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Can We Feed the World in 2050?
A Scoping Paper to Assess the Evidence

Timothy A. Wise
GDAE Working Paper 13-04
September 2013
Download the working paper
Download the related ActionAid Report
Read the Executive Summary

Since the 2007-8 food price crisis, alarms have sounded regarding our ability to feed a growing population in 2050. Some warn that we need to double food production; other estimates range from 60-70%. All feed the alarmist notion that global hunger is the result of flagging food production amid looming resource constraints. The policy prescriptions that follow -- the expansion of industrial-scale agricultural development – are deeply flawed. They ignore the true threats to our global food supply: biofuels expansion, inadequate investment in climate-resilient agriculture, especially for small-scale and women food producers, and the massive loss of food to spoilage and waste.

Action Aid's "Rising to the Challenge"Most of the recent warnings come from a group of economic modeling studies, which GDAE’s Timothy A. Wise reviews in detail for this GDAE Working Paper, which was adapted for the ActionAid report, “Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050.” He finds that many of these public pronouncements calling for a doubling of global food production are based on outdated or flawed economic forecasting and misleading characterizations of the research. More reliable estimates of current supply, productivity, and demand trends – assuming business-as-usual policies – suggest the need and the ability to increase agricultural production by 60% over 2005-7 levels by 2050. This is a far cry from doubling food production, especially since an increasing share of the world’s agricultural production goes not to food or feed but to biofuels.

Wise suggests that the goal of such economic forecasts should be to help policy-makers identify what needs to change in those business-as-usual policies that are contributing to high and volatile prices, food insecurity, and looming resource constraints on agricultural production. Notably, he finds that most economic forecasting fails to adequately guide decisions regarding several key variables:

  • Biofuels expansion - Biofuels expansion is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been poorly captured by most economic modeling to date. Few models adequately account for current trends, with some underestimating business-as-usual expansion by 100%. With national mandates and targets significantly driving biofuels expansion, new updated forecasts are urgently needed to help policy-makers assess the food security implications of current policies. Those policies are projected to divert as much 13% of cereal production from needed food production by 2030.

  • Inadequate and poorly targeted agricultural investment – Agricultural investment is key to ensuring growing food production. Whereas many projections stress the importance of agricultural productivity growth, few models assess differing priorities for agricultural research and investment. A growing consensus supports increased investment in climate-resilient food production, focusing on small-scale producers in food-insecure parts of the world. Yet most research, private and public, focuses on large-scale, input-intensive agricultural development. So too does most investment, driven by private-sector-led projects, such as the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition” initiated by the G-8.

  • Food waste and spoilage – One-third of global food production fails to nourish anyone. In industrialized countries, wasteful consumption patterns result in tremendous losses, while in developing countries poor infrastructure leads to high rates of spoilage before food makes it to market. Most forecasts assume the continued waste of the food we now produce, making the alarmist calls for increased food production ring hollow.

  • Climate change – We are just beginning to understand the implications of climate change for agriculture and food security. The impacts, plagued by multiple layers of uncertainty, are poorly incorporated in most economic forecasts. With international climate negotiations stalled, urgent attention is needed to mitigate industrial agriculture’s tremendous contribution to global warming and to help developing country food producers to adapt to a changing climate.

Meanwhile a growing body of evidence, based on experiences at local and regional levels, demonstrates the long-term value of investments in smallholder farming and sustainable agricultural methods. Strategic policy changes and investments can scale-up successful approaches and expand them to regions where they are most appropriate and most needed, especially regions in which food security is tenuous despite high agricultural potential.

This working paper, and the ActionAid report based on it, reviews the economic forecasting on which most of the alarmist 2050 pronouncements are based, presents alternative modeling that can add useful insights, and identifies important areas in which further research can guide policy-makers in assessing changes to failing business-as-usual policies.

Download “Can We Feed the World in 2050?
Download the ActionAid report, “Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050
Read the Executive Summary

Visit the ActionAid site to learn more about their outreach on this topic.


Further Analysis:

Fiddling in Rome while our food burns, Timothy A. Wise and Marie Brill, Al Jazeera, October 17, 2013
Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050, Timothy A. Wise and Marie Brill, GDAE Globalization Commentary, from Triple Crisis Blog, October 3, 2013

Read more on GDAE’s work on the Global Food Crisis and U.S. Biofuels.

The Global Development and Environment Institute’s Globalization and Sustainable Development Program examines the economic, social and environmental impacts of economic integration in developing countries, with a particular emphasis on the WTO and NAFTA's lessons for trade and development policy. The goal of the program is to identify policies and international agreements that foster sustainable development.

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