woman selling food in an Indonesian market

Global food production and Sustainability | Beyond crop yield for a growing urban population

Global food production is about more than just increasing crop yield to meet demand, even if that presents an opportunity for profit.

Global food production surpluses result in more people, and once these people are present, there is a moral imperative to keep them fed and also a huge economic opportunity. 

A collective paradigm runs Western economies. 

We, the people, consume. 

It has been this way since the first agricultural systems created an energy surplus by generating more food energy than the effort it took to produce the crops and the livestock. More and more people buy from the energy surplus that, over time, was generated not by people alone but by people aided by livestock and, since the 1900s, an army of fossil fuel helpers.

In modern times over half of humanity lives in urban areas and has little choice but to buy food from the food energy surplus.

A buying public is excellent for the businessman who can mobilise capital and labour to provide the goods that people need for less than the cost of producing them. A positive balance sheet generates a monetary surplus—profit—as a fungible asset, cash that can quickly become more capital to invest. This is the positive feedback cycle we call capitalism.

Capitalism has ensnared global food production, the six-continent food supply chain that feeds over half the people.

Here is one view of how it happened.

Large agricultural enterprises are profitable 

Back in the day, the surplus production that could be traded or taxed set the commerce system on its trajectory to currency and capitalism. 

Farm enterprises geared for profit look for efficiencies that reduce their operating costs or increase their net output. Typically more extensive and uniform is better for efficiently using machinery and energy inputs. It shouldn’t be surprising that intensification happens because it delivers higher yields and economies of scale. Surplus gains accrue with less cost.

The focus on efficiency extends to externalities and loss of resilience outside the balance sheet but helps make intensification profitable.

But there are other motivations for farming.

harvesting machines working in a field
Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash

Intensification of agriculture has grown yield and generated profit

Not all farmers are in it for profit 

Globally, 500 million people are growing food for themselves and their families, just enough surplus energy for people to live in the same place year-round and meet their basic needs.

These operations are generally small and use minimal inputs. Farmers leverage their ingenuity, imagination and hard work to grow enough food and cash crops to pay the bills and turn a small profit in good years.

Constrained by their access to inputs and labour, many do this on a hectare or less of land, small plots scattered across the landscape. 

The global challenge is that the modest surplus from these small farms cannot feed the urban populations—close to 7 billion by 2050—who need food.

The conventional wisdom is that most global food production will grow in intensive commercial production systems.

It is a very tempting proposition for the capitalist.

farmer tends his small rice paddy as he contributes to global food production
Photo by Simon Fanger on Unsplash

Over 500 million farmers grow food on small plots with minimal inputs

Global food production surplus to 2050

The current world population of 8 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion by 2050, assuming that the global production and consumption systems persist through the population spike. We will leave the collapse scenarios where the systems break down for other posts.

A common assumption is that to meet the health needs of this many people will mean closing yield gaps and increasing global crop yields by 70–110% just to meet the calorific requirements

What is grown will also need to diversify to improve the nutrient content of foods and nutrient and water use efficiency. 

Agriculture must also change from a greenhouse gas emitter to a carbon sink by managing inputs and sequestering carbon into soil.

The only known way for agriculture to do these things is to wean itself off fossil fuel inputs and become circular, where inputs come from recycling unused biomass and animal waste. This means part of the surplus production goes to feed the soil.

Circular agriculture will reduce the need for inputs but, in many ways, is the opposite of intensification, which has been the source of increased yields over the last 100 years. Agriculture that recycles rather than throughputs costs less but is less productive at least initially. This means an additional 30% more global food production, bringing the total required global crop yield increase by 2050 to 100–140%. 

Calories are only part of the challenge. The food surplus needs to be nutritious too. Already 1.8 billion people suffer from nutrient deficiencies called hidden hunger—twice the number of people who do not get enough calories. 

The global food production conundrum.

Humanity needs a massive food surplus to feed growing urban populations encouraged by the capitalist model to consume. However, people do not need the ads and policy encouragement because they eat or starve.

Intensive agriculture is the obvious solution to food demand, but the smallholder, circular approach to nutrients and energy is the only sustainable option. 

One option feeds everyone, the other feeds everyone well.

people cross a busy street in a Japanese city
Photo by Cory Schadt on Unsplash

Over half the people in the world live in urban areas

What sustainably FED suggests

Nature knows what to do with a surplus. It converts it into more nature. 

Food production surpluses result in more people, and once these people are present, there is an imperative to keep them fed. Greater production creates a disaster waiting to happen unless that production is maintained.

Profit is measured in dollars, not surplus. 

Consequently, a profit imperative would still prioritise yield gain over resilience because it speeds up the conversion of natural capital to cash—you cannot buy a new car with ten years worth of soil carbon reserves.

The future of humanity will be determined by how much we understand the metabolic energy surplus that we generate from agriculture.

Not enough surplus and we risk collapse. Too much surplus and we make more people to pressure future supply. And the kicker is that too much of the wrong surplus and people are unhealthy and unhappy. 

In other words, global food production is more than yield. 

It is about knowing what surplus is needed to manage the the population spike that has appeared in the last 150 years thanks to fossil fuel energy subsidy to agriculture.

We, the people, will consume. It is inevitable, and the capitalists are licking their lips.

Fortunately, we, the people, have a will and are smart enough to realise that we cannot consume a non-existent or nutrient hollow surplus.

Science Source

Harbinson, J., Parry, M. A., Davies, J., Rolland, N., Loreto, F., Wilhelm, R., … & Klein Lankhorst, R. (2021). Designing the crops for the future; the cropbooster program. Biology, 10(7), 690.

Hero image from photo by mana5280 on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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