The world’s agricultural system faces a great balancing act. To meet different human needs, by 2050 it must simultaneously produce far more food for a population expected to reach about 9.6 billion, provide economic opportunities for the hundreds of millions of rural poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and reduce environmental impacts, including ecosystem degradation and high greenhouse gas emissions. The forthcoming 2013-14 World Resources Report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future, responds to this challenge with a menu of solutions that could achieve this balance. This report provides an initial analysis of the scope of the challenge and the technical prospects of different menu items.

Executive Summary

The world’s agricultural system faces a great balancing act. To meet different human needs, by 2050 it must simultaneously produce far more food for a population expected to reach about 9.6 billion, provide economic opportunities for the hundreds of millions of rural poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and reduce environmental impacts, including ecosystem degradation and high greenhouse gas emissions. The forthcoming 2013-14 World Resources Report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future, responds to this challenge with a menu of solutions that could achieve this balance. This report provides an initial analysis of the scope of the challenge and the technical prospects of different menu items.

The Food Gap and its Implications for Food Security, Ecosystems, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Hunger and the Scope of the Food Gap: More than 800 million people today remain “food insecure,” which means they are periodically hungry. According to our projections, the world faces a 69 percent gap between crop calories produced in 2006 and those most likely required in 2050. To close this gap through agricultural production increases alone, total crop production would need to increase even more from 2006 to 2050 than it did in the same number of years from 1962 to 2006—an 11 percent larger increase. During the same period, milk and meat production from pasture would need to increase 40 percent more than it did from 1962 to 2006. If the world’s wealthy consumed less meat and other resourceintensive foods, the food gap would narrow. However, because the rich outcompete the poor when food supplies fall short of demand, the world’s poor would most acutely feel the consequences of any gap between supply and demand.

The Development and Poverty Challenge: Roughly 2 billion people are employed in agriculture, many of them poor. To address poverty fully, agriculture therefore needs to grow in ways that provide economic opportunities to the poor. Women make up the majority of agricultural workers in many developing countries. Raising women’s income has disproportionate benefits for alleviating hunger, so assisting women farmers is a particularly effective way to reduce poverty and enhance food security.

The Land Use and Biodiversity Challenge: Croplands and pasture occupy roughly half the global land that is not covered by ice, water, or desert. The ongoing expansion of cropland and pastures is the primary source of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss. Between 1962 and 2006, cropland and pasture expanded by roughly 500 million hectares—an area equal to roughly 60 percent of the United States. The conversion of forests, savannas, and peatlands to agriculture accounts for roughly 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Crop and Pasture Yield Challenge: To meet projected crop needs just by increasing production and without expanding the annual area harvested, crop yields on average would need to grow by 32 percent more from 2006 to 2050 than they did from 1962 to 2006. Although substantial potential remains for yield increases, boosting yields at an even more rapid rate going forward is a tall order. Between 1962 and 2006, most of the world’s farmers adopted scientifically bred seeds and fertilizer, and the area under irrigation doubled. Today, little water is left to expand irrigation, and no similarly dominant new technologies appear available. Climate change will probably also depress yields substantially, making gains more elusive.

The land use challenge extends to pasture, which accounts for more than two-thirds of agricultural land globally. Pasture expansion at least matches cropland expansion as a cause of forest and woodland conversion. To meet projected demands for milk and meat from cows and sheep without expanding pasture, annual output from pasture lands per hectare will need to grow more than 80 percent by 2050.

The Climate Change Challenge: The production of crops and animal products today releases roughly 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or about 6.5 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year, without counting land use change. Even assuming some increases in the carbon efficiency of agriculture, emissions could plausibly grow to 9.5 Gt of CO2e by 2050. When combined with continuing emissions from land use change, global agriculturerelated emissions could reach 15 Gt by 2050. By comparison, to hold global warming below 2° Celsius, world annual emissions from all sources would need to fall to roughly 21-22 Gt by 2050 according to typical estimates. To reach this target, agriculture must greatly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions— even while boosting production.

