On October 12-13 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations held a High-Level Expert Forum on How to Feed the World in 2050 in preparation for its November 16-18 World Summit on Food Security. The high food prices of the past three years and the current global economic slowdown have combined to increase the number of undernourished people to one billion of the world’s 6.8 billion people. The background analysis done for the expert forum noted, “The world has the resources and technology to eradicate hunger and ensure long-term food security for all, in spite of many challenges and risks.”

The challenges are straight forward. By 2050 the human population will increase to 9.1 billion, a 34 percent increase from 2009, with virtually all of the increase in developing countries. Food production will need to increase by 70 percent worldwide with 90 percent of the increase from higher yields and increased cropping intensity (double cropping and addition of irrigation) and only 10 percent from additional land used for production. Developing countries will achieve 80 percent of their production increase from higher yields and 20 percent from more arable land. Annual cereal production will need to increase from 2.1 billion metric tons to 3.0 billion metric tons. Annual meat production will increase by over 200 million metric tons growing to 470 million metric tons by 2050. These challenges can be met if net new investment in developing countries averages $83 billion per year and gross investment, including depreciation of existing assets, of $209 billion per year. Current gross investment is estimated at $142 billion per year.

All of the 2.3 billion increase in population will be in urban areas, plus some net migration from rural areas, with 70 percent of the world’s population in urban areas compared to 50 percent today. Urban populations will increase from 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050. Food supply chains will get longer and local or regional food markets will not be able to meet food needs for an increasingly larger part of the world’s population. Urban diets are generally more diverse with less grains and other staples and more vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, and fish. Today the largest urban areas are Tokyo at 31 million, New York City at 29 million, Mexico City at 21 million, Seoul at 20 million, and Sao Paulo at 19 million. Another 39 urban areas have 5 million to 19 million people.

Arable cropland will expand by a net 175 million acres, 5 percent, by 2050. Developing countries will expand area by 300 million acres, while developed countries’ farming area declines by 125 million acres. Most of the available land in developing countries is in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and currently lacks access and infrastructure. About one-fifth of the currently used land in developing countries is irrigated and produces almost half of total crop production. Additional water is available for increased irrigation, but is most limited in the Near East/North Africa and South Asia.
The world average annual increase in yields for cereal grains has declined from 3.2 percent in 1960 to 1.5 percent in 2000. Since yields have been increasing more rapidly in developed countries that developing ones, more research and development efforts will be needed to increase annual yields in developing countries for them to achieve a 60 percent increase in total world food production from higher yields. The potential to increase yields is substantial in low-yield countries by using technology now used in high-yield countries. Developing countries have traditionally relied on public funding for technology development which has been inadequate. Private funding must increase while addressing intellectual property rights and assuring access to the technology by smallholder farmers.

South Asia has very little land to add, but can increase irrigation. The Near East/North Africa is the opposite with some additional land to add, but limited additional water to draw on to increase yields. Both regions will need to maximize yields from existing land and water resources and rely on increased import. Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa are currently using only about 20 percent of their potential cropland, and Latin America has the greatest potential to increase irrigation if that becomes necessary. International trade will be essential for moving food from the best regions to produce crops to the regions that have the least potential for increasing domestic production.

The average annual total economic growth rates from the World Bank used by FAO were 2.9 percent between 2005 and 2050, with high-income countries growing 1.6 percent per year and developing countries growing 5.2 percent per year. Those growth rates should continue to stimulate development of a growing middle class in developing countries.

While increased international trade will help meet the food security needs of many countries, it is not the solution in some of the least developed countries. Despite the growth in food production and increased trade, FAO estimates by 2050 about 370 million people, 5 percent of the population of developing countries, will still be chronically undernourished. The rate in sub-Saharan Africa will be at 7 percent with some countries at 15 percent. In countries with more than 20 percent of the population undernourished, growth in the agricultural capital stock has lagged behind population growth resulting in less capital per worker in agriculture. Investments have been declining in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with the highest prevalence of under-nourishment. These challenges have to be first addressed as domestic political and economic policies and then as public infrastructure investments that encourage saving and investing by local farmers.

These challenges are daunting, but manageable. The land use increases are modest compared to the land available. Technology is already being used in advanced developing countries that can increase yields in cereals, coarse grains and oilseeds in low-yield countries. Trade is now part of food security in many countries and can further expand to meet the needs of growing urban populations. Food trade must become freer, for exports and imports, in keeping with its increased importance in food security. The biggest challenge is to encourage investment in low-income countries that have fallen behind over the last 30 years.