Can the world feed 8bn people sustainably?
More than enough food is produced to feed all of the 8 billion people currently alive on the planet, yet after a decade of steady decline hunger is back on the rise, affecting 10% of the global population. According to the World Food Programme, ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to one of the worst food crises in decades, with acute food insecurity affecting 200 million more people globally than in 2019 due to rising costs of food, fuel and fertiliser.
But there are bigger problems on the horizon. As the global population passes 8 billion and is predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050, farmers, governments and scientists face the challenge of increasing food production without exacerbating environmental degradation and the climate crisis, which itself contributes to food insecurity in the global south.
The United Nations projects that food production from plants and animals will need to increase 70% by 2050, compared with 2009, to meet increasing food demand. But food production is already responsible for nearly a third of carbon emissions as well as 90% of deforestation around the world.
“We use half of the world’s vegetative land for agriculture,” says Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University. “That’s enormously bad for the environment. We can’t solve the current problem by moving to more intensive agriculture because that requires more land.
“We need to find a way to decrease our input [land] while increasing our food production.”
But there is no magic bullet to achieve this goal. Instead, an overhaul at every step of the food production chain, from the moment the seeds are planted in the soil to the point where the food reaches our dinner tables, will be necessary.
Shifting towards regenerative agriculture
For most of human history, agriculture consisted of sustenance farming – people cultivated crops and livestock to feed their households rather than to sell them for profit. This began to shift after the Industrial Revolution and emergence of market capitalism, which also saw the rise of plantation farming made possible by colonisation of overseas land and slave labour.
Industrial farming not only increased the scale on which crops were cultivated but changed the techniques used by farmers. Instead of rotating the crops that were grown on a field each year, entire plantations would be dedicated to a single crop. This monocultural approach coupled with intensive modes of farming led to destruction of local biodiversity and land degradation – within years fields would cease to produce crops.
Plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries were a “get rich quick scheme” rather than a stable long-term investment, says Frank Uekötter, a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Birmingham. Plantation owners would extract maximum profits in a short period of time from their land. Once a field became unusable they would simply move on to new land. “Up to the end of the 19th century, wide swaths of our planet were still not claimed by global modernity,” says Uekötter
But today, while we are quickly running out of vegetative land, this colonial-era mindset persists. “The current agricultural paradigm is that land is cheap and infinite,” says Crystal Davis from the World Resources Institute. “Most farmers just cut down more trees, when new land is needed.”
“But to meet our ecological goals, we need to halt the conversion of natural ecosystems into farmland,” Davis says. “We can achieve this in part by restoring degraded land back to its ecological integrity and productivity.”
Land restoration does not have to mean bringing it back to its original, pre-agricultural, state. “There’s a hybrid solution where we are bringing trees and other natural elements back to the landscape while also integrating production systems,” Davis says. “Systems that are integrated with trees and other plants often are more sustainable and more productive over the long term.”