Will humanity be able to feed itself in 2050? The recent explosion of foresight studies
Since the early 2000s, an increasing number of foresight reports have sought to explore the possible futures of the global food system, including the overall balance between the growth in demand for food (and other uses of agricultural biomass for energy, animal feed or fibres such as cotton) and the potential for increased agricultural production. At the origin of this profusion is the diagnosis that the era of the Green Revolution is coming to an end - a 40 year period that saw spectacular yield increases and that is now showing signs of reaching its limits (indications of the stagnation of yields that had previously been increasing significantly, the impacts of agriculture on the environment, the risks associated with climate change impacts on future production, unequal access to technologies...). In addition to these production uncertainties, the demographic challenge remains very important (average projections are for the global population to increase from six to nine billion people between 2000 and 2050); especially since nutritional transitions tend to result in an increase in total calorie intake and in the proportion of it that is derived from animal products per capita, given that every calorie of animal origin requires between three and ten calories of plant feed for its production. The reasons for concern seem clear, but the main objective is to explore, in a rigorous and structured way, the different possible scenarios and the magnitude of the challenges ahead, to avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly. The profusion of foresight scenarios runs the risk of being accused of Malthusian bias, disregarding the regional and local priorities or other dimensions that are not taken into account, due to its focus on the limits of the global agricultural supply. What do these scenarios really tell us?
Firstly, the most oft-quoted scenario in the media is the FAO's baseline scenario, which focuses on a 70% increase in global food supply between 2005 and 2050, which corresponds to the continuation of food and demographic trends and to assumptions that are deemed credible in terms of the production increase in different regions of the world, provided that a major investment effort is made during this period. This scenario is consistent with other trend following scenarios. However, the message is subtle: the scope of the challenge is major, but it remains lesser than the achievements of the last forty years (during which global production increased by 150%). Above all, most of this increase in production has to take place in developing countries, because the issue of food security cannot be reduced to a global balance between food supply and demand: to ensure households have access to food products, increasing agricultural production in the least advanced countries is an essential contribution to the improvement of incomes and to the resources of food production. These scenarios present such an increase in production as a necessary condition, but it is obviously not sufficient, since the impact on incomes from increasing a country's production depends on a set of other factors, including inequality and other sectors of the economy.
In turn, the trend-breaking scenarios raise very useful questions on the possible deviations from the trend scenarios. The first question concerns the idea that the increase in food demand may not be a foregone conclusion, particularly the convergence of diets towards the current Western model. Several scenarios explore the stabilization of the average food availability at around 3,000 kilocalories per day per person, and reductions of varying extents in the proportion of animal products in diets: to justify such a break from the trend, these scenarios mention not only the reduction of consumer waste and the potential effects of policies and nutritional recommendations, but also more profound transformations of food chains that would divert the entirety of humankind from following Western consumption patterns. While some point to the need for a 70% increase in crop production, other scenarios indicate that a growth of only 30% might be sufficient if demand increase is mitigated. Conversely, one trend-breaking scenario seeks to maximise the demand by assuming that all regions of the world will consume as much meat as Western countries, which leads to a result that is very similar to the trend scenarios, even though the latter do not suppose a maximum demand. Therefore, there is room for discussion in relation to what is commonly seen as an irrepressible demand trend.
Another important question can be raised regarding the doubts over the assumptions of increasing yields that are made in the trend-based scenarios, which are sometimes very optimistic: are these assumptions robust in light of the potential impacts of climate change, environmental degradation (water, biodiversity), the depletion of certain minerals, such as phosphorus, and of fossil fuels? Underlying these figures is a major controversy on agricultural technical models (green or doubly-green revolution, see Chapter 9), and the very different predictions on the potential of various future technologies. Besides the very optimistic trend-based scenarios, which we can question in terms of the sustainability of the assumptions they make, even with the support of biotechnology, there are also scenarios that seem overly pessimistic (Agrimonde 1), which make assumptions that are overly conservative, due to climate constraints, regarding yield growth, as they are even lower than the assumptions made in the scenario that anticipates the failure of agricultural policies. It is worth noting that all scenarios, even those making conservative assumptions on yields, converge on a low or moderate increase in the area of land cultivated: such an increase therefore seems certain, given the pressure of the demand, but all the scenarios make similar assumptions about the problems of infrastructure and organization, in particular regarding land and social issues, associated with bringing new land under cultivation.
The different scenarios raise issues specific to each major world region: on one side are regions such as Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, which have a limited production potential and run the risk of becoming dependent on food imports, and for whom the limits of agricultural development could pose problems both for employment and access to food for the poor. Despite its potential to increase agricultural production, sub-Saharan Africa could belong to this category if a rapid increase in agricultural productivity is not guaranteed. On the other side are regions (such as the OECD, Latin America and the former USSR) where there is potential for a growth in production, which could lead to a race to feed the world, but where some issues will be strongly debated regarding the availability and remuneration of the agricultural workforce and also particularly the environmental impact of production growth.
Finally, several of these scenarios highlight the importance of factors for change or for inertia that are as yet unquantified: power relationships, particularly among supply chains stakeholders, issues of employment in rural areas and of migration...
What scenarios for the global balance between food demand and supply in 2050?
Agriculture and food challenges in major world regions in 2050: lessons from the Agrimonde exercise