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"Future food demand will increase between 35-56% over the period 2010-2050"

More than 820 million people in the world don’t have enough to eat, while climate change and increasing competition for land and water are further raising concerns about the future balance between food demand and supply. The results of a new study by Wageningen University and Research, IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), and the University of Twente published in Nature Food can be used to benchmark global food security projections and scenarios, and inform policy analysis and public debate on the future of food. This study is part of a research project led by UT assistant professor of philosophy, Yashar Saghai, entitled “Ethics, Politics, Knowledge and Our Planet’s Food Futures.”

Even though the food supply has increased dramatically since the 1960s, the question of how to eradicate global hunger­—one of the Sustainable Development Goals—and feed the growing world population in years to come, remains a major challenge. Climate change and increasing competition for land and water are further exacerbating the problem. This makes the need for effective policies to ensure global food security and a better understanding of the underlying causes of global hunger ever more urgent.

Food demand and risk of hunger

Scientists typically use quantified global scenarios and projections to assess long-term future global food security under a range of socioeconomic and climate change scenarios. However, due to differences in model design and scenario assumptions, there is uncertainty about the range of future food demand and the population at risk of hunger.

This study, which has been published in the journal Nature Food, focused on these two key food security indicators. Future food demand is a key driver of the required increase in food production and associated impacts on land-use change, biodiversity and climate change. A population at risk of hunger is an indicator of the number of people that face chronic food insecurity. To address this uncertainty, Michiel van Dijk, Yashar Saghai and their colleagues conducted a systematic literature review and meta-analysis to assess the range of future global food security scenarios and projections to 2050.

Range of future food demand and the population at risk of hunger 

“Our study aimed to determine the range of future global food demand and the population at risk of hunger projections to 2050. To answer this question, we analyzed 57 studies published between 2000 and 2018. We harmonized all projections and mapped them into the several highly divergent but plausible socioeconomic futures, including sustainable, business-as-usual and divided-world scenarios,” van Dijk explains. 

The study’s findings provide strong support for the view that food demand will increase by between 35% and 56% over the period 2010-2050. This is mainly due to population growth, economic development, urbanization, and other drivers. This range is lower than previous studies, which stated that food production must be doubled. Nonetheless, the expected increase in food demand may still have negative impacts on the environment and lead to biodiversity loss. To prevent such impacts, increases in food production would need to be accompanied by policies and investments that promote sustainable intensification, reduce food loss and waste and promote the shift towards a more plant-based diet.

Increase of hunger

In the most negative scenarios, the population at risk of hunger is expected to increase by 8% over the 2010-2050 period. This means that the Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and achieving food security will not be achieved. To prevent this, the researchers urge policymakers to work proactively to develop adequate long-term measures, including stimulating inclusive growth.

“Our study can fuel the public debate on the future of food by inviting every citizen to imagine and discuss a wider range of food future scenarios, rather than just a binary choice between business-as-usual and the universal adoption of organic agriculture and a vegan diet. To think responsibility and creatively about the future, we need to envision multiple plausible scenarios and evaluate their desirability and consequences,” notes study co-author and project leader, Yashar Saghai.

COVID impact on hunger

Although the study did not explicitly investigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers say that it is plausible that their range also includes the now more likely negative COVID-induced futures that are associated with an increase in the population at risk of hunger, instead of a decrease that was considered in the pre-COVID situation.

“While it is too early to understand the full impact and consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, current developments show some resemblance to the most negative archetype scenarios in our analysis, which is characterized by slow economic development, a focus on domestic security and national sovereignty, and increasing inequality. Recent developments underscore the need for (quantitative) scenario analysis and comparison as a tool to inform policy analysis, coordination, and planning for the future of food as well as wider societal issues,” van Dijk adds. 

“We hope our study will have an impact on the United Nations’ Food Systems Summit (New York, September 2021) which is intended to create an innovative agenda for the long-term transformation of the global food system,” Yashar Saghai concludes.

More information

Dr. Yashar Saghai is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Section (Faculty of BMS). Together with colleagues from Wageningen University & Research and IIASA, he recently published an article, entitled  “A meta-analysis of projected global food demand and population at risk of hunger for the period 2010–2050”  in Nature Food. The article can be read online.

The results of the study are also available in a public database.

DOI: 10.1038/s43016-021-00322-9

dr. Y. Saghai (Yashar)
Assistant Professor
K.W. Wesselink MSc (Kees)
Science Communication Officer (available Mon-Fri)