Can't Make Enough Food? Make Fewer People

Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

A crowded pool at Toshimaen amusement Park on August 31, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. 13,000 people enjoyed the cool pool, on the final day of the summer holiday when the temperature was 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Close

A crowded pool at Toshimaen amusement Park on August 31, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. 13,000... Read More

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Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

A crowded pool at Toshimaen amusement Park on August 31, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. 13,000 people enjoyed the cool pool, on the final day of the summer holiday when the temperature was 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solve the world's future food needs? That's easy. Make more food or make fewer people. Pick one.

Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of a new memoir, Breaking New Ground, suggests we think about fewer people.

Water resources from Asia to the U.S. Great Plains are being depleted. Rising affluence in developing counties is creating demand for grain-fed meat. Plant yields themselves are approaching the limits of what photosynthesis can bear, Brown said on a press call yesterday. In China, which eats half of the world’s pork, people who now eat about 120 pounds of meat a year are adopting diets more like that of Americans, where consumption is over 200 pounds annually. As the nation’s middle class grows to nearly a billion people by mid-century, the food system will become severely strained, he said.

“This tightening food situation is affecting the world’s poor in a way that is not reassuring at all," he said.

The key to feeding people, Brown suggests, is by trying to manage population growth. Leaders need to ensure the planet’s capabilities aren’t overwhelmed, he said.

“The population issue hasn’t been on the table, but it needs to be,” he said. “We need to be dealing with basic social questions.”

The world may struggle to grow and trade itself out of its hunger problem, so population management better get started, Brown said: About 842 million people experienced chronic hunger over the past three years.

Large agricultural companies bet growth and trade will move along reliably enough to feed the world. Gathered in Des Moines for the annual World Food Prize, representatives from Monsanto, DuPont, Deere and others say that shipping food from regions where technology is creating a surplus to areas where productivity is struggling to keep up can keep the world fed as the global population zooms past 9 billion by 2050.

A study released today sponsored by the Global Harvest Initiative, a consortium of businesses and nonprofits, says uneven growth in global crop production will make export flows more crucial. Production in Brazil, already the world’s biggest grower and shipper of soybeans, will increasingly be used to feed China. By 2030 the Asian giant will be able to meet only 72 percent of its own food needs.

Brazil, which has invested heavily in agricultural research and development, will grow twice as much food as it needs by then, according to the Global Harvest Initiative. Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s most famine-prone region, will struggle the most with feeding an expanding population. Latin and South America will become an even more important breadbasket, the group said.

Key to meeting global food needs are technology and trade, according to the initiative, including genetically modified organisms.

“Removing barriers to regional and global trade is going to be imperative," said Erica Seitzer, a Dupont Co. employee on loan to the initiative, highlighting better crop technology and improved land and water management as a way to grow more food on finite land.

Judging by the aggregate needs — we'll need 60 percent more calories in 2050 than today, according to the World Resources Institute — both options are on the kitchen table.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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