Resource Magazine — November/December 2014
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Tony Grift & Martin Bohn

Greatest Challenge Ever Faced ...... Feed the World in 2050

In 2011, Resource published a special issue on the “Farm of the Future.” That issue gave us the opportunity to ponder what agriculture would look like in the future—it was all optimism and fun. The current issue, titled “Feed the World in 2050,” has a more pressing purpose and a more serious tone.

Feeding the predicted global population of nine billion in 2050 and beyond will be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, dwarfing both the Manhattan Project and Project Apollo. Here’s why: so far, humanity has solved virtually all its problems by throwing more resources at them—a good example is the Green Revolution—but the era of massive resources and simple solutions is coming to an end.

Most readers of Resource are well aware that the main problems we face are climate change, water wars, nutrient depletion, and soil degradation. I agree that these are tenacious problems, but we could, as Stephen Colbert suggested, keep moving north until we are plowing the Arctic Circle. In my view, the biggest threat to our survival is energy. It doesn’t take a PhD in macroeconomics to predict that finite resources are, well, finite. And yet we have no plan for what to do when the energy runs out. We have developed the technology to look back in time to the beginning of the universe, but when it comes to looking a century ahead, we’re rather uninterested. Or maybe we don’t like what we see.

At the birth of the United States in 1776, the main source of energy was wood. That continued until 1885, when coal surpassed wood. The Coal Age lasted until 1950, when coal was overtaken by oil, which continues to be our main source of energy. When the oil is finally depleted, which energy source will replace it? Will we have a Renewables Age, or maybe a Fusion Age? Will it be back to coal and wood? Anyone?

In the 1950s, Dr. M. King Hubbert famously predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1971. He was spot on. His idea boils down to a Gaussian discovery curve followed by a similar Gaussian production curve that trails discovery by about 20 years. This curve can now be applied to world oil production. It is clear that world oil production has peaked, and fracking and tar sands only delay the inevitable. I would also like to add the “Grift coupling” here (since I stole the idea from Hubbert), stating that any activity that is highly correlated with oil production will follow the same curve. If we don’t somehow decouple food production from oil, then the End of Oil will drag us down to widespread poverty and hunger.

What about solar, wind, and water power? All of these alternatives can be debunked on the back of an envelope; they simply can’t replace oil. In addition, a large percentage of the population does not understand that electricity is not an energy source, but only a carrier. The same goes for the “hydrogen economy.” Hydrogen is another energy carrier, and it has serious storage issues. We can generate electricity from coal, too, but during the eight hours it takes to fill the electron tank of your $100,000 Tesla, about 65% of that energy has been lost. What’s more disturbing is that this is really not so bad, considering that the energy efficiency of the transportation sector is just 21%!

Meanwhile, bioenergy currently makes up 4.5% of the U.S. energy budget, which is negligible, especially considering the increasing demand for energy in the future.

The problem is a matter of scale: humanity consumes 86 million barrels of oil per day (mbpd), or about 1,000 barrels each second. The U.S. alone, with just 5% of the world’s population, uses 20 mbpd. Try replacing that with an equivalent amount of any alternative. And most of the oil is contained in the Middle East—not exactly the friendliest of environments.

We count on politicians to make the major decisions, but they never look beyond the next election cycle. And any politician who implements strategies that hurt people in the short term will not be re-elected. So, although the problem of feeding the world in 2050 can be explained with a spreadsheet, solving it is a very different matter. It was easier to put a man on the Moon. President Obama acknowledged the problem in a speech he gave back in 2012:

“We’ve seen how spikes in food prices can plunge millions into poverty, which in turn can cause riots that cost lives and can lead to instability. And this danger will only grow if a surging global population isn’t matched by surging food production.”

I would like to remind Mr. Obama that surging food production will not happen unless we develop long-term solutions to our looming energy problems. Forget about hope, let’s change!

