As standards of living rise and people worldwide are diversifying their diets, the world’s population will require about 30 to 70 percent more food, depending on whom you ask. An urgent solution is needed for how we will feed 9.5 billion people by 2050 in a changing climate that is altering how we grow our food.
This promises to be a daunting exercise. Global warming could have the most serious impact on the parts of the world where populations are growing the fastest. Most of the planet’s remaining arable land is in Africa, a continent that is rich in growth and promise, but, for now, still poor in income and infrastructure.
One can’t help but wonder how we’ll come up with enough food for all.
These worries are not new. The world’s population grew from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 2.5 billion in 1950. Then, too, many feared that agricultural output couldn’t keep up. As late as the 1960s, people warned of a ticking “population bomb.” Yet, the “Green Revolution” in agriculture delivered new techniques and scientific approaches to growing food. In the last 40 years, we were able to double agricultural output without taking much new land into production.
We at Cargill believe the world can do that again. But it won’t just happen by itself. Just as we did in the second half of the 20th century, we have to keep innovating and using science and technology to get the most out of every acre. We have to build the infrastructure in the developing world to make that happen.
The complicating factor, compared to the 20th century, is climate change. We don’t know the full consequences global warming will have, but we do know that we are beginning to see them today. One in 100- and 1,000-year heat waves, droughts and floods are becoming routine. The planet is seeing months and years of record heat. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014 was the hottest year on record, and 2015 is on pace to be even hotter.
Evidently, we all need to do what we can to keep climate change in check. Cargill has been lowering its own greenhouse gas emissions steadily, and we’re taking measures to eliminate deforestation – a significant source of greenhouse gases – from our supply chains. But we also need to prepare ourselves for a more volatile world.
The solution is not to cut and run, with individual nations moving to protect their own populations with trade barriers and short-term advantage winning the day. We need to recognize our interdependence. If each country grows the crops it grows best and imports the ones it doesn’t, the total amount of available food will grow. If extreme weather wipes out harvests on one end of the globe, we need a global trade system that allows food to flow there freely from the other end.
That is by no means an easy task. In December, another U.N. Climate Summit will be held in Paris. We hope for the best, but we also know that past summits have shown how hard it is to rise above politics as usual and cooperate for substantial progress.
That’s why Cargill and its partners – the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for American Progress, the Center for Naval Analyses and Mars, Inc. – are organizing the Food Chain Reaction crisis simulation in Washington on November 9 and 10. We want to put real-life decision makers in the eye of the storm to see how they handle disruptions to the global food system and react to the consequences of their own decisions. We are optimistic that the world can rise to the challenge. The point now is to learn how to do it.
Joe Stone is a corporate vice president of Cargill and a member of the company’s Sustainability Council.