Thinking of Food on World Population Day

By Ross Miranti

UN Population Fund

UN Population Fund

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on July 11, 2013.

Today is World Population Day, an appropriate day to reflect upon the sustainability of our growing world population. While this year’s theme, “Adolescent Pregnancy,” addresses an important issue, Brighter Green is also interested in the consumption habits of the growing world population – a topic that has not been the focus of a World Population Day since it was established back in 1989. The impact of global food consumption alone has massive repercussions for the climate, food security, fresh water supplies, and the preservation of natural lands.

The world population is currently around 7.1 billion and growing. A few years ago, the UN projected that the world would reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with a 70% increase in demand for agricultural output, though they have since updated their population projections to 9.6 billion people by 2050 – which would logically imply that food output would have to increase even more than 70% by mid-century, based on their previous estimates. But regardless of how accurate this new projection turns out to be, certainly the world population will continue to grow and global food systems will be pushed increasingly hard to produce more food.

One of the reasons why the demand for agricultural output is increasing at a higher rate than population growth is because global diets are rapidly shifting to resource-intensive foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, which require much more water and agricultural land. Livestock production currently occupies 70% of all agricultural land, which equates to about 30% of the earth’s ice-free surface. As developing countries start to consume higher levels of animal-based foods, the demand for rangeland and feed crops shoots up.

Expanding food production by 70% or more in the coming decades to meet increasing global demand is problematic if not nearly impossible. Not only has the yield per acre of most major crops leveled out, having approached their biological limits, but climate change is decreasing agricultural productivity and accelerating the encroachment of food production onto forested land. This is a recipe for more climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion.

But as Dawn Moncrief of A Well-Fed World often emphasizes in her organization’s advocacy for a more sustainable global food system, ‘projections are not destiny.’ Just as population growth can be mitigated, so too can global consumption habits, either through public policies or social education. The alternative to active mitigation is a market-driven solution, whereby plant proteins become more popular as the price of animal proteins rise, or a market-driven, Malthusian disaster, in which livestock continues to occupy an increasing share of our food supply – inefficiently cycling livestock feed through animals and rendering our food system incapable of meeting the hunger needs of the world’s population. In the latter case, poor people would be the least food secure because they could not access or afford these high-demand animal-based foods or even other foods grown on the world’s limited arable land.

The World Resource Institute has been addressing the issue of food and sustainability in a series of papers entitled Creating a Sustainable Food Future. It’s first installment calls attention to three important points about food and sustainability for the coming decades: 1) it is necessary to address population and global diet, 2) it will be important to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the developing world, and 3) there is a vital need to decrease the world’s impact on the environment and natural resources in order to maintain adequate food production.

As these and other issues related to global diet and sustainability become more pronounced, global leaders will have no choice but to give the matter greater attention. Who knows, one day we might even have a World Population Day dedicated to what the world population is eating.

Image courtesy of UNFPA

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