What is the future global food demand for 8 billion people increasing at 8,000 per hour? It is big, scarily big. And the worse art is we don’t even know how much more food we will need.
All over the sustainably FED website is a fundamental reality—the historical and predicted growth in the human population.
Humanity is an order of magnitude more abundant than any other time in pre and recorded history.
The exponential increase in the number of humans on the planet started in earnest with the industrial revolution and took off with the arrival of oil in the early 1900s. It could be that the growth phase of the exponential curve is ending, but before it does, another 2 to 3 billion people will be added to this population spike—all things being equal.
It is almost a cliche, but there are fundamental energetics and resource use implications of 8 billion people alive, together with the 1.3 million extra per week, that cannot be ignored.
One of the most significant issues is how much food will be needed to meet future global food demand.
More than today, for sure, and that is already a vast production volume with complex agriculture and distribution systems to get the food onto tables.
How big is future global food demand?
It is always hard to predict the future.
Who would have believed a futurist saying there would be a Trump presidency, Brexit or Boris? And even when the processes are understood, and there is reliable precedent, precision is elusive.
First, we need a prediction date for how much future food is needed.
Is it tomorrow, ten years from now, a generation hence or longer? Most politicians want it far enough ahead to avoid affecting their immediate decisions or re-election chances, and the international diplomacy story is so slow they need many years to affect anything.
So the current target date has settled on 2050. A little under 30 years is far enough off and conveniently the middle of the century.
Target projection date 2050.
Taking this target date, the estimated agricultural production increase required to meet global demand in 2050 ranges from 25% to 70%.
We won’t dwell on the details here, but the science sources at the end of this post provide more information. The uncertainty comes from a combination of three sources:
- difficulties in estimating the current levels of food production,
- an uncertain number of people in 2050, and
- uncertainty over what these people will eat.
Here is a little more on each of these sources.
Current food production uncertainty
Exactly how much food is produced can be measured by yield estimates, trade figures and commodity prices. These work reasonably well for food from intensive agricultural production but fail to capture production from the 500 million of so farmers who grow food for themselves and their families.
There is also uncertainty in the ability of soils to maintain yields of crops and livestock even with adequate inputs as soil degradation affects larger areas of agricultural land and impacts global hunger. Similarly the availability of water for crops is highly uncertain.
We also do not know exactly how climate change will impact food production but we do know that agriculture has a role to play in climate mitigation.
We feed a significant amount of the grain crops we grow to livestock. Given the land pressure, soil health, climate, dietary preferences and the arrival of healthy meat alternatives projecting the current ratios of grains fed to livestock into the future is risky.
Future population uncertainty
Global population is 8 billion growing at 8,000 an hour which is roughly 70 million additional people per year. So by 2050 there will be another 1.6 billion people—for comparison, as of 5 July 2023, there have been 767,726,861 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 6,948,764 deaths, reported to WHO, roughly 10% of the annual increase.
But we don’t know if this rate will continue. Another pandemic, global conflict or famine could change the projection drastically.
Projections for global population increase, which is the primary driver of future global food demand, differ based on the method of estimation and with changing circumstances, especially food shortages in the areas where growth is expected. By 2050, it could be 9.6 billion people or several hundred million more or less.
Uncertainty over what people will eat
Then we are unsure of what people will eat. We have w whole section of this website devoted to sustainable diet because what we currently eat to source the bulk of our calories and nutrition—grains, seed oils, sugar and animal products—are niot necessarily good for our metabolic health.
And what we eat is what we can afford. Projecting future economic growth and wealth distribution is even more precarious than estimating food production.
In Europe, the population is expected to decline and age by 2050 but Europeans are likely to be increasingly aware of health issues and the link between poor health and diet. Meanwhile, in sub-Saharan Africa grain demand is expected to treble as populations grow and diet reflects the economic reality for many people in the poorer countries.
We must live with a degree of uncertainty.
The range in the projection for future global food demand is vast
So if today’s production is standardised to 100 food units per day, we might need anywhere between 125 and 170 units by the 2050 target date.
This is a vast range.
How big is future global food demand? Well, it seems that we don’t know. More than today, but how much more is uncertain.
The FAO has promoted a simplified the size of the challenge into a snappy phrase—2% for 30.
They think that it will be a 60% increase in food demand by 2050.
The human population is a precarious 8 billion growing at 8,000 per hour consequence of a fossil energy fuelled population spike. Demographers predict a demographic transition from a peak in global population through to a more stable number over centuries. Ecologists might quote Jared Diamond or Paul and Anne Erhlich or refer to any number of studies of natural populations and predict a collapse.
Global catastrophes could occur and put a massive dent in absolute and growth rate numbers. Economic collapse, war, famine… mutually assured destruction. All are possible.
But for now, let’s look on the bright side and assume that the current trajectory persists and 2% for 30 is required to meet future global food demand—125% to 170% of what we do now by 2050.
A shipping fleet analogy
Think of the future global food demand as the shipping fleet.
Food cargo is around 10 per cent of our total transportation in containers.
If we take the global number of container ships in service (5,300) and assume that 10% are used for food (530), then by 2050, the food supply chain will need either 130 or nearly 400 additional ships.
Construction costs are around $100 million per ship—roughly as there is a huge range of size these days—so in investment alone, we are looking at $13 billion to $40 billion just to build the extra fleet capacity.
$40 billion is the GDP of Tunisia, and there are over 100 countries with a lower GDP.
And this is just to move the food around.
Clearly, it would be helpful for everyone, even the besuited capitalists keen for their next high return investment, to tighten the range in estimations of future global food demand.
What sustainably FED suggests
Given the complexity of landing on a reliable amount for the additional food production required by 2050, a global view may be unhelpful. The range in the prediction is too high to be meaningful and we are left with ideas like the ‘2% for 30’ that summarise the best guess.
What estimates for future global food demand do, though, is demonstrate the size and scale of the challenge.
Is it 130 or 400 extra ships or perhaps no extra ships because the supply chains are simplified, and food is grown closer to where it is eaten with the necessary change in diets with season and accessibility of various foods?
Is it even possible to finance, build and run 130 or 400 extra ships within the planetary boundaries? Such an addition to the fleet would need money, mineral resources and energy to establish and vast land to grow the produce that the ships would move along the six-continent food supply chain.
The shocking truth about future global food demand is that it is scarily large.
Humans have never produced so much food before. That we find it hard to predict exactly how large and so determine how much more to invest in the food production system just makes the situation worse.
I don’t think I want the market to solve this problem. Do you?
Giller, K. E., Delaune, T., Silva, J. V., Descheemaeker, K., van de Ven, G., Schut, A. G., … & van Ittersum, M. K. (2021). The future of farming: Who will produce our food?. Food Security, 13(5), 1073-1099.