Can We Feed the Growing Population?
How Innovation and Shifting Consumer Preferences Can Help Feed a Growing Planet
It’s a simple question: Will we be able to feed everyone if the population of the planet rises from about 7 billion people today to 9-10 billion in 2050? If you are a student of Thomas Malthus and buy into his Essay on the Principles of Population, then you believe this type of population increase will result in famine and poverty. The good news is that when Malthus published his famous paper in 1798 the global population was only 800 million and despite an almost nine-fold increase in population, his predictions luckily have not been realized.
Advances in agriculture, food manufacturing, and food distribution together have increased the efficiency of the global food industry to supply an ever-growing population. But if we look at today’s global food industry, we find that it is unsustainable for future demand in its current format. For the industry to keep up with a 60-70% increase in food demand over the next 30 years, it can’t continue to operate in a ‘business as usual’ mode.
What’s wrong? Three main issues plague the global food industry: sustainability, waste, and nutrition. On the sustainability front, agriculture today consumes 70% of surface and groundwater and uses 50% of habitable land while the entire food industry is responsible for up to one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, around 1.3 billion tonnes of food — almost one-third of all food produced — gets lost or wasted every year. Malnutrition — in the form of hunger and undernourishment, obesity or micronutrient deficiencies —affects almost 40% of the global population and the impacts on public health and economic development now cost the global economy almost $3.5 trillion per year.
Is there a simple answer? No, not simple. But the first step towards a solution is to understand the problem ahead of us — identify the need for more sustainable agriculture, more efficient manufacturing and distribution, and consistent delivery of nutritious food.
In the report that follows, we look at ways the industry can use innovation and technology to become more sustainable. In farming, using big data and digital agriculture such as the use of sensors, field monitoring, and aerial imaging as well as new technology in farm equipment and aeroponics can increase sustainability and decrease the amount of land required for food production. New seed technology, feed additives, alternative proteins and biofortification also help increase nutrition. Expanding agriculture in the Southern Hemisphere is also an opportunity as improving yield gaps leads to better sustainability.
On the consumer front, a shift towards health and wellness is driving food manufacturers to alter their portfolios to deliver more nutritious, indulgent, safe, and sustainable products. Consumers are also changing the way they shop for food and are becoming more conscious of where their food comes from, leading to increased supply-chain transparency.
Can we get there? We think so, but it will require (1) easier access to financing; (2) the removal of distortions in the agriculture and food market; (3) vertical integration across the supply chain; (4) easier and faster access to the market for innovation and technology; (5) better data and information; and (6) better healthier products and a change in diets to continue to prove Malthus wrong.
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