Long-term solutions needed to address food insecurity by 2050 and beyond

By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 to 9.5 billion, and by the end of the century, the population in Africa is expected to be three times its current level, said Douglas Southgate, a professor in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

As a result, food insecurity in Africa will be much more severe than in other parts of the world, Southgate said. Using forecasts from the United Nations and other sources, Southgate surveyed the long-term outlook for global food demand.

“We have all seen he headlines about the 50% increase in our population growth by 2050,” Southgate said. “We need to increase food production largely because as population growth decelerates, it leads to rising standards and increasing per capita consumption. Very poor countries spend almost all extra income on food. In places like the U.S., that is not the case. Beyond 2050 food insecurity will not be solved. Our children and grandchildren will still be dealing with the issues of food security and we need to put that issue into sharp focus.”

Total fertility rates in the United States and other wealthy nations fell to or below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman a generation or more ago, he said.

“Japan and the European Union nations already have population contraction. In Japan, sales of adult diapers outnumber the sales of baby diapers,” he said. “With little or no demographic expansion and food consumption little affected by income growth, increases in food demand (in these countries) will be modest. Between their own production and the imports made possible by non-agricultural exports, wealthy countries will feed themselves with ease.”

 

The wealthy countries of the world currently have a combined population of 1.3 billion out of the world total of 7.2 billion, Southgate said. But in emerging economies, where 5 billion people currently live, substantial increases in food demand are expected during the next few decades, Southgate said.

“There are three groups of countries — the affluent global north including U.S., and the global south that includes emerging economies that are experiencing rapid growth in living standards like China, Mexico and Brazil where most of the world’s population lives,” he said. “The bottom billion people live in the least developed countries —mainly in the sub-Saharan Africa. The difference between their living standards and the living standards in say, Brazil, is larger than the differences between the U.S and the Latin American countries.”

In four dozen or so of the world’s least developed countries, which are located mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and have a current combined population of 0.9 billion, total fertility rates remain well above the replacement level, averaging 4.5 births per woman, he said.

“Even with modest growth in per-capita consumption linked to improved living standards, least-developed countries’ food demand will increase at a fast pace to and beyond the middle of the century,” he said. “Food insecurity is widespread already in these countries.

“A minority of these countries rely heavily on non-agricultural exports: crude oil, copper and other commodities rather than manufactured goods. Barring a quantum leap in food aid, food supplies will have to be produced domestically.”

However, producing food domestically with current resources presents a challenge, Southgate said. Though there are a few locations on the African continent that are ideal settings for farming, these locations are the exception, not the rule, he said.

“In most of Africa, soils are poor, water availability is limited, or both,” Southgate said. “Annual precipitation in the tropics and subtropics tends to be concentrated in a single wet season, which lasts several weeks or a few months and during which most rain falls in driving storms.

“Soil erosion is consequently elevated. Additionally, aside from places with recent volcanic activity, most soil in the region is of ancient geologic origin and therefore heavily weathered and infertile.”

Southgate predicted that to meet the additional demand, agricultural chemicals, which most African farmers do not use at present, will have to increase. Also, biotechnology must be harnessed if widespread hunger is to be avoided in sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

“Probably the worst problems in Africa have been political. Political leaders have largely ignored rural Africa, which is one reason the Green Revolution skipped Africa,” he said. “The application of biotechnology is going to become imperative in Africa, especially if climate change coincides with growth in food demand.”

More information on the Ohio State University Agricultural Policy and Outlook Series meetings, including policy briefs and presentation files from Southgate, can be found at go.osu.edu/2015outlook.

To read Southgate’s policy brief prepared for the 2014-2015 Agricultural Policy and Outlook series, visit go.osu.edu/u8x.

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