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The Environmental Food Crisis


The growth in food demand and need is the result of the combined effects of world population growth to over 9 billion by 2050, rising incomes and dietary changes towards higher meat intake. Meat production is particularly demanding in terms of energy, cereal and water. Today, nearly half of the world’s cereals are being used for animal feed.


Each day 200,000 more people are added to the world food demand. The world’s human population has increased near fourfold in the past 100 years (UN population Division, 2007); it is projected to increase from 6.7 billion (2006) to 9.2 billion by 2050, as shown in Figure 4 (UN Population Division, 2007). It took only 12 years for the last billion to be added, a net increase of nearly 230,000 new people each day, who will need housing, food and other natural resources. The largest population increase is projected to occur in Asia, particularly in China, India and Southeast Asia, accounting for about 60% and more of the world’s population by 2050 (UN Population Division, 2007). The rate of population growth, however, is still relatively high in Central America, and highest in Central and part of Western Africa. In relative numbers, Africa will experience the most rapid growth, over 70% faster than in Asia (annual growth of 2.4% versus 1.4% in Asia, compared to the global average of 1.3% and only 0.3% in many industrialized countries) (UN Population Division, 2007). In sub-Saharan Africa, the population is projected to increase from about 770 million to nearly 1.7 billion by 2050.

Figure 4: Human population growth in developed and developing countries (Mid range projection) (UN Population Division). Continued population growth remains one of the biggest challenges to world food security and environmental sustainability. (Source: UN Population Division, 2007).

New estimates released by the World Bank in August 2008 show that in the developing world, the number of people living in extreme poverty may be higher than previously thought. With a threshold of extreme poverty set at US$1.25 a day (2005 prices), there were 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in 2005. Each year, nearly 10 million die of hunger and hunger-related diseases. While the proportion of underweight children below five years old decreased –  from 33% in 1990 to 26% in 2006 –  the number of children in developing countries who were underweight still exceeded 140 million. Similarly, while the proportion of impoverished persons might have declined in many regions, their absolute number has not fallen in some regions as populations continue to rise (UNDP, 2008).

There are huge regional differences in the above trends. Globally, poverty rates have fallen from 52% in 1981 to 42% in 1990 and to 26% in 2005. In Sub-Saharan Africa, however, the poverty rate remained constant at around 50%. This region also comprises the majority of countries making the least progress in reducing child malnutrition. The poverty rate in East Asia fell from nearly 80% in 1980 to under 20% by 2005. East Asia, notably China, was successful in more than halving the proportion of underweight children between 1990 and 2006. In contrast, and despite improvements since 1990, almost 50% of the children are underweight in Southern Asia. This region alone accounts for more than half the world’s malnourished children. 

Figure 5: Incomes are rising, but less so in Africa. Increased incomes, such as in Asia, generally lead to higher consumption of meat and, hence, increased demand for cereal as livestock feed. (Source: World Bank, 2008).

In addition to increasing demand for food by a rising population, observed dietary shifts also have implications for world food production. Along with rising population are the increasing incomes of a large fraction of the world’s population (Figure 5). The result is increasing consumption of food per capita, as well as changes in diets towards a higher proportion of meat. With growing incomes, consumption – and quantity of waste or discarded food – increases substantially (Henningsson, 2004).