Food figures need a pinch of salt, by Isobel Tomlinson

The idea that the world needs to double its food production by 2050 in order to feed a growing population is wrong, says Isobel Tomlinson from the Soil Association.

In this week’s Green Room, she says the misuse of data could be used to allow even greater intensification of the global agricultural industry.

“ It is important that scientific research is now done to show how a better future is possible ”

In the last couple of years, scientists, politicians and agricultural industry representatives around the globe have been using two statistics: the need to increase global food production by 50% by 2030, and for food production to double by 2050 to meet future demand.

These figures have come to play a significant role in framing current international policy debates about the future direction of global agriculture.

These apparently scientific statistics have been dominating the policy and media discourse about food and farming, leading almost everyone to assume we need vast increases in agricultural production to feed a population of nine billion people by the middle of this century.

While ensuring an equitable and sufficient future food supply is of critical importance, many commentators are using this to justify the need for more intensive agricultural practices and, in particular, the need for further expansion of GM crops.

Cooking the books

When the Soil Association, in its report Telling Porkies, looked into the reported sources for these figures, none of the sources actually stated that global food production needs to increase by 50% by 2030, or to double by 2050.

What the reports on which the claims are based do say is that certain sectors, in certain parts of the world, may have to increase food production by significant amounts.

For example, for cereals, there is a projected increase of one billion tonnes annually beyond the two billion tonnes produced in 2005.

For meat, in developing countries only (except China), the reports say that some of the growth potential (for increased per capita meat consumption) will materialise as effective demand, and their per capita consumption could double by 2050.

So this is a projected doubling of meat consumption in some developing countries - not a doubling of global food production.

Indeed, recent calculations show that the key source for the “doubling” claim - a 2006 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - implies that global food production for 2006-2050 would need to increase by around 70%, not 100%; a difference that is equivalent to the entire food production of the continent of America.

But while a re-evaluation of the veracity of the claim that food production needs to double by 2050 is to be welcomed, simply switching to the figure of 70% does not solve the problem.

Food for thought

The statistic of a 70% increase is still predicted on the same “business as usual” model as the “doubling” figure and that is problematic for several reasons:

First of all, the projections reflect a continuing pattern of structural change in the diets of people in developing countries with a rapid increase in livestock products (meat, milk, eggs) as a source of food calories.

However, the continuation of dietary transition in developing countries, as assumed by the modelling work, is likely to cause worsening health problems as such diets are a leading cause of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

Secondly, the data used to measure food security focuses attention on the level of agricultural production without considering access to food, distribution, and affordability which are all important in ensuring that people do not go hungry.

Thirdly, the projections assume that the developing world continues to import growing quantities of staple food stuffs when, in fact, increasing local production of staple foods is vital in ensuring food security.

Finally, according to these scientists, meeting these projected food demand targets will not solve food insecurity anyway. Indeed it is predicted that there will still be 290 million under-nourished people worldwide in 2050.

The assumptions and projections in this modelling reflect the authors’ vision of the “most likely future” but not necessarily the most desirable one.

At the Soil Association, we now want to have an honest debate about how we can feed the world in 2050 in a way that doesn’t lead to the further increases in obesity and diet related diseases, ensures that the global environment is protected, and that puts an end to hunger and starvation.

The misuse of the doubling statistic, based as it supposedly is on just one particular forecast of future demand for food, has prevented alternative visions of food and farming in 2050, which do not rely on the further intensification of farming and use of GM technologies, from being taken seriously in food security policy circles.

It is important that scientific research is now done to show how a better future is possible.

One recent scientific study has examined how we can feed and fuel the world sustainably, fairly and humanely. It explored the feasibility of feeding nine billion people in 2050 under different diet scenarios and agricultural systems.

The study showed that for a Western high-meat-diet to be “probably feasible” would require a combination of massive land use change, intensive livestock production and intensive use of arable land.

This would have negative impacts for animal welfare and lead to further destruction of natural habitats like rainforests.

However, the study also provides evidence “that organic agriculture can probably feed the world population of 9.2 billion in 2050, if relatively modest diets are adopted, where a low level of inequality in food distribution is required to avoid malnutrition”.

Isobel Tomlinson is the policy and campaigns officer for the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic organisation

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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