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The Narrow Planet and the challenges of agriculture: population growth

2022-02-02 08:30

Corrado Paternò Castello

The Narrow Planet and the challenges of agriculture: population growth

Population growth, sustainability and the ability to produce better: the challenges of our agricultural system Pianeta Stretto, the explosive title of the book

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Population growth, sustainability and the ability to produce better: the challenges of our agricultural system

Pianeta Stretto , the disruptive title of the book by Livi Bacci, shines the spotlight on the current population growth trend of our planet and reflects on the challenges that await us in the 21st century.

What does agriculture and the way we feed ourselves have to do with all this?

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Let's take a step back, or rather up: looking at our planet, we know that just under a third of the surface is land, the rest is covered by water. Of this land, the utilized agricultural area is about 30% (this is the UAA: the sum of the farm areas destined for agricultural production). Most of it is for grazing, the rest is arable land and a small part is permanent cultivation.

The question is: is this land enough for us to feed ourselves? Three major themes must be considered when addressing this theme. There are three of the biggest challenges facing agriculture globally:

1) Population and consumption growth: the number of inhabitants of the planet is growing, as does the demand for food.

2) Climate crisis : climate change impacts the ability to produce at the agricultural level

3) Agricultural productivity : productivity growth in the countryside is lower than the growth in food demand.

This cycle of articles from Boniviri's blog will address each of these three themes concisely, hoping to offer our readers some insights and insights into the agricultural world and global socio-economic challenges.

The goal is not to make an academic examination of these issues, but to understand the deeper reason for the new consumption trends that we are observing today: the affirmation of plant-based consumption models, the "cultured meat", the climatarian, vegetarian and vegan diets, production models such as vertical farming and hydroponics. Possible answers, still niche, to new global challenges. Innovations that can lead to a new way of seeing agriculture and of imagining the relationship between mankind and food.

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Population and consumption growth

In January 2022, the world population reached 8 billion people. We were 7 billion in 2011 and about 4 billion (half of today) in 1975.

How much will it still grow? A Nature special addresses this issue in detail and the UN says the world population will reach 10.9 billion by the end of the century. The graph opposite (source: Our World in Data) shows the demographic growth trend.

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As the population grows, so does the demand for food globally. This is also influenced by the growth in per capita demand for calories: as the graph on the side developed by FAO shows, we are consuming more and more calories globally. For some regions it means reaching the necessary nourishment threshold, for others it is a cultural / social trend that leads to ingesting more calories than necessary (think of the classic example of the United States).

Looking in depth at the theme of food demand and its growth, we can see how this changes from region to region and how the distribution of the origin of the calories consumed varies. In North America, the diet is rich in meat, dairy products and eggs, protein from animal sources. In Africa and Asia , the distribution is very different: cereals are at the center of the diet. However, looking within these regions, we can see how the values relating to proteins of animal origin are growing at an absolute level: particularly impacting on the environment and on the use of agricultural land.

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The composition of the diet is in fact fundamental to understand the environmental and agricultural impacts of food choices. The production of food of animal origin requires in proportion much more land, water, resources and generates in proportion many more climate-altering emissions than the production of vegetables. The representation below clearly illustrates these considerations, and the Our World in Data article offers an excellent insight into the ecological footprint of food.

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Considering all these elements, we know that global food demand stands at an average of 2884 kcal per day, per person (FAO data, Our World in Data , 2013). That means just over 1 million calories apiece per year. Considering the growth in per capita consumption and that of the world population, today around 8 billion people, the global agricultural system is called upon to produce a quantity of calories that has never been necessary in the history of humanity.

How can the agricultural system respond to demographic challenges?

Strategic choices are fundamental, we will see in the next articles of Boniviri's blog how agricultural productivity can respond (in part) to this challenge, what are the global risks (first of all the climate crisis) and how sustainability trends impact on this global challenge.

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