Study lowers world’s future food requirements

Dutch scientists came to their new conclusions about future food demand by determining that per capita consumption will increase by zero to  20 percent and then combining that with the estimated increase in global population. Shoppers crowd Tokyo’s Ameyoko shopping district. | Reuters/Issei Kato photo

New research finds that food demand will rise 35 to 56 percent by 2050 rather than the doubling that was once thought

From 2010-20, at nearly every farm conference in Canada, at least one speaker would step up to the podium and say the world needs to double food production by 2050.

That claim may have been an exaggeration.

New research from Europe suggests that food production must increase to satisfy the world’s growing population, but doubling the production of grains, oilseeds, vegetables and meat is not needed.

“The study’s findings provide strong support for the view that food demand will increase by between 35 and 56 percent over the period 2010-2050. This is mainly due to population growth, economic development, urbanization, and other drivers,” said Wageningen University in a news release highlighting the finding. “This range is somewhat lower than previous studies, which stated that food production must be doubled.”

Wageningen is a university in the Netherlands that specializes in food and the environment. Michiel van Dijk was the lead researcher for the paper, published in Nature Food.

To reach his finding, van Dijk analyzed 57 studies on future food demand published between 2000 and 2020.

Such studies are difficult to do because they rely upon assumptions about future population and income growth, “which are key drivers of food demand,” van Dijk and his colleagues wrote in the paper.

One key factor is the change in per capita food consumption. So, how many calories are people consuming now (on average) and how much will they consume in 30 to 40 years?

Based on their analysis of the 57 papers, the Dutch scientists concluded that per capita food consumption will increase by zero to 20 percent.

When that zero to 20 percent change is combined with the increase in global population, the scientists were able to calculate a global jump in food demand of 35 to 56 percent.

“We believe that these findings are more reflective of the current state of the literature than the often-cited range of 60 to 110 percent for food demand.”

If the Dutch researchers are correct, food production must increase 0.875 to 1.4 percent annually to keep up with expanding demand.

The idea that food production must double by 2050 may have come from a United Nations meeting in October 2009. At that meeting, experts told a UN committee that the world’s food crisis was not over and could get worse.

The meeting came shortly after 2006-08, a period when prices of wheat and rice nearly doubled — for a short time in 2008, spring wheat futures in Minneapolis topped US$20 per bushel.

The spike in prices caused export restrictions, panic buying of grains and protests over the price of bread in places like Egypt.

The Wageningen University researchers aren’t the only experts who question the need to double food production.

John Ibbitson, a Globe & Mail columnist, published a book in 2019 about world population growth and how China’s population could soon collapse.

Ibbitson co-authored the book, Empty Planet, The Shock of Global Population Decline, with demographic expert Darrell Bricker.

At a Keystone Agricultural Producers meeting in the winter of 2020, Ibbitson said China’s fertility rate is only 1.5 to 1.6 children per woman. If that continues, China’s population has to shrink.

“Three years from now, China’s population starts to go down. Once it starts to go down, it will never stop (declining),” Ibbitson said in Winnipeg, noting China’s population could drop by 300 million over the next 80 years.

If Ibbitson is correct, farmers in food-exporting nations like Canada may lack buyers for their wheat, canola, beef and pork.

“We’re going to have an awful lot of food and fewer people in need of that food, every year,” Ibbitson said. “That’s going to be a challenge for the (ag) industry.”

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