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Feeding the farmer

As global population estimates get scaled back, our sense of priorities is beginning to change

A decade ago, forecasters said global food demand would double. Now they expect half that much. But, says AFT’s Mitch Hunter, the good news is that it may be sustainable.

Will the world’s farmers really have to double their food production by 2050? Media reports say it’s true, and many farm sources seem to repeat it almost daily.

But not all experts agree. Dr. Mitch Hunter, research director at American Farmland Trust, has analyzed the newest figures and suggests that food demand will likely increase somewhere between 20 per cent and 60 per cent.

That’s still a lot, but it doesn’t sound quite as challenging or quite as invigorating as doubling the world’s food output, especially when you mix in the kinds of yield increases we’ve seen in many crops since the turn of the millennium.

Still, the other thing that needs to be said is that 20- to 60-per-cent estimate represents a very large range. On a global scale, that’s billions of tonnes.

“It depends on how fast the global population and economy grow, and how quickly people in developing countries do or don’t adopt Western diets that are very heavy in meat and dairy,” says Hunter.

So, a lot was up in the air even before the pandemic. “COVID-19 is slowing down economic growth worldwide and I think it’s going to slow down food demand as a result, which is tragic because in many cases that will mean people are too poor to buy food,” says Hunter. “It will also mean that the emerging middle class in developing countries will be slower to move to a diet where, for example, they’re having steak on a regular basis.”

It’s expected the COVID-19 pandemic will affect fertility rates and global population growth, although again, that’s difficult to call.

Big implications

It’s hard to put an exact number on future food demand. There’s no surprise in that. What is certain, though, is that whatever the number is, it’s going to have big implications, and not just for agriculture.

It will also create new questions, and new twists on old ones. For instance, increased food demand has got to be a good thing from a farm perspective, right?

Yes, maybe, says Hunter. “It sets up the expectation that the markets are going to be exploding, demand is going to be very high, and we’re going to need more and more product, which is a hopeful future for a farmer who’s always needing to have a market to sell to.”

The problem is, will the narrative that says we need to double food production to feed so many more billions of people on the planet be pushed at all costs?

Says Hunter: “What we need to do is fundamentally rethink how we value agriculture and its products, and create the incentives in policies and markets so that farmers can prioritize sustainability and conservation alongside production.”

Even recently, global agriculture has struggled with oversupply and low prices. It seems every commodity group is trying to figure out new ways to use their crop, whether it’s a new animal feed or human food use, or for fuel or industrial purposes.

“When you compare that to where we’re headed, with more demand by 2050, we know that we don’t want to expand agricultural land, cut down forests and convert wetlands,” Hunter says. “Right now, farmers, in many cases, want to build healthier soil, protect water quality, promote wildlife and all those other environmental benefits that come from agriculture, but all the market incentives are to maximize production and cut costs. This set of incentives doesn’t recognize that soil, water and other natural resources are finite and we need to think about them in the long-term.”

Technology has been trumpeted for decades as the big global solution, but maybe we’re forgetting one very important thing. Hunter argues that a lot of the best tools and knowledge already exist on the farm to allow food production to meet demand in a sustainable way.

“We know how to make a farm more sustainable, we know that farmers should grow a diverse set of crops, have complex crop rotations, include perennial crops, disturb the soil as little as possible, add organic inputs like manure, compost and cover crops, keep the soil covered all year round. The challenge is setting up the systems that reward them and make it possible to do those things and have a profitable farm,” says Hunter. “There are leaders who are showing the way, individual farms that have figured out how to put a system together that uses that diversity and complexity to their advantage, and harness ecological processes, but the market is still just pushing for high volume and low cost.”

That focus on efficiency is also not helping our food supply chain to be resilient to shocks and crises. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated so clearly, big centralized food processing systems aren’t always best.

“There’s a greater recognition that our food system is efficient but not resilient, and having gone through a crisis, I hope that people will be more motivated to think about resilience in the food system, and that definitely means getting away from incredible consolidation back towards a more distributed model of processing food,” says Hunter. “It also means building our soils to have resilience against fluctuating weather and developing our cropping systems so that they themselves are resilient….Simplicity is good for efficiency but bad for resilience.”

Looking at the future

Hunter’s work at the American Farmland Trust (AFT) is looking at how we can learn from the past to make future food systems more resilient. In a recent report called Farms Under Threat: The State of the States, his team looked at how much agricultural land was converted to urban and low-density development between 2001 and 2016. Their next report will try to project how much more agricultural land will be threatened by 2040 through development due to population growth and climate change.

“All of the challenges get harder as we have less agricultural land to work with,” he says. “We don’t have the ability to sequester carbon, we have to produce the same amount of food on less land, the carbon that we’ve already built in the soil is often lost as that land gets bulldozed and paved over. So, having smart development and protecting farmland are all part of this overall strategy.”

As an example, the study documents that in California, agricultural land converted for development emits between 58 and 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, there could be other complicating factors that few of us have even begun to consider.

For instance, AFT is also reaching out to female landowners and non-operating landowners who play a key role in agriculture but may not be aware of how much power they have over production and conservation practices.

“These groups are increasing in terms of the amount of land that they own, so they have an important role to play in choosing who gets to farm their lands and what the terms of their leases might be,” Hunter says. “That’s a great opportunity to align those incentives and say, ‘I’d love to have you rent this land from me and I’ll give you a discount because I’d like you to use cover crops, or diverse crop rotations, or build the soil health,’” The question is, who is thinking about whether the farmer is sustainable?

What if there aren’t that many mouths to feed?

In their book, Empty Planet, leading international social researcher Darrell Bricker and award-winning journalist John Ibbitson argue that populations in many countries are already in decline and most others are heading that way, with the result being that the overall global population will also start to decline.

“The most recent studies suggest that by 2024, China’s population will be in decline and there will be fewer Chinese people every year starting in about five years,” says Ibbitson. “What does that mean for the Chinese economy? And what does it mean for exports of food to China when every year there are fewer mouths requiring feeding?”

And it isn’t only China. Canada exports to Europe, which is already losing population, and we have a free trade arrangement with South Korea, where the fertility rate has dropped below 1.0. (A rate of 2.1 children per woman is needed to maintain population.)

“All of these major markets are close to or below the replacement rate, many of them are on the brink of going into population decline, and some of them are declining already,” says Ibbitson. “That has to have an impact on Canadian exports, especially exports of agriculture.”

Ibbitson also believes that an economic model based on exports resulting from burgeoning populations in developing countries might need a rethink.

“Those populations are not burgeoning, they are stabilizing and are going to decline over time; in some cases, in 20 or 30 years those markets will cease to exist,” says Ibbitson. “But it is not in the nature of industry to think 20 or 30 years down the road; it’s hard to get them to think past the second quarter. So, this is a phenomenon that may just sneak up on us as so many other phenomena have snuck up on us in the past.”

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Angela Lovell

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