By Dan Murphy, veteran food-industry journalist and commentator for Vance Publishing

It's become almost boilerplate the media has repeated the assertion so often: In the next 40 years, the world's farmers must double agricultural output to feed the nine billion people expected to be alive by 2050.


But how many policymakers — not to mention the rest of us — take that fact seriously enough to understand its implications? Now, a new book by an award-winning Australian journalist spells out not only the magnitude of the challenge but some eye-opening ideas to preempt the crisis.

In his book titled, "The Coming Famine," Julian Cribb, who keynoted the recent Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, argued that the world is running dangerously low on fresh water, arable farmland, fossil fuels, fertilizers, agricultural technology and stable climates.

Urbanization spurred by population growth, is a critical factor. As cities worldwide swell to previously unimaginable size, they will consume the earth’s best farmland, Cribb warned.

"By 2050, we will have dozens of cities with 30 to 40 million people living there," he wrote. "The total land area devoted to urban areas worldwide will exceed the entire land mass of the United States."

That will create obvious challenges to farm output. Unlike the Green Revolution of the 1970s, however, this time there won't be a "simple" solution. "We're facing a situation [now] that cannot be handled with techno-fixes or policy changes."

Cribb explores another angle to the looming threat of food shortages that is seldom included in the calculus: The global seafood catch is currently about 100 million tons a year, representing the primary source of protein for billions of people around the world. However, harvest levels are stagnant — at best — due to overfishing and the effects of pollution. If food production needs to double, marine scientists are in agreement that it would be extremely unlikely to obtain another 100 million tons of protein from the sea.

"That means we must get it from the land, from livestock or from farmed fish," he said, "and that's going to require a billion tons of grain and 1,000 cubic kilometers of water."

Add all this to the additional 185 million tons of animal protein the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calculates that the world's population will be consuming by 2050, and we would need to discover three more North American continents to grow enough feed for those extra animals or fish.

"In other words, there is a big demand for food [and] not enough resources to grow it using our present methods," he said.

A preventive prescription
Cribb spelled out three changes that must be made if the world is to avert crippling food shortages this century:

  • Investment in agricultural research must increase dramatically. "Right now, the world spends about $40 billion for all agriculture research, versus more than $1.5 trillion for weapons. That can't continue."

  • The factors causing food to be wasted must be mitigated. From harvest through consumption, "we are losing nearly one-half of the food we produce."

  • Food costs must increase. "We need to pay double (or more) for food. It's cheap now, but the 'hidden costs' are killing the environment — and us."

Apocalyptic? One could argue that Cribb's postulations are a bit over the top. In the end, though, his book makes the case that human ingenuity will rise to the challenge of dealing with urban sprawl, resource limitations and climate change. But it will require serious attention to — and investment in — agricultural productivity, and finding a way for all sectors to work together, including settling feuds such as the one that frequently erupts between organic and conventional agriculture.

That may prove to be the most difficult challenge of all.