2050: 9 Billion People; How? Where? And with What Impact?

August 09, 2017

The global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. That’s roughly two billion additional people living in the world in just under 20 years. What needs to happen over the next two decades in order to feed all those people? This question represents a challenge that the agriculture community has struggled to address for the past five years or longer. Our arable land is finite and the best arable land is already under till. This means focus has to be around more productivity on this land, but is 30% higher productivity possible? Certainly there is room for disruptive innovation along with innovations in precision agriculture, seeds and crop protection products. But what factors can we predict now that will shape the needs of the planet in 20 years when it has nearly 30% more human beings living on it?

Recognizing this now will help us better prepare to address how and where to grow food and the environmental impact. 

1. How will our diets change?

As our world population grows, will diets containing large amounts of animal protein become unsustainable? Will even wealthy countries eventually be forced to move from an animal protein diet to a more sustainable plant protein-based diet? It’s likely that even the wealthy will see a necessary shift away from the amount of animal protein being consumed. The gains in agriculture will likely be incremental and will happen while meeting the challenges of a changing climate. The need for food, feed, fiber and fuel will continue to challenge the same environments, making adjacent environs not already under till susceptible to the temptation of moving from wild to domestic. Similarly, the sheer need for fruits and vegetables will likely encroach on open grazing lands, making livestock sustainability even more challenging.

2. Where will these people live and what impact will their presence have on our environment?

The global population continues to move toward cities and the cities themselves are moving toward coastlines. Megacities are now part of Earth’s landscape. In developed and developing economies (most of which boast one or more of these megacities), increased wealth equates to increased risk of emerging contaminants. Medicines, nanoparticles, microplastics, flame retardants, and an array of petroleum-based organic chemistries are all part of our urban input to rivers, estuaries, and continental shelf regions of our water environment. These inputs, along with new and yet-to-be identified emerging contaminants will grow as our population grows and converges in the coastal cities around the world. Most certainly many of these urban waterways will suffer immense perturbations as we struggle to balance cost and returns.

3. Do the tools and science available today address the 2050 challenges of measuring hazards and exposure in our freshwater, marine and terrestrial environments across the globe?

How will we measure environmental risk in 2050? While our temperate climate aquatic habitats are rich and diverse, they pale in comparison to tropical marine habitats. Richard Pyle, a self-proclaimed "fish nerd", discovers up to seven new species of fish per hour when diving at depths of 60 to 150 meters on coral reefs. For more on Richard, make sure to check out his 2004 Ted Talk here.
The new tools for hazard and exposure evaluations will most certainly include better in silico models. I think it’s safe to expect that the following will be true of environmental toxicity testing in 20 years:

  • We will use fewer vertebrates
  • We will define molecular initiating events and key events in developing adverse outcome pathways

But, will we:

  • Even recognize the loss of species yet to be discovered?
  • Reserve enough contiguous habitat to preserve megafauna?
  • Be able to measure that tipping point for our oceanic environments?

Many organizations, powered by many exceptional minds, are working diligently on all the questions raised and it is important that all stakeholders; the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, governments, universities, research corporations and others, forge forward without overthinking the, admittedly, monumental tasks that lie ahead. I urge all of us to share our passion with new people in our field and continue to contribute our unique pieces to what, hopefully, becomes an effective and collaborative solution. Who knows, we may even find a Norman Borlaug-like revolution worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, early in this century.

To discuss this topic further, contact:

Ronald C. Biever
+1 508-295-2550

Smithers Viscient BlogsSmithers Viscient Blog Posts

Subscribe here to receive email Blog Post alerts.