isolation. For instance, the world might be able to close the food gap by 2050 by converting vast areas of its remaining forests into crops and grazing lands. But doing so would worsen agriculture’s impact on climate, ecosystems, and long-term economic development. Rather, to achieve the great balancing act, the world needs to meet all three needs at the same time.

A Menu for a Sustainable Food Future

There is no silver bullet to accomplishing the great balancing act. But there are potential solutions. When combined effectively, these solutions could close the food gap, contribute to global development, and reduce food’s environmental impact.

In WRI’s new working paper, The Great Balancing Act, we propose a “menu” of these potential solutions. Some menu items reduce projected growth in consumption, such as decreasing food loss and waste. Other menu items increase food production, such as restoring degraded lands back into agricultural productivity. No item on the menu can achieve a sustainable food future by itself, and the relevance of items will vary between countries and food chains. But the combination of solutions should help feed the world while contributing to poverty reduction, gender equity, ecosystem conservation, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and sustainable freshwater management.

The Great Balancing Act is the first in a series of working papers that we’ll roll out over the next 12 months. Each subsequent paper will take a detailed look at a potential solution that could help achieve a sustainable food future. These installments will set the foundation for and culminate in the World Resources Report 2013-2014: Creating a Sustainable Food Future. To learn more about the series and sign up to receive updates, visit the World Resources Report website.

With the right combination of approaches and unwavering commitment, the world could feed its 9 billion future inhabitants while simultaneously securing economic and social development and protecting the environment. The solutions are there. But governments, the private sector, and civil society will need to act quickly and with conviction.

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