At the intersection of technology and population growth, the future holds unimaginable opportunities — and likely some unprecedented challenges — for agriculture.
According to the United Nations’ Population Division, by 2050 the median global population is projected to reach 9.2 billion people — about a 30% increase from today’s population. In order to meet global food demands, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the need for a 70% increase in farm production and an additional 61 million hectares of farm land.
Developing countries will account for much of the population surge, a trend that will run parallel to shifting economic growth and the emergence of a culturally defined middle class. While definitions of wealth are adjusted relative to the nation’s economy, this decades-long trend has seen the migration of 1.5 billion people from subsistence to middle income.
“We’re referring to large populations in Asia and elsewhere in the world that have gained income more than marginally and they’re demanding more variety and quality in their food,” explains Bruce Scherr, CEO and chairman of the board, informa economics.
Historically, as emerging markets gain wealth, the population’s diet shifts from bulk grain toward high-calorie, high-nutrition foods allowed for by disposable income, logistical availability and basic technologies, like refrigeration. In this scenario, animal proteins are the commodity of choice, sending out a supply/demand ripple effect for all agricultural commodities involved in producing this high-input product.
Barring the misfortune of an unforeseen catastrophic event, U.S. agriculture should be able to capitalize on this trend if it makes the necessary investments in infrastructure, technology and sustainable business.
“The industry as a whole has already begun addressing the issue of sustainability,” says Richard Sellers, AFIA vice president of feed regulation and nutrition. “The key will be more innovation and less regulation. Sustainability affects everyone so stakeholders both within and outside of the industry are taking on this global challenge and are well on their way to finding realistic answers.”
Randall Gordon, NGFA’s vice president, communications and government relations, feels the U.S. animal agricultural industries will be well-positioned to meet a growing demand for meat protein, and that it will also present a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. grain, feed and grain processing industry.
“Ours truly is a growth industry that, given the right public policies, will have an unprecedented opportunity to feed a hungry world,” he says.
Advancements in a number of familiar practices, like traceability and biotechnology, will enable the industry to meet the productivity challenges ahead.
Technology breeds transparency
While Asian and South American populations boom, domestically, a cultural permutation will shift the way food is perceived and consumed. The American consumer of the future will be one sprung from an age of mass customization as well as agricultural awareness provided by “know your farmer” and “you are what you eat, eats” campaigns.
“There is already a heightened emphasis on foods that are natural, locally produced or functional, which is driving the industry to refine its product mix, developing traceable and transparent systems for customers,” notes Elizabeth Hund, senior vice president, U.S. Bank.
In decades to come, the disconnect between farm and fork will lessen as consumers begin to focus on product origins up and down the supply chain. Futurist Jack Uldrich predicts large corporations will drive the transparency trend to a new level.
“The large retailers care about sustainability, but not so much from an environmental perspective — though they position it that way — they want to know the farmers who supply the company are in fact a low-cost producer,” he says. “If they’re not confident the producer is managing its business in a sustainable and cost-effective manner, they will take their business elsewhere.”