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Photo of people in rice field with a rice machine.

Farms in low-lying nations like Bangladesh are vulnerable to impacts of rising seas from climate change.

Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic Creative

Dennis Dimick

National Geographic

Published May 22, 2014

We don't worry much about food, especially when it is plentiful and cheap. Only when prices rise do we we pay much attention to any potential problems with the food supply. In the United States food has been relatively cheap for decades—typically costing less than 10 percent of our income—so we often take it for granted.

Perhaps we shouldn't. Quite a few people these days aren't taking food for granted, and it's not just the more than 800 million people worldwide who don't have enough to eat, or the more than 47 million in the U.S. who need food assistance. Whether we'll have enough food at affordable prices has been a particular concern for many scientists and economists since price spikes in 2008 caused unrest in places such as Egypt, Bangladesh, and Haiti.

This week in Washington, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which for years has been immersed in questions about food and its supply—where it comes from, what kind and how much we grow, how we use or waste it, and whether we will have enough in the years ahead—gathered to discuss solutions to what its members see as an emerging food crisis.

These researchers see a collision ahead: between a rising world population that wants to eat more high-quality food such as meat and dairy, and a climate system that is diminishing harvests in many areas. Storms, floods, heat waves, and droughts are occurring with increasing frequency, trimming some crop yields across the planet.

That's a problem, because we will need more harvests of the major grain crops—rice, wheat, and corn—in the decades ahead. Those crops are the basis of nearly all the food we eat—even meat, because we feed grains such as corn, wheat, and soy to meat animals.

How do we meet the challenge of dramatically rising food demand? Jonathan Foley, a University of Minnesota researcher, is among many seeking solutions. In the May issue of National Geographic, he outlines a five-step framework for feeding 9 billion people by mid-century. Foley's article opens an eight-month series in the magazine on the future of food.

Beside the linkage between climate change and food supplies, this week's Chicago Council meeting focuses on improving harvests in vulnerable regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where harvests are low or unreliable and the need for food solutions is escalating. Topics include "sustainable intensification" of agriculture, which means getting better yields without damaging the land and water; improving irrigation in Africa; and using field schools to teach improved farming techniques.

Climate change gets some attention too. The group is examining how agriculture—which is responsible for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions—can reduce its impact on climate through precision tillage and fertilizer use. Discussants also emphasized the need for accelerated crop research to breed more climate-resistant crops that can survive heat waves, droughts, floods, and saltwater.

The group issued a report today that calls for the U.S. to make food security—investments in research, education, technology, and data—a top priority for the long-term, especially in the face of documented climate impacts on harvests.

The U.S. Agency for International Development also announced an initiative to help improve the nutrition of mothers and children in developing nations. It's part of a broader program called Feed the Future that aims to help alleviate hunger by helping farmers grow more and better crops across the developing world.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told attendees at the Chicago Council meeting Thursday that Feed the Future has lifted more than 12 million children out of poverty and improved the welfare of more than 7 million farmers.

The United Nations projected last year that the world's population would reach 9.6 billion by 2050, up from nearly 7.2 billion now. A large portion of the increased food demand in decades ahead is projected to result from rising appetites for meat; several pounds of grain are needed to grow each pound of meat.

Connecting Dots: The News in Perspective

We are entering uncharted territory. The March report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the vulnerability of food supplies to rising temperatures and extreme weather in years ahead. Studies already show that yields are being damaged by rising levels of carbon dioxide, increasing temperatures, heat waves, and droughts. The 2012 Midwest U.S. drought, for example, damaged crop yields and drove prices up.

Growing enough food for a booming world population as the climate changes is cited often as being among the greatest challenges to face humanity. Yet, young people who can help meet this challenge are not easy to find. One report this week indicated that U.S. agriculture is facing a shortage of trained scientists.

So not only must we grow more food, we must grow more people interested in growing more food.

Dennis Dimick is National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and flickr.

