No discussion of food security seems to occur without some reference to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) forecast of a global population surpassing nine billion people in 2050. The question of how we feed this particular number by this specific year has worked as a slogan and effectively focused people on global food security. But population growth alone does not fully describe the problem ahead or its immediacy. Our research at Gro Intelligence indicates this simple forecast has failed to adequately identify a much more pressing need at an even earlier date.
Growth in food demand comes from growth in both population and per capita income. The two drivers occur in varying mixtures around the world. The statistics add up to show rapidly growing demand, and it’s not clear who will step up with supply. Major producing regions such as the US and Europe already operate at close to peak efficiency and likely cannot increase production much more. South America has abundant land and resources, but can only expand at the cost of deforestation. Production forecasts for other regions of the world show solid growth, but still fail to fill the demand gap.
Those forecasts assume that the current agricultural system will remain unchanged. We can expect a global shortage of 214 trillion calories per year by 2027 if no significant action is taken. However, with a determined willingness to reform practices and policies, the world can grow enough food for everyone.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus warned that since population grew exponentially and agricultural production grew only arithmetically, humanity could expect a gloomy future of limits and misery due to hunger. Thankfully we now know that his forecast didn’t work out. In fact, the brightest years of Western Civilization followed in the 200 years after his prediction, largely because he underestimated the power of human ingenuity to boost food production. Yield increases beyond the wildest fantasies of Malthus’s most bullish contemporaries have continued to this day. US farmers in Iowa harvest five times as much corn in 2017 as their grandfathers and grandmothers did on the same parcels of land in 1940.
Global production improvement, however, has not been uniform. Major producing regions have emerged as others became major importers. Jumps in demand have not caused disaster, because every time world famine threatened, innovation appeared and saved the day. But per capita incomes and population in emerging economies are rising at unprecedented speeds and in a more nuanced and potentially dangerous fashion than one or two simple numbers indicate. Given current USDA and FAO production projections, which assume the continuation of current farm practices, the world will run out of food. We will need another wave of innovation to get through the coming calorie crisis.
When we set out to solve at which point global demand for food would surpass our current agricultural system’s structural capacity to meet that demand, we first analyzed a basket of key agricultural commodities, such as various cereals, oil crops, and roots and tubers. These crops are critical components of diets around the globe. The straightforward calculation would have been to find the difference between the production and consumption quantity of the commodities in various countries. But rather than looking at the mass produced and consumed, we calculated the caloric value of each tonne of food before we examined country-specific trends. We care about food for its nutrition, not how much it weighs. By approaching the model from a caloric viewpoint, Gro aimed to bring the food security discussion closer to what matters and found results that suggested we need a more imminent call to action.
It’s easy to quantify production or consumption in tonnes and use the same measurement when discussing food shortages, but that doesn’t take nutritional needs into consideration. For example, a kilogram of corn has over 2.5 times the number of calories as a kilogram of rice and over twice the number of calories as a kilogram of cassava. Affluent diets further stress the supply balance. A kilogram of beef requires about 6.5 kilograms of grain to produce.
Using data that had been transformed through our ontology, we aggregated consumption and production statistics for our basket of core crops in every country around the world from 1960 to the present. First, the amount of calories in a tonne of each crop was calculated to arrive at an annual sum of calories consumed and produced in each country. Next, the calorie gap was defined in each country to be the difference between the calories domestically produced and consumed.
Just 40 years ago, less than a handful of regions had a calorie surplus. People outside of Europe and the Americas had little protein in their diets, and most of Europe was net flat to small net importers of calories. China, during this period, maintained a small net export balance. The agricultural system supported only 3.5 billion people.
40 years later, the world’s population has more than doubled. Diets worldwide have improved greatly, with protein in some form now a staple in most of the world. China has become the largest food importer in history by simultaneously growing its population and upgrading its protein consumption with new prosperity. South American production agriculture has boomed to join North America as the breadbasket of the world. Europe and Russia have fully recovered from the devastation of World War Two to become net exporters of calories. The Green Revolution in India allowed the country to become food self-sufficient and in the past decade even a small net exporter.
According to Gro Intelligence forecasts, the increases of net calorie imports to China, India, and Africa will far exceed the increases in production from North America, South America, and Europe, and there will be a nearly 214 trillion calorie gap per year in 2027. All this assumes that there will be no systemic change to meet the calorie deficit challenge.
