Feeding 10 Billion People in a Climate-Changing World

By 2050, nearly 10 billion people will live on our planet.

In order to sustain this population and our growing demand for resource-intensive animal-based foods, the World Resources Institute estimates that crop production will need to increase by 56% from a 2010 baseline.1 In 2010, agriculture accounted for approximately 24% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while using 50% of the world’s vegetated land and 70% of the world’s fresh water.2 The fragility of agricultural systems undermines the growth required amidst resource constraints. With meat processing plants closing temporarily, wholesale sugar and butter prices plummeting, and food intended for bulk buyers being thrown out while food banks face increasing demand, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how added stress can push food supply chains to their limits.

We cannot formulate climate change solutions or expect to reach GHG emissions targets without a comprehensive overhaul of our current agricultural system. The World Resource Institute estimates that without proactive mitigation efforts, GHG emissions from agriculture and land-use changes will amount to 15 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) by 2050, compared to 12 Gt in 2010. That’s significant, considering worldwide CO2-e emissions must be held to 21 Gt to maintain global warming below 2°C, a figure widely noted as the threshold for avoiding catastrophic climate change. With annual emissions projected to reach 70 Gt by 2050 under a business-as-normal scenario, we’ll need to adhere to a four Gt annual limit if we expect to reach our goals.3

Mitigating 11 Gt of CO2-e annually by 2050 will require decreasing food loss and waste, changing animal protein consumption patterns, reducing methane emissions from enteric fermentation (cow flatulence), and increasing crop yields, among other tactics. To achieve this audacious goal, business will need to develop a variety of solutions, including advances in chemical and biological agriculture technology, adaptive crop genetics, precision agriculture tools, and animal protein alternatives. Among these, animal protein production and associated land use changes4 constitute the single greatest source of agricultural GHG emissions.

Agricultural emissions by region

How climate change threatens our food supply

Agricultural production is highly susceptible to temperature increases and variability in precipitation; both are hallmarks of climate change. Temperature and precipitation changes have already been linked to lower crop yields, with the worst impacts on wheat and corn. Further research shows that for each degree Celsius increase in global temperature, production is expected to fall by 6% for wheat, 7.4% for corn, and 3.1% for soybeans. In addition to the direct impacts associated with temperature and precipitation, the likely spread of pests and disease may also severely impact production.5 While higher CO2 levels are associated with improved crop productivity, such crops have lower nutritional values.6

As the earth has already warmed approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels, failing to limit warming to below 2°C is a near certainty.7 Should warming exceed 2°C, corn yields in some regions could fall by up to 20%. Warming beyond 3°C could lead to a collapse of corn crops in some areas.8 Corn is the world’s second most widely produced food crop, after sugar cane, making it the largest crop with any nutritional value.9 A meta study on vegetables and legumes found that a 4°C increase would lead to a mean yield reduction of 31.5%.10