2050: A third more mouths to feed

Food production will have to increase by 70 percent - FAO convenes high-level expert forum

23 September 2009, Rome - Producing 70 percent more food for an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050 while at the same time combating poverty and hunger, using scarce natural resources more efficiently and adapting to climate change are the main challenges world agriculture will face in the coming decades, according to an FAO discussion paper published today.

The UN agency will organize a High-Level Expert Forum in Rome on 12-13 October 2009 to discuss strategies on "How to Feed the World in 2050". The Forum will bring together around 300 leading experts from academic, nongovernmental and private sector institutions from developing and developed countries.

The Forum will prepare the ground for the World Summit on Food Security, to take place in Rome 16-18 November 2009.

Cautious Optimism

"FAO is cautiously optimistic about the world's potential to feed itself by 2050," said FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem. However, he pointed out that feeding everyone in the world by then will not be automatic and several significant challenges have to be met.

Ghanem said there was a need for a proper socioeconomic framework to address imbalances and inequalities and ensure that everyone in the world has access to the food they need and that food production is carried out in a way that reduces poverty and take account of natural resource constraints.

Global projections show that in addition to projected investments in agriculture, further significant investment will be needed to enhance access to food, otherwise some 370 million people could still be hungry in 2050, almost 5 percent of the developing countries' population.

According to the latest UN projections, world population will rise from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion in 2050 - a third more mouths to feed than there are today. Nearly all of the population growth will occur in developing countries. Sub-Saharan Africa's population is expected to grow the fastest (up 108 percent, 910 million people), and East and South East Asia's the slowest (up 11 percent, 228 million).

Around 70 percent of the world population will live in cities or urban areas by 2050, up from 49 percent today.

Food demand

The demand for food is expected to continue to grow as a result both of population growth and rising incomes. Demand for cereals (for food and animal feed) is projected to reach some 3 billion tonnes by 2050. Annual cereal production will have to grow by almost a billion tonnes (2.1 billion tonnes today), and meat production by over 200 million tonnes to reach a total of 470 million tonnes in 2050, 72 percent of which will be consumed in developing countries, up from the 58 percent today.

The production of biofuels could also increase the demand for agricultural commodities, depending on energy prices and government policies.


Despite the fact that 90 percent of the growth in crop production is projected to come from higher yields and increased cropping intensity, arable land will have to expand by around 120 million hectares in developing countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Arable land in use in developed countries is expected to decline by some 50 million hectares, although this could be changed by the demand for biofuels.

Globally, there are still sufficient land resources available to feed the future world population. FAO cautioned, however, that much of the potential land is suitable for growing only a few crops, not necessarily the crops with highest demand and it is concentrated in a few countries.

Much of the land not yet in use also suffers from chemical and physical constraints, endemic diseases and lack of infrastructure which cannot be easily overcome.  Therefore significant investments would need to be undertaken in order to bring it into production. Part of the land is also covered by forests, or subject to expanding urban settlements. A number of countries, particularly in the Near East/North Africa and South Asia have already reached or are about to reach the limits of land available.   


Water withdrawals for irrigated agriculture are projected to grow at a slower pace due to reduced demand and improved water use efficiency, but will still increase by almost 11 percent by 2050.

Globally, fresh water resources are sufficient, but they are very unevenly distributed and water scarcity will reach alarming levels in an increasing number of countries or regions within countries, particularly in the Near East/North Africa and South Asia. Using less water and at the same time producing more food will be the key to addressing water scarcity problems. Water scarcity could be made more acute by changing rainfall patters resulting from climate change.

Yield potential

All in all, the potential to raise crop yields to feed a growing world population seems to be considerable, FAO said. "If the appropriate socio-economic incentives are in place, there are still ample ‘bridgeable' gaps in yield (i.e. differences between agro-ecologically attainable and actual yields) that could be exploited. Fears that yields are reaching a plateau do not seem warranted, except in a very few special instances."

Stronger interventions

FAO called for stronger interventions to make faster progress towards reducing and finally eliminating the number of hungry and poor people. Investment in primary agriculture should become a top priority and needs to increase by some 60 percent since agriculture not only produces food but also generates income and supports rural livelihoods.

Poverty reduction also requires investments in rural infrastructure (roads, ports, power, storage and irrigation systems); investments in institutions, research and extension services, land titles and rights, risk management, veterinary and food safety control systems; and non-agricultural investment including food safety nets and cash transfers to the most needy.

Without developing and investing in rural areas in poor countries, deprivation and inequalities will remain widespread, though significantly less than today, FAO said.

Photo: ©FAO/Jon Spaull
Using water more efficiently will be key to produce more food.