Nine billion people or not? Producers need new focus

The UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for this fall in New York  is farming’s equivalent of the meetings that birthed the Paris agreement on climate change. Western Canada needs to ensure that its regional reality is recognized in that process. | Screencap via un.org

A few years from now, in about 2028, there will be eight billion people on the planet.

The possibility of growing to nine billion, a 2050 United Nations’ projection, has captivated speakers in the food and agriculture realm for the past 15 years.

But now there’s growing skepticism about that predicted growth.

A global population increase is good for the agricultural industry, those in the business of growing food. More people mean more eating. At the same time, the amount of land available for efficient food production is mostly fixed.

It’s common to hear that production has to increase to meet the needs of a growing population and efforts on many levels are aimed at that goal. But if projections now indicate we are on a path toward a level and then a potentially shrinking number, we might want to consider modifications to the food supply-and-demand mantra.

One choice is greater discussion about focusing on the food needs and desires of a growing global middle class.

Western Canadian agriculture is finally realizing the 40-year dream of increased value-added crop processing, with legume milling designed to meet increasing first-world desires for non-meat proteins and a dramatic expansion of canola crushing for biofuels, another middle-class issue.

Demand is demand, and markets, whether built on population or consumers’ disposable incomes, may not seem to need further definition. As long as there are buyers and they want more, we will be OK, right?

But the winds of demand are starting to blow from a different direction when it comes to agriculture. The industry needs to plan appropriately for the future.

The United Nations’ population projection of nine billion by 2050 wasn’t the end of that upward plotting of the graph. It projected a global level of 11.5 billion by 2100. That is the number now challenged by economists and population boffins.

It appears humankind might not adhere to that growth, as women’s education gains greater traction in most of the world and fertility rates fall in global regions where population was expected to rise the most.

In the mid-1970s, women in India and China were having an average of 5.5 children. Today India is barely exceeding two and China is failing to replace itself with 1.5. The United States, Japan and Germany are also well below the two-child level necessary to stabilize, if not grow, the population. Canada set a new record for itself at about 1.4 in 2020 and that could drop again this year.

The UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for this fall in New York, with its goals of greenhouse gas emissions reduction and creation of global consumer standards for food production, is farming’s equivalent of the meetings that birthed the Paris agreement on climate change.

Western Canada needs to ensure that its regional reality is recognized in that process. It is already a highly efficient food production machine, but even domestically that isn’t well known or accepted.

The message around the Prairies’ track record of realistically meeting global food market demands must be expressed clearly and consistently. Helping to feed the projected nine billion, while important, might not be our most pressing market issue, especially if population is levelling off and then declining after 2050, as some recent projections suggest.

Attentions are better focused on Western Canada’s proven abilities to efficiently and effectively meet the market needs of a growing middle class.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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