The Great Balancing Act: 3 Needs for a Sustainable Food Future

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How can the world feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 in a manner that advances economic development and reduces pressure on the environment? This is one of the paramount questions the world faces over the next four decades. Answering it requires a “great balancing act” of three needs - all of which must be met simultaneously.

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  • How can the world feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 in a manner that advances economic development and reduces pressure on the environment? This is one of the paramount questions the world faces over the next four decades.  Answering it requires a “great balancing act” of three needs—all of which must be simultaneously met.
  • First, the world needs to close the gap between the amount of food available today and the amount required in 2050. According to new WRI analysis, we’ll need to produce greater than 60 percent more food calories in 2050 than in 2006 if global demand continues on its current trajectory.
  • Second, the world needs agriculture to contribute to inclusive economic and social development. Although agriculture directly accounts for only 3 percent of global GDP, it employs about 28% of the world’s population..
  • Third, the world needs to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment. For instance, agriculture was responsible for approximately 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.In addition -- 37 percent of the world’s landmass outside Antarctica is used to grow food. And agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of all the freshwater withdrawn from rivers, lakes, and aquifers.Of course, there are ways to meet any one of these needs in isolation. For instance, the world might be able to close the food gap by 2050 by converting vast areas of its remaining forests into crops and grazing lands. But doing so would worsen agriculture’s impact on climate, ecosystems, and long-term economic development. Rather, to achieve the great balancing act, the world needs to meet all three needs at the same time. There is no silver bullet to accomplishing the great balancing act. But there arepotential solutions.
  • In WRI’s new working paper, The Great Balancing Act, we propose a “menu” of these potential solutions. Some menu items reduce projected growth in consumption, such as decreasing food loss and waste. Other menu items increase food production, such as restoring degraded lands back into agricultural productivity. No item on the menu can achieve a sustainable food future by itself, and the relevance of items will vary between countries and food chains. But the combination of solutions should help feed the world while advancing economic development and reducing pressure on the environment.  
  • The Great Balancing Act is the first in a series of working papers that we’ll roll out over the next 12 months. Each subsequent paper will take a detailed look at a potential solution that could help achieve a sustainable food future. These installments will set the foundation for and culminate in the World Resources Report 2013-2014: Creating a Sustainable Food Future. To learn more about the series and sign up to receive updates, visit www.worldresourcesreport.org. With the right combination of approaches and unwavering commitment, the world could feed its 9 billion future inhabitants while simultaneously securing economic and social development and protecting the environment. The solutions are there. But governments, the private sector, and civil society will need to act quickly and with conviction.
  • The Great Balancing Act: 3 Needs for a Sustainable Food Future

    1. 1. May 2013Craig Hanson, Steward, World Resources Report Photo: Neil PalmerTHE GREATBALANCING ACTInstallment 1 of “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”
    2. 2. HOW CAN THE WORLD FEED MORE THAN9 BILLION PEOPLE BY 2050 IN A MANNER THATADVANCES DEVELOPMENT AND REDUCESPRESSURE ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
    3. 3. Source: WRI analysis based on Alexandratos, N., and J. Bruinsma. 2012. World agriculture towards2030/2050: The 2012 revision. Rome: FAO.CLOSING THE FOOD GAP
    4. 4. Source: World Bank. 2012. World Development Indicators. Accessible at:<http://databank.worldbank.org/Data/Home.aspx> (accessed December 13, 2012).SUPPORTING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
    5. 5. Source: WRI analysis based on UNEP (2012), FAO (2012), EIA (2012), IEA (2012), and Houghton(2008) with adjustments. See working paper for full citations.REDUCING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
    6. 6. A MENU OF SOLUTIONS IS REQUIREDGlobal annual crop production (kcal trillion)*Source: WRI analysis based on Bruinsma, J. 2009. The Resource Outlook to 2050: By how much doland, water and crop yields need to increase by 2050? Rome: FAO; Alexandratos, N., and J. Bruinsma.2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: The 2012 revision. Rome: FAO.2006 - foodavailability2050 - baseline foodavailability needed9,50015,500Menuitem 1Menuitem 2Menuitem 3Menuitem 4Menuitem 5Etc.* Includes all crops intended for direct human consumption, animal feed, industrial uses, seeds, and biofuelsIllustrative
    7. 7. www.worldresourcesreport.org

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