There’s an old saying I made up that goes something like this: You can’t have a food shortage without having too many mouths to feed.
A part of you instinctually feels that adage is true. But that’s not the whole picture. In fact, it’s not an excessive number of people that causes food shortages, but the nature of their appetites. In other words, it’s the diets of future generations that will lead to a future where food shortages will become commonplace.
In the first part of this Future of Food series, we talked about how climate change will have a huge impact on the amount of food available to us over the coming decades. In the paragraphs below, we’ll expand on that trend to see how the demographics of our growing global population will impact the types of food we’ll enjoy on our dinner plates in the years to come.
Reaching peak population
Believe it or not, there is some good news when we’re talking out the growth rate of the human population: It’s slowing down all over. However, the problem remains that the momentum of the global population boom from earlier, baby loving generations, will take decades to wither out. That’s why even with the decline in our global birth rate, our projected population for 2040 will be just a hair over nine billion people. NINE BILLION.
As of 2015, we currently sit at 7.3 billion. The extra two billion is expected to be born in Africa and Asia, while the populations of the Americas and Europe are expected to remain relatively stagnant or will decline in select regions. The global population is expected to peak at 11 billion by the end of the century, before slowly declining back to a sustainable equilibrium.
Now between climate change ruining a large chunk of our available future farmland and our population growing by another two billion, you’d be right to assume the worst—that we can’t possibly feed that many people. But that’s not the whole picture.
The same dire warnings were made at the turn of the twentieth century. Back then the world population was around two billion people and we thought there was no way we could feed more. Leading experts and policymakers of the day advocated for a range of rationing and population control measures. But guess what, we crafty humans used our noggins to innovate our way out of those worst case scenarios. Between the 1940s and 1060s, a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives led to the Green Revolution that fed millions and laid the groundwork for the food surpluses enjoyed by most of the world today. So what’s different this time around?
The rise of the developing world
There are stages of development for young countries, phases that move them from being a poor nation to a mature one that enjoys a high average per capita income. Of the factors that determine these stages, among the biggest, is the average age of a country’s population.
A country with a younger demographic—where the majority of the population is under 30 years of age—tends to grow much faster than countries with an older demographic. If you think about it at a macro level, that makes sense: A younger population usually means more people able and willing to work low wage, manual labor jobs; that kind of demographic attracts multinationals who set up factories in these countries with the goal of cutting costs by hiring cheap labor; this flooding of foreign investment allows younger nations to develop their infrastructure and provides its people with income to support their families and purchase the homes and goods needed to move up the economic ladder. We’ve seen this process time and time again in Japan after WWII, then South Korea, then China, India, the Southeast Asian Tiger states, and now, various countries in Africa.
But over time, as the country’s demographics and economy mature, and the next stage of its development begins. Here the majority of the population enters their 30s and 40s and begins demanding things that we in the West take for granted: better pay, improved working conditions, better governance, and all the other trappings one would expect from a developed country. Of course, these demands increase the cost of doing business, which leads to multinationals exiting and setting up shop elsewhere. But it’s during this transition when a middle class will have formed to sustain a domestic economy without relying solely on outside foreign investment. (Yes, I know I’m simplifying things hardcore.)
Between the 2030s and 2040s, much of Asia (with a particular emphasis on China) will enter this mature stage of development where the majority of their population will be well over 35 years old. Specifically, by 2040, Asia will have five billion people, 53.8 percent of whom will be above 35 years of age, meaning 2.7 billion people will enter the financial prime of their consumerist lives.
And that’s where we’re going to feel the crunch—one of the most sought-after trappings people from developing countries prize is the Western diet. This means trouble.
The problem with meat
Let’s look at diets for a second: In much of the developing world, the average diet consists largely of rice or grain staples, with the occasional intake of more expensive protein from fish or livestock. Meanwhile, in the developed world, the average diet sees a much higher and more frequent intake of meats, both in variety and protein density.
The problem is that traditional sources of meat, like fish and livestock—are incredibly inefficient sources of protein when compared to protein derived from plants. For example, it takes 13 pounds (5.6 kilos) of grain and 2,500 gallons (9,463 liters) of water to produce a single pound of beef. Think of how many more people could be fed and hydrated if meat were taken out of the equation.
But let’s get real here; the majority of the world would never want that. We put up with investing excessive amounts of resources into livestock farming because the majority of those who live in the developed world value meat as a part of their daily diets, while the majority of those in the developing world share those values and aspire to increase their meat intake the higher up the economic ladder they climb.
(Note there will be some exceptions due to the unique traditional recipes, and the cultural and religious differences of certain developing countries. India, for example, consumes a very low amount of meat in proportion to its population, as 80 percent of its citizens are Hindu and thus choose a vegetarian diet for cultural and religious reasons.)
The food crunch
By now you can probably guess where I’m going with this: We’re entering a world where the demand for meat will gradually consume the majority of our global grain reserves.
