We can feed the world if we change our ways

Lancaster University, July 25, 2018

CURRENT crop yields could provide nutritious food for the projected 2050 global population, but only if we make radical changes to our dietary choices, a new study shows.

Researchers from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom have analysed global and regional food supplies to reveal the flows of calories, protein and vital micro-nutrients from production through to human consumption, in a study published in Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene.

Combining data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) with food nutrient data, and information on animal grazing and on human nutritional need, they explore whether we could feed a growing population with the food we already produce.

They conclude that, even without improvements in crop yield, current crop production is sufficient to provide enough healthy food for the predicted 9.7 billion world population in 2050, although this will require radical shifts in behaviour.

Most importantly they say there need to be fundamental changes to human diets, replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and a greater willingness to eat crops such as maize which are currently fed to animals.

“Our analysis finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals, which reduces calorie and protein supplies. If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119 per cent increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050,” Lancaster Environment Centre Professor Nick Hewitt said.

The researchers acknowledge that meat and dairy, particularly that are produced from grass, pasture and cereal crop residues, may be important to people who do not have access to diverse food types and who cannot access dietary supplements.

“Our analysis finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals….If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119 per cent increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050.”

“However, overall, industrialised meat and dairy production, which currently relies on feeding 34pc of human-edible crop calories to animals globally, is highly inefficient in terms of the provision of human nutrition.”

Reducing waste and excess consumption is also important, but quantitively less significant, the study shows. There is also a need for very significant changes to the socio-economic conditions of many people, to ensure that everyone gets access to a healthy, balanced diet.

“As well as following the flow of all human-edible and non-human-edible food calories, we track protein, vitamin A, iron and zinc, because shortages of these have been identified as the major causes of ‘hidden hunger’,” Professor Hewitt said.

The analysis shows little scope for biofuel production, according to Professor Mike Berners-Lee, of the University’s Institute for Social Futures, and director of Small World Consulting, which is based within the Lancaster Environment Centre.

“Currently, 16pc of crops available for eating are diverted to non-food uses, mainly biofuel. Increasing market pressures for biofuels could further stress the global food system,” he said.

The research does not take account of crop yield changes such as those that may result from new technologies, land use or demographic changes, farming practices or climate change, but simply keeps crop yields at 2013 levels.

Professor Berners-Lee added: “There is currently widespread emphasis on increasing crop yields and reducing waste as the main mechanisms for ensuring global food security. But the potential nutritional benefits of increased crop yields would be entirely lost if the additional crop production was diverted to biofuels and largely lost if diverted to animals.

“Achieving global food security while reducing negative environmental impacts is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.”

Source: Lancaster University

Read the full paper: ‘Current global food production is sufficient to meet human nutritional needs in 2050 provided there is radical societal adaptation’ 


Grain Central: Get our free daily cropping news straight to your inbox – Click here



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.


  1. Patrick Francis, July 25, 2018

    One of the problems with this research is the definition of what “human edible crops” actually are. Earlier research into what livestock actually consume suggests livestock are not eating the grains destined for humans.
    In an FAO review entitled “Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed/food debate” by Anne Mottet et al published in Global Food Security (2017) the researchers concluded livestock production is generally positive for human food supply, nutrition and environmental protection in the era of climate change.
    Even with the broad assumptions taken by the researchers to model all classes of livestock feed intake in developing (non OECD) countries and developed (OECD) countries, the overall conclusion suggests that livestock are not a significant competitor for grains. That because most of the feed they eat is not what humans eat.
    “Results estimate that livestock consume 6 billion tonnes of feed (dry matter) annually – including one third of global cereal production – of which 86% is made of materials that are currently not eaten by humans”.
    What this statistic means is that livestock and in particular ruminants, which can digest a wide range of by-products from human food processing, are an important contributor to humanity’s food supply chain. Without a feed grain market, human food grain production would exceed world demand leading to continual booms and busts in grain production and prices. This would have enormous social consequences for grain farmers in developed and developing countries around the world.

Get Grain Central's news headlines emailed to you -