“The evidence on the folly of forecasting is overwhelming,” said British behavioral scientist James Montier, who also cautioned, “Never invest on the basis of forecasts.”
That is perhaps no better exemplified than in the dire predictions of Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 warned that population growth, if unchecked, would eventually outstrip the ability to produce enough food for mankind to survive. The Malthusian Theory became a staple of gloom-and-doom forecasts for a century or more.
Thankfully, Malthus was wrong. The ingenuity and constantly increasing productivity of agriculture — particularly U.S. agriculture — knocked the reverend’s theories into a cocked hat.
Now, some researchers say, another forecast may need to be given closer scrutiny: the one that contends global crop and animal production must double by 2050 to meet the food demands of a population projected to reach 9 billion, an increase of some 2.3 billion from today. If you’ve been to an ag meeting anywhere, or read an ag publication in the last few years, you’re aware of that prediction.
But, says Mitch Hunter, a doctoral student at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, while the underlying projection that food production needs to keep increasing is valid, the increase just may not need to be so fast.
To double food production, "We would have to increase global agricultural output faster than we ever have before, and we are at a point in the developed world where we already are pushing our farming systems to the max."—Mitch Hunter
The assertion for a doubling of food output by 2050 isn’t supported by data, he says. “Both of the projections are credible and important, but the baseline years they used are over a decade past, and global production has ramped up considerably in that time. Given how much [agricultural] production has increased recently, it is pretty misleading to continue to argue that we need to double our crop output by 2050.”
To double food production, Hunter says, “We would have to increase global agricultural output faster than we ever have before, and we are at a point in the developed world where we already are pushing our farming systems to the max. We don’t know how to double yields in these systems, especially without multiplying our environmental impacts.”
Increased food output must also take into consideration the environmental consequences, he says. “To get to the agriculture we want in 2050, we need quantitative targets for both food production and environmental impacts.”
David Mortensen, Penn State professor of weed and applied plant ecology and co-author of the study, says, “Food production and environmental protection must be treated as equal parts of agriculture’s grand challenge.”
Bottom line: Using a 2014 food production baseline and the two most-quoted forecasts of 2050 food needs, the Penn State researchers say the increase would be only 26 percent for one study and 68 percent for the other.
Given the tremendous advances in agricultural technology, varieties, and management in recent years, modern agriculture can be expected to meet the increased world food needs while leaving an increasingly smaller environmental footprint. The challenge then, as it is now, may be in getting the food where it’s most needed — and finding some way to pay for it.