September 14, 2015

14/09/2015: The Pelletier Column: Beyond nine billion

by Christophe Pelletier
First published in Milling and Grain, June 2015 

In the past few years, the number of nine billion by 2050 has become iconic. Although it certainly indicates the magnitude of the population growth to come, this number must be looked at both with caution and critical thinking. 

The United Nations developed several scenarios: low, medium and high population growth. The nine billon number comes out of the medium scenario. Depending on which scenario will come true, the actual number would be in the range of 7.5 to 11 billion. It will be interesting to follow closely the updated forecasts because future strategies will differ significantly between the different scenarios.

The number of humans by 2050 is only part of the whole picture. Regardless of whether it will be more or less than nine billion, the actual goals to feed the planet are about global consumption and that goes quite beyond just the number of people on planet. Consumption patterns will influence greatly what and how much of it the food and agriculture sector needs to produce.

In developed countries, the daily consumption of calories and protein is already almost twice the nutritional needs. As the economy develops in more and more countries, so does consumption. In a world where all inhabitants would consume in the same way as the people of developed countries currently do, feeding nine billion would actually mean supplying the equivalent of nutritional needs of almost 18 billion.

Consumption habits will influence both quantity and quality. Depending on consumption patterns, the volumes of production that are needed will vary. The effect of diet will not be just about volumes on the consumers’ plates. The ratio between animal products and vegetal products, both for human consumption as for animal production, will differ between different diets. Within the animal protein group, the choice of which products are popular will also affect the overall agricultural production needed to meet future demand. Since different productions require different amount of energy, agricultural inputs and water, the environmental impact of the diet will also vary.

As more consumers become more affluent, they tend to become more demanding. It is human nature. Maslow’s pyramid of needs describes the process quite well. Once the basic physical needs are covered, people choose something more satisfying emotionally. In the case of food, once food security is achieved, consumers look for something more gratifying, be it in terms of quality, status or societal effect of their choices. Markets are evolving differently between different regions and they will keep on doing so.

In developed countries, consumption will not increase simply because most consumers in these countries already have reached their physical limits to eat more. The aging population do not eat as much as younger people because they have lower nutritional needs and also because they pay more attention to their health. In these countries, health, environment, origin and production methods will increasingly determine what people buy.

In emerging and developing countries, consumption follows a similar pattern to what happened in developed countries in the second half of the 20th century and the wealthier groups already show a similar pattern as the developed countries. It is logical to expect that some of these markets will also reach stagnation and show further differentiation in the future decades. This process will take place at a variable pace, depending on the countries’ economic and demographic conditions.

If consumption markets vary a lot between regions and countries, so do production conditions, depending on their natural situation and their access to production inputs. Not everything can be produced everywhere. Sustainability is a delicate balancing act between the need to produce sufficient affordable food and preserving the ability to do so. It is also a bit of a dilemma between the marketing urge to sell more and responsible production. The future will likely be about producing not just where it is cheaper as it has been in the previous decades, but producing where it is the most sustainable to do so.

It is both the responsibility of the consumers as of the producers to shape the future. To meet all the needs in terms of volumes and at the same time adapt to produce in new environmental conditions, consumers will need proper education and information so that they can consume more responsibly. They will enjoy food better. In parallel to consumer evolution, producers will have to say stop if something is not sustainable and not produce it anymore. Not all desires can be fulfilled. That is part of responsibility. Producers and consumers will have to accept that markets play a sustainability role as they regulate price. What is rare or expensive to produce must remain pricier. Covering nutritional needs must remain affordable, but not all foods have to be dirt-cheap and their real value must certainly be appreciated more properly. 

Christophe Pelletier is a food and agriculture strategist and futurist from Canada. He works internationally. He has published two books on feeding the world’s growing population. His blog is called 'The Food Futurist'.          

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