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A world hungry for answers

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 1 February 2007

Barring nuclear wars, pandemics and cosmic accidents, there will be about 9.3 billion people in the world of 2050 - but they will eat food enough for 13 billion at today’s nutritional levels.

Many people, having risen through the economic development curve, will consume diets far higher in protein - in the cases of China and India, three to five times higher. To meet this, global food output must rise by 110 per cent, says the UN Environment Program.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation thinks this is technically feasible. The unanswered question is whether it is sustainable. Key indicators point downhill:

  • surface water available to grow food is contracting sharply due to city demand;
  • groundwater resources are declining everywhere;
  • farm land is being lost to urban development;
  • soil and nutrient erosion is increasing worldwide;
  • nutrient prices are likely to rise;
  • farm production research is in global decline;
  • marine harvests are dwindling;
  • biofuels are replacing food crops in some countries; and
  • half the world may face regular drought by 2050.

In this list of challenges, the thing that stands out is that only one is even somewhat speculative - the impact of climate change. All the other trends are real and predictable.

For the first time in history, urban demand for water is outpacing farm demand, as city users outbid irrigators. By 2050 cities will consume half the world’s fresh water - reducing that available for food production by one third. Worldwide, groundwater is running out, especially in regions where it is used grow food. By 2025, water scarcity may cause an annual reduction of 350 million tonnes of food - almost the same as losing today’s entire global rice harvest or US grain crop.

Around 1.2 billion hectares or 10 per cent of the world’s arable area is affected by serious degradation, of which 300 million ha is now unusable for farming. There is a continuing loss of about 5-10 million ha a year. Eighty per cent of the remaining arable area is degraded to some degree. While not seen as a limit to global food production, soil loss is a significant constraint in India, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It is expected to worsen under climate change.

Large areas of coastal seas and lakes are now unfit for aquaculture due to sediment, nutrient and pesticide contamination from the land. This is on top of the decline in global catches due to overfishing.

There has been a shift to the production of biofuels, characterised by critics as “the rich burning the food of the poor”. Ethanol production will reach 1 per cent of world oil consumption by 2010. Wherever they are grown, biofuels displace food crops for soil, water and nutrients.


FAO says fertiliser supplies are ample and current growth of 1-2 per cent a year is within the world’s capacity to supply. However others note the world is losing 11 billion tonnes of nutrients a year, chiefly by erosion, pointing to a significant nutrient imbalance.

A new barrier to a sufficient harvest in 2050 is the “knowledge drought” - a worldwide decline in agricultural R&D, especially in production research.

Finally, there is climate. Drought conditions may affect up to half the planet’s land surface by the second half of this century says the UK’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction. Under this scenario the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research expects a 50 per cent decline in Indian wheat production - equal to about 7 per cent of the global crop - due to drying.

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First published in Australian R&D Review onJanuary 29, 2007 and in The Australian on January 24, 2007. It is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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