Two examples illustrate the daunting dimensions of the problem as currently defined. A tonne of corn (maize) has about 3.65 million calories, so we would need an extra 58.4 million tonnes each year by 2027 if we wanted to fill the gap with only corn. The largest producer in the world (the US) will only produce around 360 million tonnes in 2017, and 139 million of those will go to make ethanol.
Another way to think about these hundreds of trillions of calories is to link it to Big Macs. A Big Mac has 563 calories. This means that in 2027, our global food system will be short of 379 billion Big Macs to feed everyone in India, Africa, and China. This, by the way, is a lot more Big Macs than McDonald's has ever sold.
Calorie consumption in a country grows in two principal and intertwined ways: by income growth and by population growth. The world already saw the multiplier effect from high levels of both in China over the past 20 years. China and India are two of the strongest economies in the world and the two will continue to grow. Africa’s story over the near future is a similar tale of growth. Africa’s population is projected to overtake that of China and India in just six years. In a repeat of the China experience, high per capita income growth is projected to occur across the African continent as well. Several African countries have already been growing at record rates in the past decade. By 2023, China, India, and Africa combined will make up over half the world’s population.
While population growth has a readily understood effect on caloric needs, economic growth takes more study to completely assess its impact.
To figure out the exact effects that this growth will have on calorie demand in the future, we first calculated the relationship between non-extractive GDP per capita and calorie consumption. Non-extractive GDP excludes the mining and energy industries because profits in these sectors usually don’t get widely distributed or contribute to caloric consumption growth. As an example, many oil-rich countries have the same per capita caloric requirements as their poorer neighbors because the oil wealth stays in the ruling class’s hands.
We then forecasted future non-extractive GDP per capita using GDP and population forecasts. Caloric consumption per capita forecasts were then created by applying the relationship between non-extractive GDP per capita and consumption of calories to future non-extractive GDP per capita. The total caloric forecast for each country in the world was then obtained by multiplying those forecasts by population forecasts.
After obtaining projected caloric needs, the next step was determining future production. Growth forecasts for each crop’s production in each country were used along with the calories/tonne constants calculated earlier.
With those computations finished, we were able to determine whether future production would be able to meet the demand forecasts generated by Gro Intelligence. Our findings showed that even accounting for future production increases, the growth in demand would be so large that the world would have a 214 trillion calorie gap per year in 2027.
Increased caloric intake due to income growth compounded by exploding populations creates a grave economic quandary, especially for those in emerging economies. Even more troubling, there are no longer individual countries that the world can rely on to meet growing food demand. Rather, it will take innovation across entire regions to create the required caloric values. Luckily, history provides several lessons from which to learn. While Europe, North America and South America have historically provided the world with the predominant share of calories, the time has come for India and African countries to lead the charge.
India and most countries on the African continent were in similar food and agricultural situations by the start of the 1960s. But while India went on to undergo a Green Revolution that transformed the country into a self-sufficient agricultural producer, Africa did not. And in the last decade, India has become a small net exporter of calories. Riding high on its Green Revolution success, however, India’s agricultural sector has not pushed forward to further modernization. Without an emergency similar to that of the early 1960s, the speed of Indian reform has slowed to a crawl.
Indian agriculture is dependent on the monsoon, and therefore the country’s production is volatile. In 2016, India net imported the largest amount of wheat that it had in 10 years due to low production. Although current rice yields are only at about 40% of their estimated potential (after accounting for water and soil limitations), India faces economic and structural challenges as it attempts to improve its agricultural efficiency.
Tragically, Africa currently fills a 300 trillion calorie gap through costly imports. As the continent’s economy and population continue to grow, so too will its requirement for calories. Incorporating optimistic production growth assumptions which expect a considerable increase in African agricultural land areas (despite the fact that this would require deforestation) and taking into account Gro’s demand forecasts, gaps will increase for every region.
In particular, northern Africa’s already large food imports will continue to increase. Southern Africa currently faces a larger absolute calorie gap than eastern Africa, but both regions will see their need for imports rise at a similar pace. The rate at which western Africa’s calorie production gap increases will start to slow, in line with current government policies in the region. Central Africa hovers around zero net food imports, as it has done historically.
The continent’s huge untapped resources, with yields consistently under 50% of potential and vast tracts of fallow land, cannot come to the rescue under the current system and set of practices, which prevent many of the innovations that could lead to self-sufficiency. On the other hand, systemic and structural change to how agriculture functions across the African continent could quickly address some of the worst problems. The gulf between yields in the US and all of Sub-Saharan Africa shows how much room exists for improvement and can act as a source of inspiration.