25 comments
Claudine Fleury
Claudine Fleury

Reality Check: According to Canada's census, there has been a 50 year decline in farming. Canadian farmers, off the record, have confided and researchers such as myself confirm, that a food market crash in north america will take place within 18 months to 3 years max especially in Canada and the United States. The fact is our governments invest everywhere but somehow forgot to invest in food futures in the past 50 years of visible and statistical decline. This is nothing but clear and present negligence. 

BIkramjit Dam
BIkramjit Dam

It is really a thing of concern,the third world countries especially the African countries as well as countries like Bangladesh,Pakistan should get all the unwanted and wasted "Hygenic" food from the richer countries

robbie butler
robbie butler

also waste food should be sent to africa too feed people that are starving

robbie butler
robbie butler

see thats what happens when small farms/smallholdings get no support

Kai Rabenstein
Kai Rabenstein

What your otherwise excellent article fails to mention is the obesity pandemic. The human story is far more complicated than simple population growth, technological development and (one hopes) cultural progress. A malignant combination of our paleolithic genes (designed to protect us from famine) and base human instincts (profit motive and instant gratification) has been the driver behind rapidly accelerating levels of obesity, already reaching more than 50 percent of the population in some Middle Eastern and Pacific Ocean countries. The WHO has called for concerted efforts in reducing this to plateau out by 2025, but few believe that goal to be realistically achievable. A new report published by the University of Washington at Seattle's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation carries forward the work of the landmark 2013 Lancet Global Burden of Disease study by surveying the global population weight changes over the past 3 decades: Rates of overweight and obesity (BMI > 25) rose from 29/30 percent to 37/38 percent (men/women), and 62 percent of the world's obese individuals live in developing countries. Recent research by Lobstein suggests that to reduce BMI to the (medically and financially sustainable) levels of 1980, UK food energy consumption would have to drop by 8 percent, costing the food industry approximately £8.7 billion per annum. What politician is going to touch that proposition with a very long barge pole? A UK government report published last year ranked resource crises (food, water, power) as the likeliest causes of civic catastrophe, ahead of natural disasters and war. But how can we persuade individuals and corporations to voluntarily accept restrictions on their freedom of choice as consumers and entrepreneurs?

S. Ophof
S. Ophof

In 1 place the article states '9 billion', in the next '9.6'.  Is rounding off so difficult these days?  Or is the author too scared to use '10 billion'?  I'm also fairly sure the figure '10' is a very conservative estimate.

'Not having enough to eat' is a euphemism for 'starving', whereas 'needing food assistance' simply means they waste their money on unhealthy food.


All in all, overall, and stressing the point of sustainability on ALL fronts for ALL people world-wide for the next 100,000 years, the world's population would need to be cut back to something on the order of 10 million people.  Meaning something like 50-200 million.

Who gets to choose which single person out of every 1000 alive in 2050 will remain alive?  Better yet, who chooses the 999 per 1000 who are to be killed?

avraham hazan
avraham hazan

The strong habit of consuming food and the difficult for the leaders of the world to change habits of wide public make the needed changes impossible. The average citizen is not aware of scientists' warnings. It is beyond his everyday life-climate change and weather cannot be handled. Superior force.

Joel Burgess
Joel Burgess

One thing not addressed that seems sad to me is how the obesity epidemic feeds into higher food consumption.  Not only is it more socially accepted, but we have companies trying to find ways to make us stuff more food down our throats.  They manipulate via MSG, portion sizes, sugar, and other quasi-unethical methods.