The Fishery Challenge: Fish from both the wild and aquaculture contributed 16 percent of global animal-based protein in 2009 and are the primary source of animal-based protein for 1.3 billion people. Yet 57 percent of wild marine fish stocks are exploited to their full potential, and another 30 percent are overexploited and are likely to decline in the future, barring improvements in fisheries management. Globally, the wild fish catch peaked in the 1990s, has since modestly declined, and will need to decline further for at least some temporary period if fisheries are to recover enough to produce present catch levels sustainably.

The Combined Challenge: These various challenges interact. Overfishing reduces attainable fish catch. Deforestation may have harsh regional as well as climate consequences for food production. Left unchecked, climate change may cause severe disruptions to the global food supply. Even modest warming is likely to harshly impact the most foodinsecure countries.

Menu of Solutions

In Creating a Sustainable Food Future, we explore a menu of potential solutions that could sustainably close the food gap by 2050. Each solution contributes to—or at least does not undermine—five key sustainability criteria: advancing rural development, generating benefits for women, protecting ecosystems, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and avoiding overuse and pollution of freshwater. Solutions on the menu fall into three categories:

  1. Solutions that help to close the food gap by reducing growth in food consumption in ways that advance or safeguard human well-being;

  2. Solutions that help to close the food gap by increasing food production on existing agricultural land; and

  3. Solutions that do not necessarily produce more food but reduce the environmental impact of food production, particularly greenhouse gas emissions.

Options for reducing excessive food consumption

Reducing excessive food consumption can help close the food gap. We analyze five main options for doing so that could have economic, environmental, and health benefits. Of these solutions, one has health benefits but little impact on the food gap, two are challenging but worth pursuing, and another two present greater opportunities than typically appreciated.

Reduce Obesity: The world faces an obesity epidemic, with the number of overweight people reaching 1.4 billion in 2008, including 500 million people who are obese. Although health considerations warrant efforts to tackle obesity, reducing the consumption of excess calories would reduce the 2050 calorie gap by only 6 percent.

Reduce Losses and Waste: Between the farm and the fork, roughly a quarter of food calories are lost or wasted. Although high, that figure is lower than the commonly cited figure of one-third, which measures losses by weight. In industrialized countries, consumer waste makes up roughly half the food loss and waste. In developing countries, two-thirds of food loss occurs during harvesting, handling, and storage. Cutting these losses is an immediate and cost-effective option for increasing food availability, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, cutting losses and waste in half by 2050 would reduce the food gap by roughly 20 percent. Although reaching this goal will be challenging, a variety of viable strategies exist for reducing food loss and waste along the value chain.

Reduce Excessive Consumption of Animal Products: There is a strong case for some consumption of animal products, including meat, milk, fish, and eggs. These foods have many nutritional benefits, and the world’s poor could greatly benefit from modest increases in consumption of animal products. Livestock production also generates roughly half of all agricultural income worldwide, including important income for large numbers of smallholder farmers.

However, most of the world’s people consume more milk and meat than necessary, and many consume more than is healthy. Obtaining calories and protein through animal products is also highly inefficient from a resource use standpoint. Although methods to estimate efficiency vary, even poultry, the most efficient source of meat, convert only around 11 percent of gross feed energy into human food, according to the most comprehensive methods. We project an 82 percent increase in meat consumption between 2006 and 2050, and holding down growth in consumption by the world’s upper and growing middle class would reduce land demands and greenhouse gas emissions. (The level of savings, however, is more complex than nearly all analyses suggest because these analyses do not compare meat-based diets with realistic alternatives.) The large differences in animal product consumption between wealthy countries also suggest that this strategy is feasible.

Yet this menu item may be necessary not to close the food gap but just to keep it from growing larger. FAO already projects relatively little growth in meat consumption by more than 2 billion people in sub- Saharan Africa because of poverty and by 1.5 billion people in India because of poverty and culture. High-consuming regions will probably need to eat less meat just to provide room within the FAO projections for billions of people in low-consuming regions to eat a little more.

