Population growth is rapidly accelerating, intensifying the pressure on food production. This, in turn, leads to higher food insecurity, more greenhouse gas emissions, and large-scale environmental degradation. Food production, therefore, needs to adapt to accommodate a growing population and a changing climate.
Can Global Food Production Keep Up With Population Growth?
Accelerating Population Growth and Associated Impacts
According to the United Nations, the world population is currently at 7.7 billion. This is expected to grow to 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050, and reach 11.2 billion people by the end of the century. Such rapid growth is associated with rising demand for resources such as food and water, energy, and space, as well as education, better sanitation, and better access to healthcare.
However, contemporary agriculture is already facing several challenges to keep up with rising demand. From climate change to the degradation of soil health and the rapidly decreasing availability of arable land, the environmental impacts of food production are unsustainable. Current studies also highlight that population growth reduces the quality and quantity of natural resources through overexploitation, intensive farming, and land fragmentation.
At the current food consumption rate, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain them. As a result, many nations are gradually changing food production and consumption methods. In turn, this may reduce some of the environmental impacts of agriculture, including CO2 emissions.
Indeed, agriculture emits an estimated 18.4% of greenhouse gases, placing it second behind the industrial energy sector (~73.2%) in terms of the highest emitting sector of human activity. The association between population growth, food production, and CO2 emissions was further explored in a 2022 study by Rehman et al. The authors focused on Pakistan, a rapidly growing nation, to develop a regression model linking population growth, food production, and CO2 emissions.
The error correction model found that better economic progress and energy utilization can lessen greenhouse gas emissions. However, food production and urban and rural population growth directly increase CO2 emissions. Findings suggest that population growth contributes greatly to CO2 emissions, and identifying causal factors, geographic regions, or key sectors that emit the most can help address greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trade-Off between Food Production and Environmental Impacts as a Result of Population Growth
The intensification and expansion of agriculture to feed a growing world population is a major concern for food security and global biodiversity. In 2015, establishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was a step toward solving the trade-off between maintaining food security and limiting environmental impacts. Indeed, SDGs, including zero hunger, clean water, maintaining life on land and in water, and climate action, are influenced by the global food production system and the maintenance of biodiversity within and around agricultural land.
A 2021 study by Ortiz et al. developed a framework considering the interactions between the environment and agricultural production due to the existing trade-offs between producing more food and environmental degradation. Researchers highlight areas of priority to improve the trade-off, including eliminating resource-intensive products, integrating environmental indicators, and changing harmful land-use strategies to accommodate for greater biodiversity.
Applying such frameworks to limit the environmental trade-off with food production may maintain food security without intensive environmental impacts. However, applying such theoretical research may be more difficult in practice. Specifically, the conflicting viewpoints of stakeholders and policy-makers may lead to limited progress in sustainable transitions despite accelerating climate change.
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Addressing the Impacts of Population Growth on Agriculture
Policies worldwide have focused on limiting environmental impacts while improving agricultural productivity to address the growing impacts of population growth on agriculture. Notably, automated technologies, genetically modified resistance in crops, and the transition away from meat-based products, may achieve both objectives without compromising food security to the detriment of biodiversity. However, several challenges remain.
For instance, regional and smaller-scale stakeholders are often not considered in international FAO trade policies despite gaining increasing recognition. The UN SDGs have progressed towards integrating regional farmers within policies, but much is left desired in practice. The absence of regional stakeholders was further considered in a 2021 review by Maja and Ayano.
The authors focused on the farmers' ability to adapt to climate change amid growing food demand from population growth in low-income countries. Existing literature shows that low farm income exacerbates farmers' food insecurity and constrains their ability to adapt to climate change, exacerbating the effects of low income. The review further discusses the implications of such impacts and advocates for swift action to address the dynamics between population growth, overexploitation of natural resources, and adaptation to climate change.
Recent studies have focused on smaller spatial and temporal scales to better understand the complex relationships between agricultural production and the environment to address these dynamics. This may provide more accurate insights since population growth is unequally distributed worldwide and within countries. For instance, populations are shrinking in Europe but accelerating rapidly in Asia, particularly in coastal areas but not rural regions.
This was considered in a 2021 study by Fei et al. on China's agricultural land, which is decreasing yearly despite being one of the fastest-growing nations on earth. The study finds that land use has very low efficiency, which decreased from east to west (coastal to rural), and that provinces experiencing lower efficiency have lower agricultural land availability, further exacerbating the issue. As a result, agricultural productivity is decreasing and will continue to do so without the aid of technological, financial, or governmental intervention.
Using technologies and avoiding further environmental damage is increasingly necessary, yet climate change may lead to unpredictable and extensive changes in the near future. As a result, to maintain the balance of food security amid inevitable population growth and environmental preservation, on the other, larger-scale policies need to rapidly integrate adaptive measures that include regional differences, small-scale stakeholders, and climate-related strategies.
- Fei, R., Lin, Z., & Chunga, J. (2021). How land transfer affects agricultural land use efficiency: Evidence from China's agricultural sector. Land Use Policy, 103, 105300. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2021.105300
- Maja, M. M., & Ayano, S. F. (2021). The Impact of Population Growth on Natural Resources and Farmers' Capacity to Adapt to Climate Change in Low-Income Countries. Earth Systems and Environment. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41748-021-00209-6
- Ortiz, A. M. D., Outhwaite, C. L., Dalin, C., & Newbold, T. (2021). A review of the interactions between biodiversity, agriculture, climate change, and international trade: research and policy priorities. One Earth, 4(1), 88–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.12.008
- Rehman, A., Ma, H., Ahmad, M., Irfan, M., Traore, O., & Chandio, A. A. (2021). Towards environmental Sustainability: Devolving the influence of carbon dioxide emission to population growth, climate change, Forestry, livestock and crops production in Pakistan. Ecological Indicators, 125, 107460. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2021.107460
- Rehman, A., Ma, H., Ozturk, I., & Ulucak, R. (2021). Sustainable development and pollution: the effects of CO2 emission on population growth, food production, economic development, and energy consumption in Pakistan. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 29(12), 17319–17330. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-021-16998-2