Once we add China into the balance, we can see the true scope of the global calorie gap. China is currently at approximately 70% of its maximum potential yield for rainfed corn. Most analysts agree that its production will not be able to increase by much due to acreage and water limits. Since China has farmed its land intensively for thousands of years, they have a real shortage of additional land to plant, and what the country already cultivates suffers from varying degrees of soil depletion. Crops go thirsty because China’s dazzling success in heavy industry has contaminated much of the remaining ground- and river water. Yet, as the country grows richer, its government continues to implement policies, such as its recent ethanol mandate, that will sharply boost Chinese demand for agricultural commodities such as corn.
The growth of the three regions will create a massive global calorie demand that far surpasses constrained production. With North America and Europe producing at close to peak efficiency and South America rising to meet global demand, production from these regions will not be enough to cover the gap.
North American agriculture has grown significantly since the 1960s, largely due to improvements in yield and technology. But these improvements over the last 50 years or so are now leveling off, and it’s not clear that North America has the ability to improve its agricultural yields much further. More importantly, we’re at a point where the acreage under use by agriculture no longer has the opportunity to expand on the continent. Going forward, we and most others expect food production in the US and Canada to grow only slowly.
The European story is a similar one of near-constant production. Ancient farmland will not expand, and yields will grow slowly, if at all. Observers rightly call the past few decades of sharp yield increases in developed countries miracles. Expecting them to occur in the next decades as well in the same regions seems foolish, especially when so much potential remains unused in India and Africa.
And so, without substantial change in emerging economies or a continued miracle in North America and Europe, we reluctantly end up depending on growth in South America’s farm sector. Brazil’s new agricultural production will only come from cleared and planted acreage in newly deforested areas of the Amazon. The possible climate consequences should strike fear into the hearts of policy makers and civil society due to a loss of carbon-sequestering foliage. Amazon deforestation, with all its negative ramifications, seems likely if the world fails to address growing caloric deficits at their sources.
The world has experienced similar crises in the past. We narrowly escaped a deficit scenario like this one not too long ago when China’s emerging middle class started to prosper and consume more protein. South American farmers, recognizing an incredible opportunity, began planting more soybeans. When those beans crossed the Pacific Ocean, they satisfied China’s new demand without resultant deprivation anywhere else.
The currently popular proposed solutions to global food security tend to rely wholly or in part on behavioral changes across large swaths of the developed world. They have a point. Reducing food waste, eliminating beef from diets, or ending biofuel production would greatly add to the calories available. But it seems unlikely that consumers will voluntarily and permanently sustain these changes for abstract ideas of others’ welfare.
Focusing efforts on improving net import regions’ agricultural practices so that more calories come from local sources makes more sense. A new form of commercialization can become the path forward to self-sufficiency for people who still toil in traditional, low-yielding agriculture. Leapfrogging the Green Revolution reforms of the 1960s, the new commercialization will take full advantage of advanced analytic techniques and provision of quality data to help farmers, bankers, insurers, government officials, food and beverage companies, and players across the whole agriculture ecosystem to make decisions informed at a whole new level. The new commercialization can clear the logjam of untrustworthy risk appraisal that keeps poor farmers from accessing capital desperately needed for investment in yield improvement. The new commercialization, however, also embraces the co-existence of commercial farms alongside small scale farmers. Large, commercial farms are undeniably able to provide certain economies of scale that smallholder farms can leverage. In such a world, the burden of growth does not rest on small scale farmers alone.
With the power of modern networked data infrastructure, the vast resources of deficit regions across Sub-Saharan Africa and in India can be brought to bear on the problem of food security. The information revolution can provide the means for policy, production, and finance to work together in innovative ways to forge a novel structure that optimizes the contributions of small and large enterprises to secure the calories that people will need.
Change that has streamlined industry in the net exporting regions of the world will come to the entire ecosystem of agriculture and all the players involved. As the agricultural system evolves toward realization of its potential, that’s how innovation will again save humankind from the Malthusian trap as it has many times before.
Receive our research in your inbox
Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter!
What Information Do We Collect?
The information we gather enables us to personalize, improve and continue to operate the Services. We collect the following types of information from our users.
IP Address Information and Other Information Collected Automatically:
· We automatically receive and record information from your web browser when you interact with the Services, including your IP address and cookie information. This information is used for fighting spam/malware and also to facilitate collection of data concerning your interaction with the Services (e.g., what links you have clicked on).
· Generally, the Services automatically collect usage information, such as the number and frequency of visitors to the Site. We may use this data in aggregate form, that is, as a statistical measure, but not in a manner that would identify you personally. This type of aggregate data enables us and third parties authorized by us to figure out how often individuals use parts of the Services so that we can analyze and improve them.