Shift to a More Efficient Mix of Animal Products: Beef is a particularly inefficient way of generating edible calories and protein. By the best global average estimates, beef converts only 1 percent of gross animal feed energy into food for people. Beef production also is projected to grow by more than 92 percent between 2006 and 2050, which implies large land requirements to produce feed. Many analyses underappreciate this inefficiency because they focus only on the land demands of humanedible animal feeds, such as maize, and ignore the growing demand for grasses. Focusing exclusively on human-edible animal feeds misses important environmental impacts, because impacts are high whether forests and woody savannas are converted to soybeans and maize or to pasture. Eliminating beef production would not be wise. Native grazing lands contribute to sustainable food production and support many pastoral societies, and improvements in integrated crop/livestock systems by small farmers hold promise for poverty and hunger reduction. But holding down the growth of global beef consumption would help maintain these valuable contributions to the food supply while also reducing deforestation. Ambitious global reductions seem feasible, as beef consumption per person in the United States and Europe has already dropped by roughly one-third from peak levels. Shifting just 20 percent of the anticipated future global consumption of beef to other meats, fish, or dairy would spare hundreds of millions of hectares that provide carbon storage and other ecosystem services, or could be used to help meet the world’s demand for food crops.

Help Africa in its Efforts to Reduce Fertility Rates: If all of the world’s regions achieved replacement level fertility by 2050, the projected growth in food demand would decline modestly in global terms, yet substantially in the world’s hungriest areas. “Replacement level fertility” is the total fertility rate—the average number of children born per woman—at which a population replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration. This rate is roughly 2.1 children per woman for most countries, although it may modestly vary with mortality rates. While most of the world’s regions have already achieved or are close to achieving replacement level fertility, sub- Saharan Africa is the exception, with a regional rate of 5.4 children per woman. Even with the region’s growing urbanization, present estimates are that the region’s fertility rate will only decline to 3.2 by 2050. As a result, the region’s population is projected to nearly triple from its 2006 level to more than 2 billion people by 2050. To adequately feed that higher population by mid-century, production of crop calories will have to increase to a level 3.6 times higher than production in 2006, even with continued heavy reliance on imports.

In general, fertility rates fall even in poor countries once a high percentage of girls attend lower secondary school, child mortality rates decline, and women have access to reproductive health services. Improving these education and health measures, which are exceptionally low in sub-Saharan Africa, would have large parallel benefits for food security, social and economic development, and environmental stewardship. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have endorsed the goal of reducing fertility rates. Achieving replacement level fertility in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 would reduce the global food gap by 9 percent, and would reduce the food gap for the region—the world’s hungriest—by 25 percent.

Options for increasing food production withoutadverse land expansion

Farm Smarter: Severe limitations on water availability and the already heavy use of fertilizer in most regions limit the current capacity to boost yields simply by adding more inputs. These strategies would in any case fail to meet the sustainability criteria set for the menu. Smarter farming will therefore have to fuel yield growth. In the last two decades, improved use of agricultural technology in the broadest sense maintained a high level of growth in food production even with less growth in agricultural inputs. Globally, increased use of land, water, chemical, and other inputs contributed to roughly 70 percent of growth in annual agricultural output in the 1970s and 1980s, but less than 30 percent in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet even with these improvements, agricultural land expansion continues, so the need for smarter farming is even greater going forward. Key opportunities for improved farm management include more careful selection of seed varieties adapted to local conditions, more judicious use of fertilizer, more attention to micronutrients, and improved weather forecasting to inform the selection of planting dates.

