NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Can The World Be Fed?

December 10, 1999

Many of the gloomy assessments of the effects of human activities on the planet have predicted that the world cannot feed its population as the number of people continues to grow. However, most of the doomsayers did not foresee the green revolution. Food production per capita grew by nearly a quarter from 1961 to 1995 even though the world population more than doubled.

But what of the future? The World Bank projected in 1994 that global population will increase to 9.6 billion in 2050. The latest projection from the United Nations Population Division is that world population in 2050 will be 7.3 billion to 10.7 billion, with 8.9 billion the most likely number. If global economic growth continues, per capita food demand will increase, too.

  • Based on the higher World Bank estimate, Indur Goklany, manager of science and engineering at the U.S. Department of the Interior, projects that total supplies of food need to increase 121 percent between 1993 and 2050 to increase global food supplies at the same rate as they increased in the 1969-1991 period.
  • In effect, this would also increase per capita food supplies by 28 percent.
  • To produce a 121 percent increase without increasing cropland would require an average 1.4 percent annual increase in agricultural productivity.
  • To put this in perspective, cropland productivity increased by 2.1 percent annually from 1970 to 1980 and by 2.0 percent per year from 1980 to 1992.

There are environmental costs to increasing agricultural output, but these are offset by habitat preservation. Since 1961, market-driven technology has forestalled the conversion of at least 966 million hectares to cropland worldwide (1.4 billion hectares was devoted to cropland in 1993).

Source: Kenneth W. Chilton, "Are Economic Growth and a Sustainable Environment Compatible?" Policy Study No. 152, September 1999, Center for the Study of American Business, Washington University, Campus Box 1027, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63130, (314) 935-5630.


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