How Can We Feed Billions More People?

Storm clouds pass over a soybean field on October 2, 2013 near Salem, South Dakota. Scott Olson/Getty

One out of every eight people in the world goes hungry. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, which calculated this figure, has also reported that 852 million of these 870 million hungry people live in developing countries. Worse, the world population will likely balloon from its present 7.1 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Scientists say this will be coupled with a projected doubling in demand for crops by that same year.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment now argue in a Science paper, however, that it is possible to feed at least 3 billion more people—with existing cropland. These researchers claim that a “small set of regions, crops, and actions” could “provide strategic global opportunities to increase yields, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and deliver food more efficiently from what is already grown.” The researchers identify where these changes should be made for maximum impact, including ways of reducing agricultural impact on climate, water quality and consumption.

"It’s one thing to say 'Make farms more efficient,'" James S. Gerber, an author of the study, tells Newsweek, but "we want to make sure that the improvements are implemented in the best possible place. We want people to get the biggest bang for their buck."

This they do by identifying “leverage points”—specific places where farmers should start implementing efficiency-improving techniques. Their research focuses on 17 “key global crops” that cover 58 percent of global cropland and comprise 86 percent of the world’s crop calories, according to the study.

Some things that can significantly improve world hunger seem pretty obvious but have not been implemented on a wide scale. For example, much of the world’s farmland yields a lot less food than it could. If this “yield gap” could be filled by just 50 percent—that is, if all farmlands worldwide produced just half of what they could produce—it would provide “enough calories to meet the basic needs of [approximately] 850 million people,” according to the study and Gerber.

Diet can also play a key role in food supply. When crops are used to feed animals rather than for direct consumption by humans, there is a “substantial loss of calorie efficiency,” the researchers note. “If current crop production used for animal feed and other nonfood uses (including biofuels) were targeted for direct consumption,” they reason, approximately “70 more calories would become available, potentially providing enough calories to meet the basic needs of an additional 4 billion people.”

And then there’s the issue of food waste. The researchers cite “Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention,” a study by Jenny Gustavsson, Christel, Cederberg, and Ulf Sonesson, all of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, that claims between some “30 to 50 percent of food production is wasted.” If this level of waste was reduced in the United States, China and India, this “alone could feed [some] 413 million people per year.”

If all of these inefficiencies were addressed, the researchers estimate that present cropland could feed an additional 5 billion people. Though the researchers recognize that this is the ideal outcome—and as such, unlikely—they approximate that present cropland could feed more than 3 billion if problems were addressed in key areas, such as the U.S. and China.

Explains Paul C. West, the study’s lead author: “It’s obvious that we have to figure out how to grow more food to feed all the people now and in the future. What we’ve really aimed to do here is create a roadmap—which areas in the world, what crops, and what types of action—could have the greatest impact…across the globe.”