At first, we’ll see the price of meats noticeably rise year-over-year starting around 2025-2030—the price of grains will rise as well but at a much steeper curve. This trend will continue until one stupidly hot year in the late 2030s when world grain production will crash (remember what we learned in part one). When this happens, the price of grains and meats will skyrocket across the board, kind of like a bizarro version of the 2008 financial crash.
Aftermath of the Meat Shock of 2035
When this spike in food prices hits the global markets, shit is going to hit the fan in a big way. As you can imagine, food is kind of a big deal when there isn’t enough to go around, so governments around the world will act at warp speeds to address the issue. The following is a point form timeline of the food price spike after effects, assuming it happens in 2035:
● 2035-2039 - Restaurants will see their costs soar alongside their inventory of empty tables. Many mid-priced restaurants and upscale fast food chains will close; lower end fast food places will limit menus and slow expansion of new locations; expensive restaurants will remain largely unaffected.
● 2035-onwards - Grocery chains will also feel the pain of the price shocks. Between hiring costs and chronic food shortages, their already slim margins will become razor thin, severely hampering profitability; most will stay in business through emergency government loans and since most people cannot avoid using them.
● 2035 - World governments take emergency action to temporarily ration food. Developing countries employ martial law to control their hungry and rioting citizens. In select areas of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asian states, the riots will become especially violent.
● 2036 - Governments approve a wide range of funding for new GMO seeds that are more resistant to climate change.
● 2036-2041 - Enhanced breeding of new, hybrid crops intensified.
● 2036 - To avoid food shortages on basic staples like wheat, rice, and soy, world governments enforce new controls on livestock farmers, regulating the total amount of animals they are allowed to own.
● 2037 - All remaining subsidies for biofuels canceled and all further farming of biofuels banned. This action alone frees up about 25 percent of US grain supplies for human consumption. Other major biofuel producers like Brazil, Germany, and France see similar improvements in grain availability. Most vehicles run on electricity by this point anyway.
● 2039 - New regulations and subsidies put in place to improve global food logistics with the goal of reducing the amount of waste caused by rotten or spoiled food.
● 2040 - Western governments especially may place the entire farming industry under tighter government control, so as to better manage the food supply and avoid domestic instability from food shortages. There will be acute public pressure to end food exports to wealthy food buying countries like China and oil-rich Middle East states.
● 2040 - Overall, these government initiatives work to avoid severe worldwide food shortages. Prices for various foods stabilize, then continue to gradually rise year-on-year.
● 2040 - To better manage household costs, interest in vegetarianism will rise as traditional meats (fish and livestock) permanently become a food of the upper classes.
● 2040-2044 - A large variety of innovative vegan and vegetarian restaurant chains open and become the rage. Governments subsidize their growth through special tax breaks to encourage broader support for less expensive, plant-based diets.
● 2041 - Governments invest substantial subsidies into creating next-generation smart, vertical, and underground farms. By this point, Japan and South Korea will be leaders in the latter two.
● 2041 - Governments invest further subsidies and fast track FDA approvals on a range of food alternatives.
● 2042-onwards - Diets of the future will be nutrient and protein-rich, but will never again resemble the excesses of the 20th century.
Side note about fish
You may have noticed that I haven’t really mentioned fish as a major food source during this discussion, and that’s for good reason. Today, global fisheries are already being dangerously depleted. In fact, we’ve reached a point where the majority of the fish sold in markets are farmed in tanks on land or (slightly better) in cages out in the open ocean. But that’s only the start.
By the late 2030s, climate change will dump enough carbon into our oceans to make them increasingly acidic, reducing their ability to support life. It’s kind of like living in a Chinese mega-city where the pollution from coal power plants makes it hard to breathe—that’s what the world’s fish and coral species will experience. And then when you factor in our growing population, it’s easy to predict world fish stocks eventually being harvested to critical levels—in some regions they will be pushed to the brink of collapse, especially around East Asia. These two trends will work together to drive up prices, even for farmed fish, potentially removing the entire category of food from the common diet of the average person.
As VICE contributor, Becky Ferreira, cleverly mentioned: the idiom that ‘there’s plenty of fish in the sea’ will no longer be true. Sadly, this will also force best friends around the world to come up with new one-liners to console their BFFs after they get dumped by their SO.
Putting it all together
Ah, don’t you love when writers summarize their long-form articles—that they slaved over for way too long—into a short bite-sized summary! By 2040, we will enter a future that has less and less arable (farming) land due to water shortages and rising temperatures caused by climate change. At the same time, we have a world population that will balloon to nine billion people. The majority of that population growth will come from the developing world, a developing world whose wealth will skyrocket over the coming two decades. Those larger disposable incomes are predicted to lead to an increased demand for meat. An increased demand for meat will consume the global supply of grains, thereby leading to food shortages and price spikes that could destabilize governments the world over.
So now that you have a better understanding of how climate change and population growth and demographics will shape the future of food. The rest of this series will focus on what humanity will do to innovate our way out of this mess with the hope of maintaining our meaty diets for as long as possible. Next up: GMOs and superfoods.