A growing population, climate change and changing diets pose unprecedented threats to our food security.

Humanity’s food production and consumption has had, and will continue to have, significant impacts on the environment, directly affecting our ability to produce food in the future. The world is already facing a crisis in global food security. The population is increasing, meaning that there are more mouths to feed, and it is unlikely that this will stabilise by the end of the century. Recent estimates suggest that the population will rise to 9.7 billion by 2050.[1] At the same time, diets are changing as incomes grow through economic development, which can have positive impacts in helping to lift people out of poverty and improving nutritional outcomes. However, richer people tend to both eat more food[2] and eat more meat and dairy, which are resource intensive to produce and can have a higher environmental impact than other food types.[3]

The food security challenge

If diets continue as they are, it is estimated that we will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than we have produced in all of human history,[4] with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projecting that 60 per cent more food will be required by 2050.[5]

However, there are two major externalities that are not captured by the market that have to be acknowledged: the impact on health and the impact on the environment. In terms of health, around one in three people globally suffer from some form of malnutrition – whether hunger, micronutrient deficiency, overweight or obesity. Recent data suggests that there are now more people in the world who are overweight and obese than underweight, with the two combined accounting for more than half of the world population – a new ‘normal’.[6] The trends in the data suggest that this is likely to continue over time.

In terms of the environment, resources for agriculture are becoming scarce. If diets continue as they are, by 2050 we will need 120 per cent more water and 42 per cent more cropland, lose 14 per cent more forest and produce 77 per cent more greenhouse gases. However, agriculture already uses 70 per cent of all fresh water and there is, by good approximation, no new land for agriculture.[7] In fact, land area for agriculture is more likely to shrink due to urbanisation and sea level rise, but also because we will need land for negative emissions technologies such as bioenergy, carbon capture and storage to meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C – this requires global emissions to reach zero by 2040 to 2060.[8]

This implies sustainable intensification of agriculture on existing land – producing as much as we can in the most sustainable way. However, even if we are able to close yield gaps, we still need 56 per cent more water and 5 per cent more land, and will lose 8 per cent more forest and produce 42 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions. Clearing rainforest or natural landscapes is not desirable because it leads to biodiversity loss and more emissions. It is therefore clear that sustainable intensification on its own will not be sufficient – demand-side measures on consumption and waste will also be required.

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Dr Riaz Bhunnoo is director of the Global Food Security programme.

[1] Gerland P, Raftery AE, Ševčíková H, Li N, Gu D, Spoorenberg T, Alkema L, Fosdick BK, Chunn J, Lalic N and Bay G (2014) ‘World population stabilization unlikely this century’, Science 346(6206): 234–237

[2] Tilman D, Balzer C, Hill J and Befort BL (2011) ‘Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(50): 20260–20264

[3] Wellesley L, Happer C and Froggatt A (2015) Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to lower meat consumption, Royal Institute of International Affairs/Chatham House

[4] Ja C (2009) ‘Food needs over next 50 years greater than all of human history, says CSIRO’,,
30 September 2009.

[5] Alexandratos N and Bruinsma J (2012) World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 revision, ESA working paper 12-03, p 4, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[6] NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (2016) ‘Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19.2 million participants’, The Lancet 387(10026): 1377–1396

[7] Godfray HCJ, Beddington JR, Crute IR, Haddad L, Lawrence D, Muir JF, Pretty J, Robinson S, Thomas SM and Toulmin C (2010) ‘Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people’, Science 327(5967): 812–818

[8] International Energy Agency (2016) World Energy Outlook