Breed Better Seeds: Improved breeding has always been critical to agricultural progress and will remain fundamental. Genetic engineering can play a role, particularly because improved techniques now allow insertion of genes in particular locations, reducing the amount of trial and error necessary to produce crops with improved traits (such as pest or drought resistance). In the short run, genetic engineering can most help by enabling faster breeding responses to new pests. More fundamental crop improvements from genetic engineering, such as improved uptake of nutrients and reduced losses of water, are uncertain and will take decades to come to fruition. But the strongest breeding opportunities will continue to rely on conventional breeding, in part because they can take advantage of modern biological methods. Those methods make it easier and faster to identify and select for the combinations of genes that result in higher yields, and justify increases in conventional breeding budgets.

Leave No Farmer Behind: Yield growth will also rely on “leaving no farmer behind” by closing the gap between what many farmers currently achieve and what they could potentially achieve. Global yield gaps are unquestionably large, but global studies have large methodological limitations. Studying gaps using locally verified crop models is a priority to identify not just where the largest gaps occur, but also the causes of those gaps so they can be addressed.

Crop the Same Land More Frequently: FAO data indicate that more than 400 million hectares of cropland go unharvested each year, suggesting that this amount of land is left fallow. On the other hand, farmers plant roughly 150 million hectares twice or more each year. Planting and harvesting existing cropland more frequently, either by reducing fallow or by increasing double cropping, could in theory boost production without requiring new land. FAO projects an increase in such planting frequency (“cropping intensity”), which would avert the need to clear an additional 62 million hectares for crops by 2050. Unfortunately, our review suggests that the practicalities of double cropping are little understood. Meanwhile, some fallow “croplands” are either in very long-term rotations or have been abandoned. These lands commonly revert to forest or grassland, helping to store carbon and provide other ecosystem services. Planting them more frequently sacrifices these benefits. Greater cropping intensity is a promising option but requires closer analysis both of double-cropping potential and of the “croplands” that countries now identify as unused.

Boost Yields in Africa in Part Through Improved Soil and Water Management: Although sub- Saharan Africa today consumes only 9 percent of the world’s calories, its likely growth in demand accounts for more than one-third (37 percent) of all additional calories required by 2050. The region also has the highest hunger rate, imports 25 percent of its grain needs, and has the world’s lowest staple crop yields. Boosting those yields is therefore critical both for reducing hunger and for avoiding large-scale deforestation.

Soil degradation, particularly the loss of soil carbon, presents a particular challenge to agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa, and 285 million people now live in dry regions where soil degradation has even harsher effects. Yet in Niger, farmers have rebuilt soil fertility and boosted yields on 5 million hectares of land by husbanding the natural regeneration of nitrogen-fixing trees and other native vegetation. Over sub-Saharan Africa’s 300 million hectares of dry cropland, this type of agroforestry has even greater potential to boost yields when combined with water harvesting and microdosing of individual plants with small quantities of fertilizer. Conservative estimates suggest that scaling up these practices could potentially provide the present dryland population an additional 615 kcal per person per day.

Expand Crops into Low-Carbon Degraded Land: Even if cropland must expand, it can do so with modest environmental cost if it expands into non-agricultural lands that have low biodiversity value, store little carbon, and are also unlikely to store much carbon in the future. Millions of hectares of such lands exist in Indonesia and Malaysia, where Imperata grasses have overrun logged forests and hold back reforestation. Our analysis suggests that more than 14 million hectares of low-carbon degraded land in Indonesia’s Kalimantan region of Borneo may be suitable for palm oil production— enough to accommodate additional oil palm plantations in Indonesia to 2020. Directing oil palm expansion to these lands is critical in the near term because oil palm is now expanding heavily into primary forests and peatlands. Peatland conversion leads to vast, ongoing annual carbon releases as the peat degrades over decades, which could within the next decade or two generate annually 5 to 7.5 percent of all current greenhouse gas emissions.

Globally, most of the lands considered by many analyses as “potential but unused” croplands do not truly qualify as environmentally low cost. Grazing lands produce valuable forage, and tropical savannas and sparse woodlands have high carbon storage and biodiversity value. Abandoned croplands, in areas capable of supporting trees, typically reforest, sequester carbon, and play an important role in holding down climate change.

