Feeding the World by 2050: Can it be Done?

By Masaki Sugimoto

Tweet: Will it be possible to feed the world on food crops by 2050?

By Mark Snider

Contributing writer

The world’s population is growing rapidly, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts food production will have to increase by 70 percent by the year 2050. With limited acres of farm ground, is it possible to feed the world’s population by 2050?

Professor Stephen Long, Robert Emerson Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois, will address the problem of feeding the world by 2050 at the Spurlock Museum tonight at 7:30 p.m.

The modernization of the world’s countries presents a tough challenge for agriculturalists, scientists and policy makers. As Professor Long explained, “The reason why [the food supply will need to increase dramatically] is because not only is the world’s population growing, but the population is becoming more urban, eating more meat and wasting more food.”

Professor Long also said another problem facing agriculture is the increase in productivity in today’s food crops. Crop yields are not improving as dramatically as they have in the past.

“People have been projecting global starvation for 200 years, and we have largely avoided it by new technologies. Each time we come close to starvation, some new technology comes along,” he said.

However, he said many aspects of food crops can be improved, and these improvements could help answer the food security question.

Professor Long’s research focuses on plant photosynthesis, and he is optimistic that improvements to a plant’s photosynthetic properties could very well be a solution to the increasing food demands.

For years, scientists have worked to increase the efficiency of many plant properties, but the photosynthetic efficiency of plants has a lot of room to improve.

According to Professor Long, the improvement of photosynthesis in today’s major food crops can lead to an increase in the amount of biomass the plant produces. The improvement of plant biomass is what drove crop yields up during the Green Revolution. Professor Long is optimistic that by further improving the amount of biomass a plant produces through improvements to photosynthesis, similar results can be achieved.

Sustainability and technology are two common words when discussing the future of agriculture. While technological advancements can greatly improve crop yields, an increasing emphasis is being placed on making sure the world has a sustainable farming system for the future.

Kathleen Holthaus, a local dealer for an agricultural company called Ag Spectrum, believes that sustainable farming practices will play a large role in the future of agriculture.

“Well, there are a lot of conservation practices out there,” Holthaus said. “Farmers will have to look at a more reduced tillage system and less disturbance of the soil.”

Similar thoughts were echoed by Tom Poole, sophomore in Crop Sciences. 

“One of the biggest hot words when discussing feeding the world is sustainability,” Poole said.

“(Sustainability) is essentially making sure the planet and the environment is maintained for future years, how much land we use, care for our land, and using new innovative technologies,” Poole said.

In the meantime, Professor Long said that generating a better public understanding of new agricultural technologies will be important in the future.  

“Society is much more resistant to innovation now than 100 years ago,” he said.

[email protected]