Feeding a Growing Population

The Demographic Transition Model is an illustration of human population as a function of time and affluence. It shows that as a country develops, it moves from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth rates and low death rates. According, the population starts off small, grows rapidly, and levels off over time.

An illustration of the five stages of the demographic transition.

Currently, developed countries like the United States and those in Western Europe are at Stage 5, while countries in Latin America and Africa are approaching the transition. These countries are therefore currently in the state that is illustrated in the middle of the graph, in which their populations are rapidly growing as access to technology, healthcare, education, and equal opportunity between genders increases.

These growing populations obviously have countless impacts on the globe, but I will focus on the problem of food in this blog post. The world population is currently at 7.4 billion, and if it is projected to reach 11 billion by 2100, what measures must be taken to sustain that population? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global average for food consumption per capita in 2015 was 2940 kcal/day. This represents a 4.8% increase from the 1997-1999 period, and the increase was seen in all parts of the globe.

Global and regional per capita food consumption (kcal per capita per day)
Global and regional per capita food consumption (kcal per capita per day)

If we assume that dietary preferences remain static and that the 2940 kcal/capita/day statistic stays true, that would mean that if the global population reaches 11 billion, 32.3 trillion kcal/day would be needed to feed everyone on the planet. David Pimentel, a researcher at Cornell University, estimates that 28 calories of fossil fuel energy are burned to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption and 3.3 calories of fossil fuel energy are burned to produce 1 calorie of grain protein for human consumption. When considering the global tendency towards an increase in animal protein consumption (especially for developing countries) coupled with the need to grow crops to feed those animals, the future of energy needs for food production is staggering.

Amongst the myriad of problems resulting from an increased need for food, numerous solutions have also been presented to reduce the burden of the planet in producing our food such as making use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to increase yields to converting food waste into biofuel to be reused in food production.

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One plan that I found to be particularly intriguing was Jonathan Foley‘s Five Step Plan. Foley makes use of a systems approach in solving the global food crisis, and outlines a plan to limit the amount of land used for farming, maximize efficiency on existing farms, shifting diets away from meat consumption, and reducing waste. What draws me to Foley’s thinking is that he takes into account the interconnectivity of factors that have caused the problem in the first place and then proposes a solution that enacts change at different levels (consumer, producer, input, output).