Rising Global Food Demand: An Introduction

By Beatrice Trascau

Global food demand has been increasing over the course of the past century, leading to increased food production and, as a consequence, an increase in the environmental impact of intensified agriculture [1]. Current trends show that demand will continue to increase, and production would need to double to meet the demand projected for 2050, which has important implications for the environment [1]. A key question to ask is what exactly is driving this growing demand. In this article, I will discuss the observed drivers of increasing global food demand and how these tie into global food security.

Meta analyses done across both countries and years, show that per capita demand for calories or protein increases with per capita GDP [1]. This means that observed patterns of increased food demand are a result of increased wealth leading to increased purchase power. Across the world, we can see that the richest nations consume 256-430% more calories and protein per capita than the countries with the lowest GDP [1].

One defining aspect of diets in wealthier countries is the high consumption of resource-intensive items, such as meat and dairy [2,3,4]. Studies estimate that given current trends, worldwide demand for animal products would see a 62-144% by 2050 [5]. This has important environmental implications, as raising animals requires a high volume of water and land [6]. Animal products also have a low conversion rate of crop calories into edible foods [6]. This is mainly due to the fact that significant quantities of feed are necessary to raise animals for human consumption, with one study finding that 63 megatonnes of feed protein are required to produce 4.7 megatonnes of animal protein [7]. Therefore, increasing demand for animal products could put even more strain on the current agricultural system. However, policies must tackle this issue with a multi-faceted approach, aiming to shift diets in wealthy countries away from the over consumption of animal products, as well as increasing the efficiency of existing agricultural lands, closing yield gaps, reducing waste, and halting agricultural expansion into forested areas. 

As demand and production for food increases, so does food waste, with studies estimating that between one third and half of all grown food is wasted [2]. The reasons behind why food is wasted vary regionally, with wealthier countries wasting due to cosmetic reasons and portion size, and low-income countries wasting food due to lack of appropriate storing and transportation facilities [8,9]. Therefore, when tackling food waste, it is important that policies are regional and adapted to each community’s needs.  

Additionally, chronic malnourishment currently affects 1 billion people worldwide, with one in seven people lacking access to food due to poverty, increasing food prices, and unequal distribution [10,11]. Therefore, humanity is now faced with the challenge of producing enough food to meet rising demands while also minimising food insecurity. Combating food insecurity requires an approach which tackles the causes of food insecurity, instead of its symptoms. Many of the strategies suggested for meeting increasing demands can also be used to tackle insecurity, such as sustainably increasing the efficiency of existing agricultural lands, improving irrigation, and improving food storage and transportation facilities. 

Ensuring a food secure future could have important environmental impacts, and the extent of these impacts will largely depend on how these demands are met. Currently several different strategies have been proposed for consideration. Firstly, meeting increasing demands could be done by expanding the area available for agriculture. However, this would have devastating environmental impacts as it would lead to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of deforestation [1]. Another proposed strategy is to intensify agricultural practices on the farmland currently available. While this would help meet growing demands, it would also require an increase in the quantity of fertilizer and pesticides used, which can also negatively impact the environment [1]. Though this strategy has its own set of disadvantages, it would halt deforestation for agricultural expansion, which could offset some of the detrimental environmental impacts of intensified agriculture on existing lands. Lastly, increasing food availability and delivery by shifting diets in wealthy countries away from the overconsumption of resource-intensive products could also be a solution. However, changing the current consumption patterns could be a slow process and increasing food availability and delivery in food insecure communities would require important financial investments.Overall, our current agricultural system will need a radical reinvention, putting those most vulnerable at the top of its priority list while also reducing environmental harm. 


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