Information Collected Using Cookies:
· Most browsers have an option for turning off the cookie feature, which will prevent your browser from accepting new cookies, as well as (depending on the sophistication of your browser software) allowing you to decide on acceptance of each new cookie in a variety of ways.
We collect statistical information about how users collectively use the Services (“Aggregate Information”). Some of this information may be derived from Personal Information. This statistical information is not Personal Information and cannot be tied back to you or your web browser.
How, and With Whom, Is My Information Shared?
IP Address Information:
Information You Elect to Share:
We share Aggregate Information with our partners, service providers and other persons with whom we conduct business. We share this type of statistical data so that our partners can understand how and how often people use our Services and their services or websites, which facilitates improving both their services and how our Services interface with them. In addition, these third parties may share with us non-private, aggregated or otherwise non Personal Information about you that they have independently developed or acquired.
Information Shared with Our Agents:
We employ and contract with people and other entities that perform certain tasks on our behalf and who are under our control (our “Agents”). We may need to share Personal Information with our Agents in order to provide products or services to you. Unless we tell you differently, our Agents do not have any right to use Personal Information or other information we share with them beyond what is necessary to assist us. You hereby consent to our sharing of Personal Information with our Agents.
Information Disclosed Pursuant to Business Transfers:
In some cases, we may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, user information is typically one of the transferred business assets. Moreover, if we, or substantially all of our assets, were acquired, or if we go out of business or enter bankruptcy, user information would be one of the assets that is transferred or acquired by a third party. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that any acquirer of us or our assets may continue to use your Personal Information as set forth in this policy.
Information Disclosed for Our Protection and the Protection of Others:
Information We Share With Your Consent:
Except as set forth above, you will be notified when your Personal Information may be shared with third parties, and will be able to prevent the sharing of this information.
Is Information About Me Secure?
We store all of our information, including your IP address information, using industry-standard techniques. We do not guarantee or warrant that such techniques will prevent unauthorized access to information about you that we store, Personal Information or otherwise.
What Information of Mine Can I Access?
You can access and delete cookies through your web browser settings.
California Privacy Rights: Under California Civil Code sections 1798.83-1798.84, California residents are entitled to ask us for a notice identifying the categories of personal customer information which we share with our affiliates and/or third parties for marketing purposes, and providing contact information for such affiliates and/or third parties. If you are a California resident and would like a copy of this notice, please submit a written request to the following address: 12 E 49th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10017
What If I Have Questions or Concerns?
If you have any questions or concerns regarding privacy using the Services, please send us a detailed message to email@example.com. We will make every effort to resolve your concerns.
Effective Date: March 11, 2014
b. You shall not (directly or indirectly):i. take any action that imposes or may impose (as determined by us in our sole discretion) an unreasonable or disproportionately large load on our (or our third party providers’) infrastructure;ii. interfere or attempt to interfere with the proper working of the Services or any activities conducted on the Services;iii. bypass, circumvent or attempt to bypass or circumvent any measures we may use to prevent or restrict access to the Services (or other accounts, computer systems or networks connected to the Services);iv. use manual or automated software, devices, or other processes to “crawl” or “spider” any page of the Site;
v. harvest or scrape any Content from the Services;
vi. otherwise take any action in violation of our guidelines and policies;vii. decipher, decompile, disassemble, reverse engineer or otherwise attempt to derive any source code or underlying ideas or algorithms of any part of the Services (including without limitation any application), except to the limited extent applicable laws specifically prohibit such restriction;viii. modify, translate, or otherwise create derivative works of any part of the Services; orix. copy, rent, lease, distribute, or otherwise transfer any of the rights that you receive hereunder.c. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to:i. satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request;ii. enforce these Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations hereof;
iii. detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues;
iv. respond to user support requests; or
