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Thursday, October 21, 2021

The 2050 Challenge: How are we going to feed over nine billion people?

ADRIAN HU [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] / FLICKR
ADRIAN HU [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] / FLICKR
An ever-increasing population underscores importance of more responsible food systems

Did you know in France it’s illegal to throw away food past its “best by” date? Unsold products from grocery stores are sent to food banks, and the repurposed food generates over 10 million meals for those suffering from food instability.

In America, expired food goes to the dumpster. The United States produces the highest amount of food waste in the world. This wasted food includes food that is expired, overstocked or considered too “ugly” to sell. Today, we produce enough food to feed the entire population, yet millions do not receive enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle. In the U.S. alone, one in eight people are going hungry.

The world population grows by more than 200,000 people per day. Most of this growth comes from developing regions like Asia and Africa. Whereas the United States underwent its industrial revolution around 1760 to 1840, many underprivileged regions have only in the last few decades started to achieve the same level of manufacturing and production.

With increasing industrialization, countries also experience population booms, leading to improved diets and a higher demand for food. This includes meat-based products, which are considered luxuries.

In order to keep up with the burgeoning world population, we will need to produce twice as much food as we do today to feed the expected 9 billion that will populate the Earth by 2050. We will need to generate twice the amount of calories on the same amount of land in order to preserve our ecosystems.

Which such a large population on the horizon, we need to take a long, hard look at the way we grow food today. As it stands, we do not have the means or resources to grow enough food to feed that many people if we keep using our current systems.

Think of it this way: about 25 percent of Earth is land, and only half of that land is available for us to live on. And we only use about nine percent of land for cities, neighborhoods and factories. This leaves us with only a little over three percent of the entire planet to grow food and only on the top three feet of soil.

With our resources so severely limited, how can we expect to feed ourselves and future generations without completely destroying our planet? Consider this: between now and the end of the century, we’ll have to produce more food than we’ve ever grown in the last 10,000 years combined.

Sustainable agriculture and livestock agriculture, as two of the fastest-growing research fields today, have been trying to keep up with increasing food demands. Scientists and professors all over the globe, including at UC Davis, are working to discover more sustainable methods of growing food.

For example, Dr. Ermias Kebreab, of the animal science department, works to measure the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock to build mathematical models to search for potential solutions in animal husbandry and manure and soil management practices. His models have been used in New Zealand, the United States, Europe and Australia in order to predict the emission output in those countries.

Another professor at UC Davis, Dr. Frank M. Mitloehner, specializes in designing “environmentally benign livestock systems” –– or the effects of animal husbandry on the environment and vice versa.

He also focuses on air quality and the impacts of livestock emissions on the environment and on animal welfare and health. By reducing the impact these emissions have on animals, their overall production performance will improve, meaning more food for consumers at a lower environmental cost, Dr. Mitloehner has found.

The possibilities are endless and the research is ongoing. Now it’s up to consumers to make a change. It’s time to start reading and educating ourselves about where our food comes from and how it’s grown.

The work done by researchers like Dr. Kebreab and Dr. Mitloehner will help create a greener food production system critical for facing the 2050 challenge in a responsible way.

When we start taking charge of how we eat food, we waste less, we use our resources better and fewer people go hungry.

Written by: Alice Rocha –– asrocha@ucdavis.edu

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