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Feeding the World in 2050: Can We Do It without Water Exhaustion?

feeding the world in 2050 - wheat stalks

Today, 7.7 billion people inhabit the Earth. By the year 2050, the population is projected to increase up to 9.8 billion, according to the United Nations. This means that there will be two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century and already one in three people globally face some form of malnutrition. During that same year, food demand is estimated to be 60% higher than it is today while food production is slowing. These projections are heightening fears, pointing toward a global food security crisis. Solving the hunger demands and production requirements of a growing population has become a critical challenge for humanity.

There is clearly a need to increase food production, but this entails using up more of the planet’s natural resources, especially fresh water. This begs the larger question, how do you feed the world in 2050 and beyond without draining the Earth?


global food security cartoon of a man holding a fork and knife with a globe on a plate in front of him
Will threats in global food security eat us up in 2050?

Studies say that by 2030, agricultural emission will reach around seven billion tonnes. Climate change, on the other hand, affects the agriculture industry, a vicious cycle that could go on and on unless countries find ways to grow food in more sustainable ways.

Agricultural Productivity and What’s Threatening Global Food Security

More than one billion people, according to studies, are currently living in hunger and undernourishment across the globe. It is estimated that more than two billion people globally lack vita micronutrients needed for proper health. Skyrocketing prices of food are affecting the poor more than ever. In many parts of the planet, low-income families are spending a major portion of their paychecks on provisions they can hardly afford. And, the situation is only growing worse with passing time.

Agricultural issues also compound these global food security threats. Since the 1990s, the average annual growth rate of major food grains is roughly one percent. Yields have stopped increasing on 24–39% of the most crucial cropland areas across different regions. And, this trend extends to some of the world’s most important crops. CO2 deficiencies are now significantly impacting the nutrient levels in legumes, grains and other staples.

Several other factors continue to force hardships on smaller and poorer farmers such as having the equipment and infrastructure to increase food production. In India for instance, despite being one of the largest producers of crops, a staggering 60% of farmers still don’t have access to proper irrigation and are dependent on monsoons.

global food security - calories production chart
A global increase of 46% in food-calorie production is contributed by China, the U.S., India, Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria.

It’s evident that to increase the world food supply, we must intensify agricultural productivity. However, it is also notable that the agriculture industry causes environmental problems. Farming accounts for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which directly contribute to climate change.

The World’s Limited Water Resources

Water covers most of the planet. However, so many people fail to realize that only a small portion of it is available for use. Around 1.1 billion people worldwide lack daily access to water while 2.7 billion are facing growing water shortages. Bodies of water are drying up or becoming polluted including Lake Poopo, Lake Tai, the Salton Sea, and Lake Tanganyika. Because of climate change, droughts are affecting some areas while others, to an extreme level, get flooded.

global food security, water consumption chart
“Crop per drop”, the three words that will make water sustainability possible.

According to The World Bank, agriculture uses over 70 percent of the world’s freshwater. This means that feeding the world in 2050 would require a 15 percent increase in water withdrawals. By then, the agriculture sector will still be the largest user of water globally.  And, it competes with environmental, industrial and personal water needs.

“The fingerprints of climate change are everywhere, they don’t look the same in every lake,” says Catherine O’Reilly, an aquatic ecologist at Illinois State University and co-leader of a worldwide lake survey by 64 scientists.

Innovative Expansion of Irrigation Systems

Despite the seemingly dangerous trajectory of water and world food supply, solutions do exist. A team of environmentalists has published a study entitled “Closing the Yield Gap While Ensuring Water Sustainability”. It claims that feeding the world in 2050 without using up our water resources is possible.

global food security - kyle davis quoted
Growing food in sustainable ways should be a global effort.

Water consumption for irrigation could possibly increase for certain croplands by 48 percent. The authors found regions in the world with water supplies that could support this growth. Such areas are presently cultivated and rain-fed. Sustainable expansion of irrigation and economic regeneration to those particular places could result in a 37 percent increase in food production. It would be enough to feed an additional 2.8 billion people.

U.S Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) spoke compellingly about “this idea of economic regeneration, particularly the use of our land – so we are helpfully harvesting it, and leaving it in a sustainable manner for those who come after us.”

Averting the impending global food security crisis is viable, following the study’s recommendations. “Comprehensive policies that support the construction and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure while implementing monitoring systems for responsible and transparent water use will be essential,” note the authors.

Adopting Green Farming Practices to Conserve Water

Aside from well-known institutions like the U.N., F.A.O. and the World Water Council, there are other bold companies with initiatives that can help improve global food security while conserving water resources.

In California, wine growers have resorted to dry farming, a method that involves no irrigation. A non-profit organization called The Community Alliance with Family Farmers is taking the lead in advocating the practice. It has collaborated with stakeholders to garner support for reducing water usage in agriculture. The organization also conducts workshops for farmers to discuss water conservation.

Biotech company Indigo uses a combination of data analytics software and microbial treatments. Crops grown from their microbe-treated seeds have higher water-use efficiency and better tolerance to water stress. The company’s revolutionary approach of applying machine-learning to farming has resulted in a $156 million investment back in 2017.

Dynamax has developed sensors that measure moisture levels and the exact water flow into plants or trees per day. Watering plants with just the right amount of water increase efficiency and raises the yield. This can help ensure that there is minimal water wastage.

“We can put sensors on a plant that tell us exactly how much the [water] flow is for one day. So we can tell exactly what that plant needs in water,” offers Eric Pena, Business Development for Dynamax.

These companies, among many other organizations and institutions, contribute to achieving the goal of feeding the world in 2050 using less water and natural resources.

World Food Supply in 2050 through Sustainable Solutions

F.A.O. reports that the prospect for global food supply between now and 2050 is encouraging. Substantial public and private sector investments are the keys. Policy interventions will help as well. Without a doubt, sustainability should be a major focus for business and capitalism. It presents one of the largest challenges for the future of society and the future of our planet.

There is, fortunately, a myriad of approaches to address global food security challenges. Combining different techniques would be wise. All ideas are worth exploring. If various business sectors and institutions across all nations work together, feeding the world in 2050 will be an achievable goal – but we must act now.

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