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Feeding the world

By Max Rheese - posted Friday, 20 June 2008

Potentially, the world may need to consume more food per annum than it can produce with continued population growth, even if production matches consumption - is this sustainable?

The world population continues to grow with a UN forecast of 9.3 billion by 2050, up from the current 6.7 billion, although the rate of growth has been slowing since the 1960s and continues to slow.

As incomes rise, more people are living above the poverty line and therefore have a higher calorie intake, which also puts pressure on existing food reserves. Some of this pressure is derived from changing diets, such as more consumption of meat in China, which in turn influences the amount of grain used in increased livestock production.


Cropland formerly used to produce grain for human or animal consumption - now dedicated to production of ethanol - appears to be the most short-sighted change of direction imaginable for a whole host of reasons. This “great new idea” only adds to the concerns for the world’s food reserves.

Climate change, within the parameters currently being discussed, is not seen to be a threat on a global scale to maintaining or increasing production of food. Without doubt, local or regional detrimental impacts from climate change will be experienced - whether that is from global warming or cooling.

Recent food shortages in some developing countries are almost invariably linked to economic and political decisions, rather than food production problems on a global scale. Wheat is available, it just costs 92 per cent more than it did 12 months ago and corn is up 44 per cent as well. Food shortages in many of these areas have had more to do with the inability of the local population to pay for food. Certainly, food shortages in some local areas - particularly Sub-Saharan Africa - are linked directly to food production problems in those areas.

All of these influences - not to mention increasing global urbanisation, shortages of irrigation water, oil prices, poverty and civil unrest - add to the mix of opportunities and challenges in feeding the world.

So, can 21st century global agriculture - with all of the demands on the environment that are contingent with a population of 9 billion - meet the ideals of the Brundtland definition on sustainability?

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


Or are we caught in an ever expanding cycle of growth and resource use that will see the globe tied to some sort of limit to growth as predicted by the Club of Rome in 1973? These were dire predictions that never eventuated, but that fit well with the apocalyptic environmental viewpoint of resource use - as espoused by most environment organisations to this day.

Putting aside local political and global economic influences - such as oil prices and recession - the three major factors for increasing food production are more arable land, the increased frequency of cropping and higher yields.

On a local scale more arable land is problematic for areas such as northern Africa and Asia as existing usage is about 90 per cent, however, on a global scale close to 3 billion hectares of extra land is potentially available for agriculture, although practically much of this will not be converted to production.

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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