We don’t really need to double food production by 2050. Here’s why.

It sounds daunting: by 2050 we’ll have to double our food production in order to satisfy the appetite of the planet’s rapidly expanding population. This statistic has become so deeply-ingrained, in fact, that it’s being used to shape future agricultural policy. But a group of researchers, publishing in the journal BioScience, have challenged that influential estimate, arguing that it’s due for a significant upgrade to bring it in line with recent data.

Their research actually paints a more optimistic picture of the planet’s future food needs—while stating that far more attention must be paid to farming’s environmental impact.

The oft-repeated ‘double food production’ figure arose a few years ago from some landmark studies carried out by the United Nations and others. Their findings relied on baseline food production estimates from 2005, and the predicted population increase from the time. But the new research, produced by a collaboration of researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the University of New Hampshire, and Colorado State University, reconsiders that information: for their study they used more recent data about global food production (from 2014), as well as up-to-date global population estimates for 2050 (which were actually higher than those in the original studies). As a proxy for global food demand, they focused on cereals, the planet’s most dominant agricultural crop.

Using this newer data, the researchers found, surprisingly, that a food production increase of between 25 percent and 70 percent on current levels would actually be sufficient to meet the world’s future food needs. This “recalibrated vision”, as they call it, shows that while food production certainly needs to go up, it can increase at roughly historic rates—which makes the task of feeding the planet’s population more achievable.

Importantly, the researchers say their findings could also have big implications for the environment. The dramatic call to double production by 2050 has led to a focus on agricultural intensification: “This, in turn, fosters a produce-at-all-costs mentality, which may exacerbate existing environmental challenges by increasing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and tillage,” the researchers write.

But the reduced production estimate could ease that pressure, shifting some of the focus back to the environment. “Hitting these lower targets will put much less strain on the global agriculture system—and the land, water, and air that supports it—than doubling production,” reasons lead author Mitch Hunter.

The research also highlights the fact that the impact of farming is rarely considered in studies on global food demand. Through an overarching assessment in their paper, the authors found that the agriculture sector isn’t taking big enough steps to improve its impact, with rates of emissions and agricultural pollution generally continuing to rise. “Given these challenges, it is good news that the world’s appetite in 2050 may not be as voracious as some estimates have indicated,” Hunter says.

But to prepare for the future, when environmental pressures will inevitably intensify, food production must to go hand-in-hand with specific targets to reduce its impact, the researchers say. That will require other more nuanced studies, they add, to figure out the best approaches for different crops, in different parts of the world.

So instead of panicking about production, environmental protection in agriculture should be prioritized, too. For now at least, the new data gives us some breathing room to do just that.

Source: Hunter et. al. “Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification.” BioScience. 2017.
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