Ohio State Agricultural Economist: Feeding the World after 2050

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 to 9.5 billion, and by the end of the century, the population in Africa is expected to be three times its current level, said Douglas Southgate, a professor in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. 

As a result, food insecurity in Africa will be much more severe than in other parts of the world, Southgate said during the Dec. 1 kickoff of the college’s 2014-2015 Agricultural Policy and Outlook series.

The series features presentations by experts from the college’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics and will be held at numerous locations across Ohio through Jan. 29. Faculty members will focus on key issues in the agricultural community for 2015, including policy changes and market behavior with respect to farm, food and energy resources, and the environment.

Using forecasts from the United Nations and other sources, Southgate surveyed the long-term outlook for global food demand.  

Total fertility rates in the United States and other wealthy nations fell to or below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman a generation or more ago, he said. These countries currently have a combined population of 1.3 billion out of the world total of 7.2 billion, Southgate said.

“With little or no demographic expansion and food consumption little affected by income growth, increases in food demand (in these countries) will be modest,” he said. “Between their own production and the imports made possible by non-agricultural exports, wealthy countries will feed themselves with ease.”

But in emerging economies, where 5 billion people currently live, substantial increases in food demand are expected during the next few decades, Southgate said.

In four dozen or so of the world’s least developed countries, which are located mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and have a current combined population of 0.9 billion, total fertility rates remain well above the replacement level, averaging 4.5 births per woman, he said.

“Even with modest growth in per-capita consumption linked to improved living standards, least-developed countries’ food demand will increase at a fast pace to and beyond the middle of the century,” he said. “Food insecurity is widespread already in these countries.

“A minority of these countries rely heavily on non-agricultural exports: crude oil, copper and other commodities rather than manufactured goods. Barring a quantum leap in food aid, food supplies will have to be produced domestically.” 

However, producing food domestically with current resources presents a challenge, Southgate said.

Though there are a few locations on the African continent that are ideal settings for farming, these locations are the exception, not the rule, he said.

“In most of Africa, soils are poor, water availability is limited, or both,” Southgate said. “Annual precipitation in the tropics and subtropics tends to be concentrated in a single wet season, which lasts several weeks or a few months and during which most rain falls in driving storms.

“Soil erosion is consequently elevated. Additionally, aside from places with recent volcanic activity, most soil in the region is of ancient geologic origin and therefore heavily weathered and infertile.”

Southgate predicted that to meet the additional demand, agricultural chemicals, which most African farmers do not use at present, will have to increase. Also, biotechnology must be harnessed if widespread hunger is to be avoided in sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

The Agricultural Policy and Outlook meetings are open to the public. A meal is provided with each meeting and is included in the registration cost. More information on the meetings, including policy briefs and presentation files from each of the presenters, can be found at go.osu.edu/2015outlook.

To read Southgate’s policy brief prepared for the 2014-2015 Agricultural Policy and Outlook series, visit go.osu.edu/u8x

CFAES News Team
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Douglas Southgate