If there is a positive side to feeding the world in 2050, it’s that this topic is near to the hearts of ASABE members and their colleagues around the world. In fact, when we solicited contributions, we received so many useful and intelligent responses that ASABE will publish a second collection in Resource next year! Lastly, great issues like this would not happen if it weren’t for the unwavering support and creativity of the Resource staff. Kudos to them, and my thanks.

Six months ago, while mulling over their morning coffee in the café at the University of Illinois Center for Genomic Biology, an agricultural engineer and a plant geneticist envisioned a cross-society magazine on the theme “Feed the World in 2050.” This special publication would combine ASABE’s Resource with CSA News, the member magazine for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. Letters went out (“You have been selected as a potential contributor...”), and the response was gratifying.

But back to the coffee. The brew is good, the pastries are tasty, but more importantly, the exchanges between the Dutchborn engineer (my colleague Tony Grift) and the German-born plant breeder (me) are always engaging. I look forward to this part of my daily routine. Tony and I delve into the news of the day, discuss scientific problems, and ask ourselves why others haven’t thought of the brilliant solutions that we are coming up with! Our views often differ, but it’s those differences that make our conversations so thought-provoking for me.

Germans, like me, are not known for our optimism, but I trust human ingenuity to solve the challenges we face. Science constantly extends the boundaries of the known universe, and we increasingly understand how life on this planet is organized and how it functions. We might not be able to feed the population of 2050 using the tools of today, but we will make discoveries that pave the way to future food security.

Tony isn’t convinced. His confidence in scientific progress is not strong enough, given the enormity of the problem. “It will be impossible to produce enough food to feed nine billion people by 2050,” he tells me. As he writes in his accompanying foreword, the world economy is hooked on oil, a finite resource that humans have already exploited beyond its peak. We know that the oil is running out, but we ignore it. Given the projected population increase and the rising demand for food, the coming End of Oil will have severe consequences.

To gain more understanding about the problem of feeding the world in 2050, we asked scientists, engineers, economists, architects, and journalists— people at the forefront of research and reporting on this issue— for their ideas and advice. As the responses came in, they revealed the real complexity of this challenge, and I wondered whether the world has ever successfully addressed such a pressing need on such a huge scale.

In 2000, the United Nations defined eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, empowering women, and developing a global partnership for development, among other goals. The non-binding Millennium Declaration was signed by 189 UN member states, who expressed their intention to aggressively work toward these goals using measurable targets within a timeframe of 15 years.

The recently released 2014 progress report notes that several of the MDG targets have been met. These include the reduction of extreme poverty by 50%; saving millions of lives by successfully fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis; providing improved drinking water for more than 2.3 billion people; and promoting gender equality by eliminating disparities between boys and girls in primary school enrollment. However, critics question the success of the MDG program, as progress toward many other targets has been insufficient. In particular, sub- Saharan Africa seems to be disconnected from any positive development.

The problems we face are significant: too many people live in poverty, global climate change is really happening, and the world’s population is steadily increasing. It may seem that the size of the solution must match the size of the challenge, but that isn’t entirely true. Global problems can have local solutions.

Here is an uplifting example: Neema Urassa, a village-based agricultural advisor in the Kiteto district of Tanzania, has improved the lives of hundreds of local farmers by supplying them with improved maize seed and new information on crop management ( It’s simple!—better seed and a few changes to the way maize is traditionally grown in the region have had a dramatic impact.

Truphosa Losioki, one of the local farmers, was skeptical about harvesting more maize with the new farming practices. But she tested the system on a small plot and, based on the results, decided to make the investment of buying the improved seed. She planted the seed on 10 acres and harvested 138 bags—a record yield, considering that the previous average yield was just 30 bags on the same 10 acres. She sold 100 bags on the market and commented, “I intend to grow maize this way on many more acres of land, in order to complete my house and send my children to Dodoma University.”

Good seed, and some good information about how best to use it, changed this family’s future, empowered a woman, and led the way to educating her children. Imagine what great things can be accomplished if we put into action all the ideas from our contributors in these special issues of Resource and CSA News.

Maybe I’m an optimist after all.