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creating a sustainable food future

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How does the world feed more than 9 billion people in the year 2050 in a manner that not only advances economic development but also reduces agriculture’s impact on the environment? How will we know if we’re on the right path?

WRI recently reviewed a number of existing indicators on the environmental sustainability of agriculture and identified gaps. Our analysis uncovers a need for improvements in indicators as well as the data underlying them—in particular, what we call the “3Ps, 5 themes, and 7 criteria.”

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As the global wild fish catch peaked in the 1990s, aquaculture—or fish farming—has grown rapidly to meet world fish demand, more than doubling production between 2000 and 2012. New research shows that aquaculture production will need to more than double again between now and 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population.

The question is: Can aquaculture grow sustainably?

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Fish—including finfish and shellfish—are an important item in the human food basket, contributing 17 percent of the global animal-based protein supply in 2010. They are an especially valuable food source in developing countries, where more than 75 percent of the world’s fish consumption occurs.

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The world is projected to hold a whopping 9.6 billion people by 2050. Figuring out how to feed all these people—while also advancing rural development, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting valuable ecosystems—is one of the greatest challenges of our era.

So what’s causing the global food challenge, and how can the world solve it? We begin to answer these questions through a series of graphics below. For more information, check out the interim findings of Creating a Sustainable Food Future, a report produced by WRI, U.N. Environment Programme, U.N. Development Programme, and the World Bank.

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Innovative farmers are beginning to demonstrate how agroforestry and other relatively simple practices can significantly boost food production in Africa’s drylands. In fact, according to a new WRI working paper, improving land and water management on just 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s 300 million hectares of prime cropland would result in an additional 22 million tons of food. This strategy could go a long way towards sustainably feeding Africa—and the world.

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The world’s food production systems face enormous challenges. Millions of farmers in developing countries are struggling to feed their families as they contend with land degradation, land use pressures, and climate change.

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The United Nations’ new population growth projections show that the world is set to reach nearly 9.6 billion by 2050. This growth holds serious implications for global food security. Absent other effective measures to control dietary shifts and reduce food loss and waste, the world will need to produce about 70 percent more food annually by 2050 to meet global demands. That is a big task, and even harder to do without converting millions more hectares of forests into farmland, contributing to climate change.

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

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This post is the third 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 2013-2014 World Resources Report.

An amazing 24 percent of all food calories produced today go uneaten. Reducing this loss and waste is a critical step toward generating enough food for a population set to reach more than 9 billion by 2050.

Fortunately, there are low-cost methods that can begin saving food immediately in both the developing and the developed world. WRI’s new working paper, Reducing Food Loss and Waste, identifies a number of these strategies. Some methods cut loss “close to the farm,” while others reduce waste “close to the fork.”

Reducing Food Loss Close to the Farm

Improved storage methods

Simple, low-cost storage methods can drastically cut food loss, especially for small-scale farmers in the developing world, who frequently lose food to factors like pests, spoilage, and transportation damage. For example, a system developed by researchers at Purdue University in which grain is stored in three interlocking plastic bags locks out pests and keeps grain fresh for months. The Food and Agriculture Organization has built more than 45,000 small, metal storage silos—just big enough for use by a single farmer—in 16 different countries. These silos have cut food loss during the storage phase to almost zero. Even using a plastic crate instead of a plastic sack during transport can cut loss dramatically by preventing bruising and squashing.

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This post is the second 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 2013-2014 World Resources Report. Look for the next installment tomorrow, which will highlight a number of solutions to reduce food loss and waste.

The world produces about 4 billion tons of food per year, or about 6 quadrillion calories. That’s a large amount, but what’s really shocking is that nearly one-quarter of these calories go uneaten.

This food is lost or wasted in a number of ways. It might rot in the fields, get eaten by pests in storage, or be thrown away by a grocer or consumer, just to name a few. It’s a problem that must be mitigated: The world will need about 60 percent more calories per year by 2050 in order to adequately feed the projected population of more than 9 billion people. WRI’s new working paper, Reducing Food Loss and Waste, shows that cutting current rates of food loss and waste in half would reduce the size of this food gap by about 22 percent.

The new paper, part of the ongoing 2013-2014 World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future working paper series, looks at the scale of the food loss and waste challenge and examines how we as a global community can start tackling this issue. The paper and tomorrow’s blog post explore a number of practical, affordable strategies for governments, businesses, and households to reduce their loss and waste immediately.

But first, it’s important to understand the extent of the problem. Here are several facts and figures that reveal just how much food the world loses and wastes:

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A "green" transformation is currently sprouting in the food and agriculture industry in many parts of the world.

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The PAGE Agroecosystems study analyzed qualitative and quantitative indicators of the condition of the world's agroecosystems in terms of the delivery of a number of key goods and services valued by society.

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