Intensify Pasture Productivity: Among relatively wet pastures already converted from natural forests and savannas, large opportunities exist to intensify the output of milk and meat. Standard techniques include adding fertilizer, growing legumes, and confining cattle to small grazing areas and rotating them quickly. More sophisticated systems combine grasses with nitrogen-fixing shrubs and multiple layers of trees. These pasture intensification efforts require far more technical attention and incentives than they now receive because the alternative implies vast deforestation.

Avoid or Manage Shifts in Agricultural Land: Shifts in agricultural land from region to region and within regions cause millions of hectares of deforestation in excess of net agricultural expansion. The losses in carbon storage and other ecosystem services due to new deforestation generally exceed the gains from eventual reforestation elsewhere. It will be important to avoid shifts in agricultural land, and to restore abandoned lands more quickly when these shifts do occur.

Increase Productivity of Aquaculture: As wild fish catch has plateaued, aquaculture has expanded rapidly to produce nearly half of all the fish people consume. On average, farmed fish are as efficient at converting feed to food as chicken, making them an environmentally desirable source of animal protein, if produced sustainably. Aquaculture’s rapid growth initially led to several adverse environmental impacts, but these effects have since been reduced; for example, by slowing conversion of mangroves to shrimp ponds and by reduced reliance on wildcaught fish as feed. To maintain the role of fish in diets, aquaculture production will have to more than double from current levels by 2050. Even with enormous progress in feeding efficiency, the industry still faces a static supply of fishmeal and fish oil, which could limit future growth unless progress is made in algae production or breeding plants to produce such oils. Aquaculture ponds also cover a significant area, and suitable lands for expansion are limited. Future production growth will require increased fish per hectare of pond, which in turn requires more energy use to circulate and aerate water. Such intensification has potential to lead to other adverse environmental and social impacts; minimizing these impacts will be a key challenge.

Options for reducing greenhouse gas emissionsfrom agricultural production

The great balancing act requires not just producing more food and consuming less, but also reducing greenhouse gas emissions from both existing and additional production.

Carbon Sequestration Strategies: Carbon sequestration strategies, particularly using agricultural soils, have received much of the limited academic and policy attention on agricultural climate mitigation but are harder to achieve than previously thought. Whether changes in plowing practices increase carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is now scientifically uncertain. The implications for soil carbon of changes in grazing management vary greatly. Some strategies for increasing soil carbon do not truly increase total terrestrial carbon storage but only move carbon to one location from another, or divert carbon in biomass from other valuable uses, such as using crop residues for animal feed. Increasing soil carbon can be an important part of a strategy to boost long-term crop production in some areas, and boosting productivity will often in turn help to increase soil carbon. The most promising strategies are those that generate other economic benefits quickly, such as forms of agroforestry. There may also be strategies to reforest some highly degraded lands while intensifying neighboring croplands that together both store more carbon and make better use of productive resources. Restoring 5 million hectares of drained abandoned peatlands in Indonesia also offers the promise of large carbon sequestration gains.

Increase Efficiency in Use of Inputs: In a world that needs more food, agricultural climate mitigation policy should focus on strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food—even if they increase emissions for any particular farm or cow—because that will reduce emissions globally. At least in the short run, increasing production efficiency provides the strongest opportunity for reducing emissions from agricultural production globally. Such strategies include:

  • Improve the feeding and health of cows and sheep. Ruminants generate nearly half of all direct agricultural emissions, but improving the feeding and health of cows can cut the emissions per kilogram of milk or meat in many developing regions by two-thirds. Small farms that mix livestock and crops provide promising opportunities.

  • Balance fertilizer use worldwide. Although nitrogen fertilizer is underused in Africa, fertilizer is used inefficiently in much of Asia, the United States, and Europe, leading to high emissions as well as unnecessary expense.

  • Reduce emissions from paddy rice. Various ways of drawing down water during the growing season and removing rice straw from rice paddies can cut emissions by more than half compared to those farms that do not employ these measures.

