The Future of the Global Food Supply

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Scarcity, abundance, or just enough?

Significant debate surrounds the question of whether the world will have enough food to feed itself in coming decades, explains futurist Matthew Sollenberger, author of a new report from the futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies.

"Some argue--pointing to recent increases in the numbers of people affected by hunger--that the global food situation is already marked by scarcity and will inevitably get worse, aggravated by a variety of factors, such as rising population, decreasing crop yields, and collapsing global fish stocks," he says, noting that certain data from the USDA supports this perspective.

According to the USDA report, "Food Security Assessment 2006," there were 849 million hungry people in the 70 countries with the lowest food security, up from 804 million in 2005 (with "hungry" defined as eating less than 2,100 calories per day)."

"Worries about global food security are understandably heightened by rising food prices," Sollenberger adds, pointing to the fact that wheat, a staple crop, hit a historic high of $8.49 a bushel in September 2007.

Nonetheless, analysis of the longer-term trends and drivers of global food supply and demand suggests that the world food supply should be adequate to meet global needs to 2030, he explains.
According to Sollenberger, "Medium- and long-term forecasts by major food monitoring organizations, such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), cautiously support this hypothesis."

Legitimate concerns

Sollenberger's report suggests there are legitimate concerns about dangers to the global food supply--for example, dwindling oil supplies, rising temperatures, and growing water shortages.

  • Oil prices. These affect the cost of shipping food, of petroleum-based fertilizers, etc.--and accordingly can have a substantial impact on food price. According to the IMF's World Economic Outlook 2006, "the average pass-through from higher oil prices to agricultural prices is about 0.18." Thus, every dollar increase in the price of oil leads to an average increase of around 18 cents in agricultural prices.
  • Rising temperatures. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperatures will likely rise by 1° Celsius by 2030--which some worry may have significant adverse impacts on agriculture. While rising temperatures will have some positive effects on agricultural variables--e.g., a global increase in average precipitation by 1.5-3%, and milder and shorter winters in some areas--the net effect will very likely be negative. However, while world agriculture as a whole will not be overly affected by rising temperatures through 2030, some regions will be more negatively affected than others; e.g., cereal production in Africa is projected to decline by 2%-3% in the next two decades compared to production in the absence of rising temperatures.
  • Water shortages. Global agriculture consumes vast amounts of water, and reports from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations state that water shortages could present one of the chief challenges to future growth of the global food supply--especially considering FAO's estimate that, by 2030, food production will need to increase almost 60% from 2003 levels to feed the world population.

Business implications
Following are possible implications for the future of the global food supply:

  • Demand for food has been--and will continue to be--driven primarily by two factors: population growth and rising standards of living. According to the US Census, global population growth rates peaked at just above 2% in the early 1960s and have been declining steadily since. Thus, in the future, rising standards of living and the subsequent emergence of middle classes in the developing world will have a far greater impact on food demand than population growth.
  • Biofuels will likely play a growing role in global energy. However, in the context of tight global food supplies (and occasional food price spikes), companies should anticipate and plan to mitigate charges that, by promoting biofuels, they are contributing to global hunger.
  • Increases in global temperatures, alongside rising stress on existing farmland, might improve the feasibility of novel agribusiness techniques, including urban agriculture and vertical farming (

Learn more

For more information about the global food supply, contact the study's author, Matthew Sollenberger, at matthew.sollenberger @

Matthew Sollenberger ) Futurist
Matthew Sollenberger is a writer/ analyst for S)T's Global Lifestyles and Technology Foresight multiclient projects. He also contributes to custom client projects, working on primary research, trend analysis, and strategic issues. Areas of special interest include technology and privacy issues, international relations, and security and energy policy.

About ) Social Technologies
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. For information visit and the blog:


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