Can agriculture meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people?

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Your challenge, or maybe it is the challenge of whoever succeeds you on your farm, is to produce food in sufficient quantities to feed three billion additional people 40 years from now. They will not be coming to your house for every holiday dinner like your in-laws, but they will be neighbors in our shrinking world who will live in metropolitan areas and not have the resources for food self-sufficiency. Certainly yields are increasing, at least when the weather cooperates, but there are many who cast legitimate doubts on whether the challenge can be met. But why would anyone doubt that we could not feed 9 billion people with our current land resources.  We’ll provide a “glimpse” into the future.

Glimpse is the acronym that Aiden Connolly and Kate Phillips-Connolly used to identify the roadblocks to productivity. They are Irish economists, and their perspective in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review is labeled as a “wicked problem.”    That is because time is running out and no one is stepping up to take charge and provide direction to the diverse food producers. While some observers blame agribusiness for being the problem, the economists see agribusiness as “an essential component to meeting the challenge.”

The researchers surveyed authorities who are close to the challenge and report, “One of the few points of consensus among the many researchers and organizations attempting to find solutions, is that the private sector will be a critical part of finding ways to get more food to more people more sustainably. Agribusiness leaders are recognizing both the moral and practical dimensions of their role.” Those authorities who provided their insight include producers, agribusiness firms, policy makers, consultants, researchers, and academics, and were asked, “What are the biggest barriers facing agribusinesses ability to feeding three billion more people?” Their collective response compiles the words identified by the acronym “glimpse.”

  1. Government bureaucracy, policies and regulations contribute substantially to the challenge of feeding the 9 billion. They contend the rules, fees, and costs of establishing and operating a business act as barriers to growth, such as the 119 days it takes to start a business in Brazil, compared to 2 days in Australia. Another part of the problem with government is corruption and the requisite bribes to engage in business.
  2. Loss and waste of food occur up and down the line from production to consumption.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates one-third of food produced in the world is lost or wasted, however volumes are much higher in developed societies than in the developing world where food is more scarce and higher priced.
  3. Infrastructure is the conveyance of food from producer to consumer, which may run fast or slow, which may contribute to spoilage, and which deals with as many ingredients as it does fully prepared food products. Large agribusiness can control its own infrastructure, but smaller private-public investment will have that as a burden.
  4. Markets can manage the challenge, but that is a complex solution and governments may get involved. Where there are food shortages there are fragmented markets and dependence upon middlemen which make it difficult for agribusiness to operate. “More transparency by agribusinesses about both the risks and the benefits from innovative (market) approaches may help ameliorate some of these factors.”
  5. Policies of government may support waste of resources or destroy the environment, such as the example the economists provide of fertile land in Russia and Argentine that remains fallow, yet cropping is subsidized heavily in other regions where crops otherwise would not be produced. In that, they take a rather dim view of biofuel programs.
  6. Science and innovation may help create higher yields and more food, but it runs headlong into societal concerns, such as genetically modified organisms. While science has created the opportunity to convert corn to fuel, it has created a backlash. But Norman Borlaug faced the same skepticism and he said, “Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.”
  7. Environmental resources, such as land and water are in short supply, and more is needed to produce a unit of food, or so it seems. However, greater productivity can be replaced by contributions of agribusiness.

The Connolly team suggests that efforts by agribusiness can overcome government bureaucracy and corruption, as well as shaping policy in constructive ways. However, they say there are no easy answers and sometimes barriers and opportunities are on both sides of the coin.

They conclude by saying, “According to a recent OECD-FAO presentation65 the 3 billion new people—mostly urban dwellers will require 1 billion tons of cereals and 200 million tons of meat. Building on the evidence that agricultural productivity has improved by 2.6% per annum over the past 10 years; they estimate that productivity will increase a further 1.7% per annum for the next 10. Compounded over the next 35 years, that will allow agribusinesses to generate the requisite 70% increase in food production.”


Population growth over the next 40 years will require more food production, estimated to be an additional one billion tons of cereal grains and 200 million tons of meat. But how can that goal be achieved? Agribusiness must be on the team to help overcome: government, loss, infrastructure, markets, policies, science, and the environment.

Can agriculture meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people?

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Wyo  |  January, 08, 2013 at 10:11 AM

Good article............wrong question. Should be....... HOW can agriculture meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people?

NW Indiana  |  January, 09, 2013 at 08:17 AM

If anything, we are actually being asked to slow down dairy production, not increase it. There are almost zero milk co-operatives taking on new dairy farms. If we truly need to increase milk production domestically, there are major infrastructure changes that must be in place if it will have any impact on feeding the global population. I heard a very true statement recently: starvation in this world is really not a food problem, it's a distribution problem. I wonder if perhaps it's really about leadership.

PA  |  January, 09, 2013 at 08:41 AM

Scientists are working toward producing meat on a petri dish using muscle stem cells (exercise and all), and Cargill already has a "casein replacement" product. Lab produced food will be more "environmentally friendly", produce less "greenhouse gas", will be "safer" (i.e. no e-coli from manure), and be viewed as more "humane". If we're not careful about how we frame this problem, we will justify ourselves out of existence. We should focus on the food security our dispersed food production system provides in contrast to centralized food production, and we should stop parroting the "our farmers can't feed the world" line.

Batavia, NY  |  January, 09, 2013 at 10:09 AM

Why do I care if we can feed the world? Why can't people of other countries feed themselves? That should be the question. It is bad enough that so many people in the USA can not feed themselves and are on food stamps.

January, 09, 2013 at 10:17 AM

We cannot feed 6 never mind 9. Those numbers are unsustainable anyway. fuggetaboutit

January, 09, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Right on. We don't need the extras anyway. A useless goal.

Ohio  |  January, 09, 2013 at 02:14 PM

The world does not need 9 billion people. It is not only a question of food, but also a question of space, waste, education, health( phisical and psycological). etc. I am glad that I will not be here to see the world get close to that. I dought that it will. Too many things can happen in this before we get to that stage.

CNY  |  January, 10, 2013 at 01:39 PM

In the long term it will be best to help people learn to produce as much of their food as close to point of consumption as possible, using the resources they have at hand. Unless there is a major breakthrough, energy will become more scarce and expensive as will phosphorus for fertilizer and will force changes in where and what kind of food is produced. Transporting food and nutrients halfway around the world cannot be sustained. In 50 years if my grandchildren elect to farm I don't think it will be like I do it now.

California  |  January, 11, 2013 at 09:39 AM

These are all good comments, however no one knows and no one can predicate with a correct answer. As long as we live in nation that cannot agree on policies set forth by our elected officials for the goodness and well being for the population that we have now what would make any one think that that our nation could control additional growth. We as a nation have already proved that we are not capable. Just look at all of the uncertainties in our world today. There is something that needs to be done as a nation before it gets to far out of hand and worrying about feeding the predicated amount of people in the distance future is one of them, but only a very small one!

Ohio  |  January, 11, 2013 at 03:12 PM

You can't feed the world with organic foods, non-GM foods, free range chickens, 15% ethanol used in fuel, all the redundant, non-value added regulation (a little regulation is good, but too much is just as bad). Rich countries can afford food like that, but emerging countries can't.

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