- How to Feed 10 Billion People
How to Feed 10 Billion People
Only a revolution can save us. Luckily, it is already underway. Technology, science and big data are radically changing agriculture around the world
In 2015, the international community committed itself to ending hunger in Sustainable Development Goal 2 of the 2030 Agenda under the banner “Zero Hunger”. Today, we are far off track from achieving this goal. According to the latest estimates by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), currently as many as 830 million people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from. More than 325 million people are facing high levels of food insecurity in 2023 – more than double the number in 2020.
The reasons why “the world is hungrier than ever”, as the WFP puts it, are manifold: The number one driver remains conflict, with 70 percent of the world’s hungry people living in areas afflicted by war and violence. Secondly, climate shocks destroy lives, crops and livelihoods and undermine people’s ability to feed themselves. The effects of the war in Ukraine have disrupted global fertilizer production and exports – reducing supplies, raising prices and threatening harvests. High fertilizer prices could turn the current food affordability crisis into a food availability crisis, with production of maize, rice, soybean and wheat all falling in 2022. As if this were not enough, the world is also facing huge demand to increase food production.
The world’s population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050 and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 70 percent more food will be needed in 2050 than was produced in 2009, the year FAO made its calculation. Experts have identified four main developments that are putting pressure on agriculture to meet the demands of the future: demographics, scarcity of natural resources, climate change and food waste.
Demographics And Urbanization
While the world’s population is growing rapidly and putting existing food systems under huge strain, the global diet is changing too as a result of shifting demographics: There is a growing demand for high-value animal protein, a trend that is being driven by urbanization and rising incomes. Urbanization also means that the rural population is shrinking and ageing with severe implications for the workforce and production patterns.
Global urbanization between 2020 and 2050 could lead to a net addition of 2.4 billion people to towns and cities. Urbanization stimulates improvements in infrastructure, such as “cold chains” for food safety, and it tends to raise incomes, increasing demand for processed foods and animal-sourced food: Annual per capita meat consumption is projected to reach 45.3 kg per person in 2030, up from 36.4 kg in 1997-99, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
The consumption of food, however, comes at a price. Increased meat production has severe impacts on the environment: Raising livestock accounts for nearly 25 percent of all global water use in agriculture and is responsible for 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It takes 4 kg of CO₂ to make 1 kg of red meat.
Agriculture is one of the primary producers of GHG and emissions over the past 50 years have nearly doubled. Agriculture contributes the largest share of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Projections suggest a further increase by 2050. Agriculture causes about 23 percent of human-caused GHG emissions and uses up to 92 percent of the world’s fresh water.
One effect of climate change is a marked increase in severe weather events ranging from heavy floods to extended droughts with serious impacts on arable land and crop yields. Although higher temperatures can improve crop growth, studies have shown that crop yields decline significantly when daytime temperatures exceed a certain crop-specific level.
Climate change will affect every aspect of food production. Increasing variability of precipitation and more droughts and floods are likely to reduce yields. Climate change will contribute to existing long-term environmental problems such as groundwater depletion and soil degradation, which will affect food and agriculture production systems.
According to FAO, 80 percent of the causes behind an unpredictable harvest for cereal crops in areas like Africa’s Sahel come down to climate variability. In other areas like Bangladesh and Viet Nam, coastal farmlands are often flooded by saltwater due to rising sea levels, which kills off rice crops. With half of Viet Nam’s national rice production centered in the Mekong Delta, even a minor flood can have major implications.
As climate change threatens to reduce the amount of food produced, it also reduces the amount of food people can access. This simple supply-and-demand function has big impacts, leading to massive price spikes, which tend to hit the most vulnerable the hardest: According to the World Bank, people living in urban areas under the poverty line spend up to 75 percent of their budget on food alone.
The world’s farmland is becoming increasingly unsuitable for production with 25 percent of all farmland already rated as highly degraded and another 44 percent moderately or slightly degraded. Water resources are highly stressed, with more than 40 percent of the world’s rural population living in water-scarce areas. Land shortage has resulted in smaller farms, lower production per person and greater landlessness – all adding to rural poverty.
Agriculture is a primary cause of farmland degradation. Soil erosion is caused by overcutting of vegetation, while excessive use of fertilizers to restore yields is leading to an imbalance in nutrients. Approximately 80 percent of global deforestation is driven by agricultural firms, while clearing vegetation to make way for farmland is eroding water resources.
Growing populations exacerbate water security and scarcity: The investment necessary for irrigation and water management in developing countries is estimated at US$1 trillion until 2050, says the World Government Summit, a global platform. Meanwhile, a projected investment of US$160 billion will be necessary for soil conservation and food control.
Between 33 percent and 50 percent of all food produced globally is never eaten. The value of this wasted food is more than US$1 trillion, says the industry consultancy Oliver Wyman.
To put that into perspective: US food waste represents 1.3 percent of total GDP. Food waste is a massive market inefficiency. At the same time 830 million people go to bed hungry every night and each and every one of them could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the USA and Europe each year.
Food waste is also bad for the environment. It takes a land mass larger than China to grow food that ultimately goes uneaten – land that has been deforested, species that have been driven to extinction, indigenous people that have been evicted from their land, soil that has been degraded – all to produce food that is then thrown away. In addition, food that is never eaten accounts for 25 percent of all fresh water consumption globally.
The problem, however, does not stop there: When food waste goes to the landfill, which is where the vast majority of it ends up, it decomposes without access to oxygen and creates methane, which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If food waste were a nation, it would be the third-largest GHG emitter after China and the USA.
