Population Could Take Back Seat To Income In Global Food Discussion

Global trade researcher backs up idea that technology will become driver of food security

Published on: Nov 25, 2013

Per capita income is set to eclipse population growth as the dominant driver of change in the global food system, according to an agricultural economics professor studying impacts of global trade and environmental policies at Purdue University

Thomas Hertel, while speaking last week at the university's Research and Scholarship Distinguished Lecture, said that while population and income will remain the two most influential factors in determining global food demand and cropland expansion, their relative importance will be altered.

"For the first time in human history, income will have a greater influence than population growth on food security," Hertel said. "While the global population is estimated to jump from 7 billion people to 9 billion in the next four decades, the rate of population growth rate is slowing.

Global trade researcher backs up idea that technology will become driver of food security
Global trade researcher backs up idea that technology will become driver of food security

"Meanwhile, individual incomes are increasing in many parts of the developing world, and with that growth will come more demand for richer, more nutritional diets," Hertel said.

Hertel is the founder and executive director of the Purdue-based Global Trade Analysis Project, known as GTAP, a network of more than 10,000 researchers and policymakers in 150 countries that aims to improve the quality of global economic analysis.

Biofuels, technology have a place at the table

Higher incomes coupled with potential increases in the use of cropland for biofuels production would require global crop production to double by 2050, Hertel said.

And, he notes, increasing crop production while maintaining environmental sustainability presents a major challenge. For example, nitrogen fertilizers have boosted crop yields, but nitrogen runoff into natural water systems can take a toll on the health of lakes, rivers and oceans, he said.

Another touchy subject, Hertel projects that rising average temperatures and a greater frequency of extreme weather could be a problem for yields.

"Agriculture will be the area most significantly affected by climate change," he said.

The mix of adverse climate conditions, higher energy prices and an increase in climate mitigation policies could combine to reduce cropland and increase food prices, he said, but improvements technological progress may be the key to future food security.

"We've tripled crop production in the last 50 years," he said. "If we can continue to make that kind of progress, we should be OK." However, the potential for growth in production technology depends on public and private investment in research and development, Hertel said.

"What we do in the next decade will likely determine how successful we are in sustainably feeding the planet in 2050," he concluded.