Damien Chupa
Damien Chupa

I used to work in a "big box store".  Not going to mention which one.  Has anyone else worked in these places?  So much food goes directly into the garbage.  If the can has a little dent nobody will buy it.  Anything dealing with the bakery is thrown out two days before the best before date.  A tub the size of a single bed and three feet deep full of old meat products would be emptied into a large truck every 2 weeks.  Produce has to arrive at a specific temperature.  I've seen multiple pallets of food stacked 6 feet high all go into the garbage because the temperature was 2 degrees too warm.  They used to send the young people to the back with all the "throws".  They loved hurtling a watermelon into the massive trash compactor and watching it smash.  The fruit inside looked fine but the skin had blemishes.  If one egg breaks in a dozen, eleven more eggs get thrown out.  This goes on everywhere in North America in thousands of locations.  Most of this food is perfectly fine to eat and I'm sure would fill up many stomachs.  It was corporate policy being followed.  It's all superficial nonsense.  It's about not getting sued.  The greed in this world and the need for some sort of fantasy protection is the cause of the waste.  People here are brainwashed by the television to think the food is actually supposed to look like stage food.  This is the true problem when it comes to food.  I just solved the world's hunger issues by pointing this out.  Have a nice day. 

Jenny Estrella
Jenny Estrella

Learn from Israel. They turned a desert into a highly productive nation, able to produce food with very little water and manpower. Seeing a dairy farm in Israel is a mind-blowing experience --- have never seen anything like it in terms of efficiency ----without sacrificing the welfare of the animals. I know, I know, it is not cool to admire Israel at the moment, but stop being manipulated by the media and give credit where credit is due.

Linh Tong
Linh Tong

Very interesting and informative article "we must grow more people more interested in growing more food". Thanks so much for such a nice writing. How can we do that while around the developing countries, people race for business administration? How to inspire young people? It is never easy to make a mental change!

Engr. Saifullah
Engr. Saifullah

crop diversification needed based on location and climate


Steve Shoap Sr.
Steve Shoap Sr.

I am developing several systems to help with the drought.

One system is a digitally controlled relay pumping system

that allows for a large hose to pump water for very long 

distances. It can deliver emergency water for irrigation, 

or for drinking water after an earthquake breaks water mains.


www.electric-fluid-pipeline.com


Another invention is a lower cost intelligent irrigation system.

A wire pair is embedded in the PVC pipe, and this removes the 

need to separately trench a wire pair to control the sprinklers.


www.water-wire-irrigation.com


Please help me get support to further develop these systems.


Claudia Eira
Claudia Eira

@Damien Chupa


Everything you said is very true, and very unfortunate. I think that globally, people just don't CARE about these issues.. "It's not my problem, so I'm not going to do anything about it" although it is EVERYONES problem! All over the world people go hungry, or better yet, in the same state where they throw away perfectly good food,  there are people going hungry. It doesn't make sense that because of these 'food regulations' companies are forced to throw away this food... instead of donating to a local homeless shelter, our giving those dented cans to local food banks, setting up an 'Ugly Food' stand with discounted prices so who ever doesn't mind eating a perfectly fine, blemished watermelon  can buy it!

The real problem is 'turning a blind eye' to these issues. How can this change? By starting TODAY and educating children on these issues, spreading awareness (be it social media, word of mouth, anything!)just as society has 'brainwashed' us all these years!

Harry Callahan
Harry Callahan

I'm not downplaying Israel's achievements by any means -- it's really spectacular what they've managed to do with a piece of discarded desert wasteland. But in all fairness, they needed a lot of help and a lot of money from the USA in order to make that happen. They are by far the single largest recipient of US foreign aid. I'm not saying any other country could have done it, just that everything has to come together just right in order to achieve that outcome: the know-how, the resources, and the work ethic. Few places are blessed with all the necessary ingredients.

Damien Chupa
Damien Chupa

@Jenny Estrella All of these imaginary lines we call borders are contributing to humanity's "de-evolution".  For thousands of years we were free to go where the food was.  For thousands of years we teamed up with nature.  For thousands of years we were nature.  Nature nurtures.  We stabbed nature in the back when food became something of monetary gain.  Stabbed ourselves in the back.  Now we walk with open wounds and empty stomachs.

Damien Chupa
Damien Chupa

@Wylie Mitchell Everyone needs to go grab a calculator.  Divide the world population by the acreage of something like Canada.  You'll now realize the world isn't crowded after all.  You could give every man, woman and child each a quarter acre and fit everyone in Canada.  Everyone gets a garden and most of the world is empty.  Strange isn't it?

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