The Response - Agriculture 4.0
Given the challenges ahead there is no doubt: Business as usual will not work. Agriculture and food systems must change dramatically. The bad news is: This will be expensive, with FAO saying that US$265 billion is needed globally per year to end hunger. The good news is: The transformation has already begun.
Over the past 50 years, the green revolution has enabled the production of cereal crops to triple with only a relatively small increase in the area of land under cultivation. The combine harvester ushered in an era of intensive, industrialized farming – and the world has come a long way since its invention in the 1830s. Today autonomous tractors, robots tending to crops and drones precisely dispersing inputs are a big leap forward from 20th century farms.
Thanks to the Fourth Industrial Revolution that has supplied every industry with new technologies, agriculture too is undergoing revolutionary changes. Experts have dubbed it Agriculture 4.0 and three general trends have been identified, where technology is disrupting the industry:
- Produce differently using new techniques.
- Use new technologies to bring food production to consumers, increasing efficiencies in the food chain.
- Incorporate cross-industry technologies and applications.
While innovations create excitement about tech’s potential on the farm, they only scratch the surface of how technology can help to tackle pressing challenges like climate change and food supply constraints. With AgriTech investments at an all-time high, start-ups and major players are thinking about ways to apply innovations like Artificial Intelligence (AI) across the entire agricultural value chain. These emerging applications could shape the future of agriculture.
AI can improve the earliest phase of the agricultural lifecycle: creating better crop inputs before seeds are in the ground. For example, the gene-editing technology CRISPR could help to design more resilient, high-yield seeds. Companies are applying AI to improve CRISPR's speed and efficacy. Because many crops are so genetically complex – corn has 32,000 genes compared to 20,000 in humans – AI is invaluable in helping researchers understand the effects of editing multiple genes.
Companies are already using these technologies to bump up crop yields while requiring less water and other inputs. Increasing yields of staple crops like corn, soy and wheat is critical. Meanwhile, combining DNA-encoded libraries and machine learning models is helping to identify new solutions to protect crops from pests. Tailored, resilient seeds and crop protection for the evolving growing needs of each region can create a more stable web of staple crops, lessening the dependency on global food supply chains and strengthening local resilience.
Weed control is essential for improving crop yields, but it is getting increasingly difficult. Some weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides, which face stricter regulation and in some cases are being banned. When chemicals are required on crops, both tractor-towed systems and agribots could apply micro-doses to the individual plants that require them, rather than spraying an entire field. Some trials have suggested micro-dosing could reduce the amount of herbicide being sprayed on a crop by 90 percent or more.
Weeding is a chore that most farmers would happily hand to robots. But for a robot to do the job properly it must be able to distinguish a weed from what is being cultivated. That is becoming easier with advances in computer vision. Agribots, driverless tractors and other types of farm automation form an industry that is expected to grow at around 23 percent a year and to be worth more than US$20 billion by 2025, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets.
Self-contained agribots will have to compete with systems towed by smart tractors. Most modern tractors and combine harvesters can steer themselves across fields using satellite positioning and other sensors. Some tractors use digital maps of crops obtained by satellites and drones to highlight the places that require fertilizer or pesticides. Big tractor producers are developing fully autonomous tractors.
As climate change effects worsen, growers need detailed real-time data to determine exactly how and when to treat their crops. AI and machine learning improve crop yield prediction through real-time sensor data and visual analytics data from drones. The amount of data captured by smart sensors and drones providing real-time video streaming gives agricultural experts entirely new data sets they have never had access to before. It is now possible to combine in-ground sensor data of moisture, fertilizer and natural nutrient levels to analyze growth patterns for each crop over time. Machine learning can harvest massive data sets to give advice on how to optimize crop yields.
Sensors are another valuable tool. They gather data pinpointing threats to a crop, like dehydration or disease, in a specific area – allowing a farmer to apply crop protection, water or nutrients only in that area. Depending on farmers’ circumstances and needs, they can select other technologies to pair sensors with.
Connecting sensors with virtual reality can create crops’ “digital twins.” Growers can use these to access their fields from anywhere and make informed decisions based on real-time data. Using sensor data to inform precision spraying of safe, effective crop protection can produce higher yields of healthier crops.
In precision agriculture, real-time weather forecasting helps farmers with day-to-day decisions on when and how much to irrigate, fertilize and apply pesticides to their crops.
Controlled-environment agriculture promises to further reduce the impact. Some smart greenhouses are completely automated, run by algorithms that ensure optimal conditions for plant growth by adjusting inputs like roof ventilation, artificial lighting and heating.
Ultra-high resolution imaging can spot early symptoms of disease, water stress and soil degradation, while drones spray fertilizer, pesticides and water with pinpoint accuracy. By reducing the guesswork in farming, smart agriculture enables crops to reach their full genetic potential without the excessive use of chemical inputs.
Biotechnology is another field that continues to make breakthroughs. Advances in seed science are making crops more resistant to drought, pests and infestation, boosting agricultural productivity and increasing the resilience of food producers to environmental shocks.
These are fundamental and complex changes. The word revolution does not appear out of place. A study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on “Technology to Feed the World” says: “The interconnected nature and complexity of the food system highlights the need to take a systems approach to food policy, where any intervention or innovation is evaluated across multiple elements.”
This means that technology cannot simply be applied, according to an “anything goes” approach. Considering the global challenges and the agri-sector’s universal responsibility, policy is key: Decision makers must identify the opportunities these innovations present, uncover unintended consequences, assess the maturity, feasibility and transformative potential of new technologies and applications and identify barriers to successfully implementing innovations globally and at scale.
Modern food systems must provide proper health and nutrition, deliver economic opportunities and growth and promote environmental sustainability. The technology to feed the world will soon be available. It is a question of political will to make it happen for everyone.