When it comes to the plants and animals we eat, our media tends to focus on how it’s made, how much it costs, or how to prepare it using excessive layers of bacon and unnecessary coatings of deep fry batter. Rarely, however, does our media talk about the actual availability of food. For most people, that’s more of a Third World problem.
Sadly, that won’t be the case by the 2040s. By then, food scarcity will become a major global issue, one that will have a massive impact on our diets.
(“Eesh, David, you sound like a Malthusian. Get a grip man!” say all of you food economics nerds reading this. To which I reply, “No, I’m only a quarter Malthusian, the rest of me is an avid meat eater concerned about his future deep-fried diet. Also, give me some credit and read to the end.”)
This five-part series on food will explore a range of topics relating to how we’re going to keep our bellies full over the coming decades. Part one (below) will explore the coming time bomb of climate change and its impact on the global food supply; in part two, we’ll talk about how overpopulation will lead to the “Meat Shock of 2035” and why we’ll all become vegetarians because of it; in part three, we’ll discuss GMOs and superfoods; followed by a peek inside smart, vertical, and underground farms in part four; finally, in part five, we’ll reveal the future of the human diet—hint: plants, bugs, in-vitro meat, and synthetic foods.
So let’s kick things off with the trend that will most shape this series: climate change.
Climate change cometh
If you haven’t heard, we’ve already written a rather epic series on the Future of Climate Change, so we’re not going to blow a whole lot of time explaining the topic here. For the purpose of our discussion, we’ll just focus on the following key points:
First, climate change is real and we’re on track to see our climate growing two degrees Celsius hotter by the 2040s (or maybe sooner). The two degrees here is an average, meaning that some areas will become much hotter than just two degrees.
For every one-degree rise in climate warming, the total amount of evaporation will rise by about 15 percent. This will have a negative impact on the amount of rainfall in most farming regions, as well as on water levels of rivers and freshwater reservoirs across the world.
Plants are such divas
Okay, the world is getting warmer and dryer, but why is that such a big deal when it comes to food?
Well, modern farming tends to rely on relatively few plant varieties to grow at an industrial scale—domesticated crops produced either through thousands of years of manual breeding or dozens of years of genetic manipulation. Problem is most crops can only grow in specific climates where the temperature is just Goldilocks right. This is why climate change is so dangerous: it will push many of these domestic crops outside their preferred growing environments, raising the risk of massive crop failures globally.
For example, studies run by the University of Reading found that lowland indica and upland japonica, two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, were highly vulnerable to higher temperatures. Specifically, if temperatures exceeded 35 degrees Celsius during their flowering stage, the plants would become sterile, offering little to no grains. Many tropical and Asian countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone, so any further warming could mean disaster.
Another example includes good, old-fashioned wheat. Research has found that for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature, production of wheat is set to fall by six percent globally.
Additionally, by 2050 half of the land needed to grow two of the most dominant coffee species—Arabica (coffea arabica) and Robusta (coffea canephora)—will no longer be suitable for cultivation. For the brown bean addicts out there, imagine your world without coffee, or coffee that costs four times than what it does now.
And then there’s wine. A controversial study has revealed that by 2050, major wine-producing regions will no longer be able to support viticulture (the cultivation of grapevines). In fact, we can expect a loss of 25 to 75 percent of current wine-producing land. RIP French Wines. RIP Napa Valley.
Regional impacts of a warming world
I mentioned earlier that the two degrees Celcius of climate warming is just an average, that some areas will become much hotter than just two degrees. Unfortunately, the regions that will most suffer from higher temperatures are also those where we grow most of our food—particularly nations located between the Earth’s 30th–45th longitudes.
Moreover, developing countries are also going to be among the worst hit by this warming. According to William Cline, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an increase of two to four degrees Celcius can lead to losses of food harvests of around 20-25 percent in Africa and Latin America, and 30 percent or more in India.
Overall, climate change could cause an 18 percent drop in world food production by 2050, just as the global community needs to produce at least 50 percent more food by 2050 (according to the World Bank) than we do today. Keep in mind that right now we’re already using 80 percent of the world’s arable land—the size of South America—and we would have to farm a landmass equivalent to the size of Brazil to feed the rest of our future population—land we don’t have today and in the future.
Food-fuelled geopolitics and instability
A funny thing happens when food shortages or extreme price spikes occur: people tend to become rather emotional and some become downright uncivil. The first thing that happens afterward usually includes a run to the grocery markets where people buy up and hoard all available food products. After that, two different scenarios play out:
In developed countries, voters raise a huff and the government steps in to provide food relief through rationing until food supplies bought in the international markets bring things back to normal. Meanwhile, in developing countries, where the government doesn’t have the resources to buy or produce more food for its people, voters start protesting, then they start rioting. If the food shortage continues for more than a week or two, the protests and rioting can become deadly.
Flare-ups of these kinds pose a serious threat to global security, as they are breeding grounds for instability that can spread to neighboring countries where food is better managed. However, in the long term, this global food instability will lead to shifts in the global balance of power.
For example, as climate change progresses, there won’t just be losers; there will also be a few winners. In particular, Canada, Russia, and a few Scandinavian countries will actually benefit from climate change, as their once-frozen tundras will thaw out to free huge regions for farming. Now we’ll make the crazy assumption that Canada and the Scandinavian states won’t become military and geopolitical powerhouses anytime this century, so that leaves Russia with a very powerful card to play.
Think about it from the Russian perspective. It’s the world’s largest country. It will be one of the few landmasses that will actually increase its agricultural output just when its surrounding neighbors in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia suffer from climate change-induced food shortages. It has the military and the nuclear arsenal to protect its food bounty. And after the world fully shifts to electric vehicles by the late 2030s—cutting the country’s oil revenues—Russia will be desperate to exploit any newfound revenue at its disposal. If executed well, this could be Russia’s once-in-a-century chance to regain its status as a world superpower, since while we can live without oil, we can’t live without food.
Of course, Russia won’t be able to completely ride roughshod over the world. All the great regions of the world will also play their unique hands in the new world climate change will carve out. But to think all this commotion is due to something as basic as food!
(Side note: you can also read our more detailed overview of Russian, climate change geopolitics.)
The looming population bomb
But as much as climate change will play a dominant role in the future of food, so too will another equally seismic trend: the demographics of our growing global population. By 2040, the world’s population will grow to nine billion. But it’s not so much the number of hungry mouths that will be the problem; it’s the nature of their appetites. And that’s the topic of part two of this series on the future of food!