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The world is running out of food. How do we fix it?

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We're running out of space to grow the food the world's booming population needs. So what’s the solution?

A vintage episode of Futurama – Simpsons-creator Matt Groening’s sitcom set in the 31st century – turns on the fate of the last known tin of anchovies. In the end, the long-extinct fish are served up on a pizza made by the show’s out-of-time hero Philip J Fry, who is desperate to recreate his favourite dish – even though they are far too valuable to eat.

The stark reality is that the Futurama anchovy situation is fast approaching, but the overfishing of our oceans is just the tip of the iceberg. With an estimated nine billion people due to be sharing the blue planet by 2050, it’s food in general and land more specifically that are going to be the problem. A very big problem.

Right now, we use around some 10.4 billion hectares of land (about 1.7 hectares per person). Give it another 20 years, and that won’t be anything like enough. ‘If agricultural yields continue to grow sluggishly at a little under 1 per cent and demand for food increases as economists expect it to by 2050, we could be looking at something in the region of another billion hectares of land being necessary.’ So said Chatham House expert Rob Bailey at the organisation’s London conference this summer.

Not only do we need more land for growing food and urban expansion – ‘typically at the expense of some of the most productive farmland available’ – but Bailey says that if we are to meet the Paris climate change agreement objectives on carbon output, we’ll need to set aside a significant amount of land to ‘lock it up in trees and biomass’.

‘We’re going to need around another nine Indias worth of land’

Then if you want to get out of plastics, we’ll need to grow biomaterials to replace them. ‘When you add all these things up, you come to the conclusion that we’re going to need something in the region of another nine Indias worth of land,’ Bailey concluded. ‘And what do nine Indias add up to in terms of landmass? It’s about an Africa – it’s about an entire continent of land that could be necessary.’

It’s not all bad news, though. Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at Leeds University, says the answer’s not only there, it’ll be good for us. ‘The global agricultural economy is incredibly inefficient at turning agricultural production into healthy people,’ explains Benton, who points out that the costs to the environment and our health because of the food we’re eating are 10 times higher than the entire value of the agricultural economy. Since the Second World War, society has focused on increasing food productivity, regardless of what we need, the ecologist warns, noting that we grow just a third of the fruit and vegetables we need to be healthy, and far more cereals than we need for a balanced diet. Meanwhile food costs have been driven down so that ‘it becomes economically rational to waste food’. The UN says a third of all food created for human consumption – 1.3 billion tonnes – ‘gets lost or wasted’ every year.

We’re also over-eating – typically 20-30 per cent more calories than we need daily – so that 1.9 billion of us worldwide are now classified as overweight. ‘It feels to me that we are with food where we were 40 years ago with smoking,’ declares Benton, who predicts that we will have to go on ‘a similar journey over decades’ of public education and regulation.

That might mean encouraging vegetarianism or, at least, much lower meat consumption. When you consider that livestock requires 80 per cent of agricultural land, yet provides under 20 per cent of our calories, the maths is compelling. And when you consider the known health dangers of eating too much red or processed meat, we have to accept change is coming.

‘A third of all food created for human consumption gets wasted every year’

Another speaker at the Chatham House conference, Olav Kjorven, from the EAT Foundation, an international non-profit working towards a sustainable food system, put it bluntly: ‘We need to get used to the idea that the future is much more plant-based than animal protein-based.’

One foodtech pioneer who has a plan to make this happen is Rasmus Bjerngaard, the Danish CEO of NextFood. It uses aeroponic growing technology and artificial intelligence that ‘allows anyone to grow plants without knowing anything about plants’ done on a Netflix-style subscription model. With some 20 systems in place – mainly with food services clients – in Copenhagen and Barcelona, NextFood’s system cultivates vertically, typically under LED lighting, with the roots of the plants grown in air rather than soil, where they are sprayed with a precise quantity of water and nutrients as required automatically.

‘It saves more than 90 per cent of the water,’ Bjerngaard says. ‘It’s very natural, and we can optimise the process.’ He says waste water can be recycled, there’s no need for pesticides, and that by using artificial light growers, which aren’t limited to natural seasons, plants can be ‘grown to order’ all year round. In addition, it drastically reduces the food miles by growing what you need locally – crucial if we’re all to be eating more fruit and vegetables.

‘This is not a silver-bullet solution,’ concedes Bjerngaard. ‘But it’s a big part of it.’ Though he’s not a vegetarian, he agrees that a critical part of change has to come in our positive decision to change our diets towards being more plant-based: ‘When you get really, really good vegetables you don’t even think about meat,’ he says. ‘You just get food that tastes great.’

Which is just as well because in the future, like it or not, we’re all going to be eating a lot less meat. The good news, though, is that we should be healthier for it. Meantime, hopefully the anchovy will hold up.