v. protect the rights, property or safety of us, our users and the public.4. Third Party Services. The Services may permit you to link to other websites, services or resources on the Internet, and other websites, services or resources may contain links to the Services. When you access third party resources on the Internet, you do so at your own risk. These other resources are not under our control, and you acknowledge that we are not responsible or liable for the content, functions, accuracy, legality, appropriateness or any other aspect of such websites or resources. The inclusion of any such link does not imply our endorsement or any association between us and their operators. You further acknowledge and agree that we shall not be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods or services available on or through any such website or resource.5. Termination. We may terminate your access to all or any part of the Services at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, effective immediately. All provisions of these Terms of Service which by their nature should survive termination shall survive termination, including, without limitation, ownership provisions, warranty disclaimers, indemnity and limitations of liability.6. Warranty Disclaimer.a. You release us from all liability for you having acquired or not acquired Content through the Services. We make no representations concerning any Content contained in or accessed through the Services, and we will not be responsible or liable for the accuracy, copyright compliance, or legality of material or Content contained in or accessed through the Services.b. THE SERVICES AND CONTENT ARE PROVIDED “AS IS”, “AS AVAILABLE” AND WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF TITLE, NON-INFRINGEMENT, MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND ANY WARRANTIES IMPLIED BY ANY COURSE OF PERFORMANCE OR USAGE OF TRADE, ALL OF WHICH ARE EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMED. WE, AND OUR DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AGENTS, SUPPLIERS, PARTNERS AND CONTENT PROVIDERS DO NOT WARRANT THAT: (I) THE SERVICES WILL BE SECURE OR AVAILABLE AT ANY PARTICULAR TIME OR LOCATION; (II) ANY DEFECTS OR ERRORS WILL BE CORRECTED; (III) ANY CONTENT AVAILABLE AT OR THROUGH THE SERVICES IS FREE OF VIRUSES OR OTHER HARMFUL COMPONENTS; OR (IV) THE RESULTS OF USING THE SERVICES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS.7. Limitation of Liability. IN NO EVENT SHALL WE, NOR OUR DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AGENTS, PARTNERS, SUPPLIERS OR CONTENT PROVIDERS, BE LIABLE UNDER CONTRACT, TORT, STRICT LIABILITY, NEGLIGENCE OR ANY OTHER LEGAL OR EQUITABLE THEORY WITH RESPECT TO THE SERVICES FOR ANY (I) LOST PROFITS, DATA LOSS, COST OF PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES, OR SPECIAL, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE, COMPENSATORY OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER, SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES (HOWEVER ARISING), (II) BUGS, VIRUSES, TROJAN HORSES, OR THE LIKE (REGARDLESS OF THE SOURCE OF ORIGINATION), OR (III) DIRECT DAMAGES IN EXCESS OF $50.00.8. Governing Law and Jurisdiction. These Terms of Service shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of New York, including its conflicts of law rules, and the United States of America. You agree that any dispute arising from or relating to the subject matter of these Terms of Service shall be governed by the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the state and Federal courts of New York County, New York.9. Miscellaneous.a. Modification. We reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to modify or replace any of these Terms of Service, or change, suspend, or discontinue the Services at any time. Your continued use of the Services following notification of any changes to these Terms of Service constitutes acceptance of those changes.b. Entire Agreement and Severability. These Terms of Service are the entire agreement between you and us with respect to the Services, including use of the Site, and supersede all prior or contemporaneous communications and proposals (whether oral, written or electronic) between you and us with respect to the Services. If any provision of these Terms of Service is found to be unenforceable or invalid, that provision will be limited or eliminated to the minimum extent necessary so that these Terms of Service will otherwise remain in full force and effect and enforceable. The failure of either party to exercise in any respect any right provided for herein shall not be deemed a waiver of any further rights hereunderc. Force Majeure. We shall not be liable for any failure to perform our obligations hereunder where such failure results from any cause beyond our reasonable control, including, without limitation, mechanical, electronic or communications failure or degradation.d. Assignment. These Terms of Service are personal to you, and are not assignable, transferable or sublicensable by you except with our prior written consent. We may assign, transfer or delegate any of our rights and obligations hereunder without consent.e. Agency. No agency, partnership, joint venture, or employment relationship is created as a result of these Terms of Service and neither party has any authority of any kind to bind the other in any respect.f. Notices. Unless otherwise specified in these Term of Service, all notices under these Terms of Service will be in writing and will be deemed to have been duly given when received, if personally delivered or sent by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested; when receipt is electronically confirmed, if transmitted by facsimile or e-mail; or the day after it is sent, if sent for next day delivery by recognized overnight delivery service. Electronic notices should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. No Waiver. Our failure to enforce any part of these Terms of Service shall not constitute a waiver of our right to later enforce that or any other part of these Terms of Service. Waiver of compliance in any particular instance does not mean that we will waive compliance in the future. In order for any waiver of compliance with these Terms of Service to be binding, we must provide you with written notice of such waiver through one of our authorized representatives.h. Headings. The section and paragraph headings in these Terms of Service are for convenience only and shall not affect their interpretation.Contact. You may contact us at the following address: 12 E 49th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10017.