Nearly all of these efficiency measures can boost production, reduce input costs, or create new economic opportunities. Today, few policies encourage these measures, and relatively little analysis addresses the practicality of these changes in particular locations.

Avoiding competition from bioenergy

The 69 percent food gap assumes that biofuel production remains at its 2010 level of roughly 2.5 percent of transportation fuel. Larger bioenergy targets would add greatly to the food challenge. Several governments—including the United States and Europe—have endorsed goals to supply 10 percent of transportation fuel by 2020 with biofuels. Meeting such a 10 percent global goal in 2050 would generate less than 2 percent of the world’s delivered energy on a net basis but would require 32 percent of the energy contained in all global crops produced in 2010. Such a goal would also significantly widen the food gap, from 69 percent to roughly 100 percent. Furthermore, meeting a broader bioenergy goal endorsed by the International Energy Agency— to produce 20 percent of world energy from biomass— would require a level of biomass equivalent not merely to all global crop production in 2000, but to the total harvest of crops, grasses, crop residues, and trees as well. Some potential exists to use various forms of waste biomass for bioenergy, which would avoid competition with food, carbon, and ecosystems. Giving up the use of crop-based biofuels for transportation—a strategy more in line with a sustainable food future—would close the crop calorie gap in 2050 by roughly 14 percent.

Can the world achieve this great balancing act? Our assessment is sober but hopeful. The challenge is larger and more complex than broadly appreciated. Some commonly proposed solutions are overemphasized or would have little impact. In contrast, others deserve substantially more emphasis than they have received to date.

The potential solutions can not only help close the food gap, but also generate co-benefits. Reducing losses and waste saves greenhouse gas emissions; reduces demands on land, energy, and water; and, in most cases, saves money. Helping small farmers to feed cows more efficiently improves their income, and reduces emissions and land use demands. To achieve these win/win solutions, governments, the private sector, and civil society will need to act quickly and with conviction. Future installments in the Creating a Sustainable Food Future series will explore additional ways of doing so in greater detail.


The world urgently needs to improve the way it produces and consumes food. In the coming decades, agriculture—which employs two billion people today—must provide enough food for a growing population and be an engine of inclusive economic and social development. However, the environmental impacts of agriculture are large and growing, creating risks for future food production.

Today, we use roughly one-half of the planet’s vegetated land to grow food. The amount of land used for agriculture has grown by more than 10 million hectares per year since the 1960s, and expanding croplands and pasture lands are placing increasing pressure on tropical forests. Agriculture now accounts for nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of all freshwater use. As the human population continues to grow, with billions joining the global middle class in the coming decades, these trends are set to intensify. By 2050, agriculture alone could consume 70 percent of the total allowable “budget” of greenhouse gas emissions consistent with limiting global warming to two degrees.

This is the great challenge: To adequately feed more than nine billion people by 2050, the world must close a 70 percent gap between the amount of food produced today and that needed by mid-century. At the same time, to advance sustainable development, we must close this “food gap” in ways that enhance the livelihoods of poor farmers and reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment. Failure to address the environmental impacts would hamper food production in coming decades—through land degradation, water shortages, and adverse effects from climate change.

This report presents the interim findings of the World Resources Report 2013–2014: Creating a Sustainable Food Future, a collaboration of the World Resources Institute, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Bank. The report analyzes the challenge and identifies the most promising technical options from a comprehensive “menu” of practical, scalable strategies that could close the food gap, while simultaneously reducing pressure on the environment and providing valuable economic and social benefits. The final Creating a Sustainable Food Future report will quantify each menu item’s potential contribution to closing the food gap and to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. It will also identify the practices, policies, and incentives necessary to implement the solutions at the necessary scale.

This important analysis demonstrates that big changes are possible. The solutions on our menu would allow the world to sustainably increase food production and reduce excess consumption. Governments, the private sector, farming organizations, and civil society must urgently come together in a determined alliance in order to deliver on the promise of a sustainable food future. We cannot afford to wait.

Andrew Steer

President, World Resources Institute