The world could run out of food two decades earlier than thought

We’ll need a lot more burgers to feed the planet in 2027 than we do now.
We’ll need a lot more burgers to feed the planet in 2027 than we do now.
Image: Bret Hartman/TED
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By 2027 the world could be facing a 214 trillion calorie deficit, says Sara Menker, founder and chief executive of Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data technology company. In other words, in just a decade, we won’t have enough food to feed the planet.

We’ve long known that we might reach a point where we have more people than the food to sustain them. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that at that point, the world would need to produce 70% more food than today to feed all those people. That 2050 deadline is the one usually cited by scientists and organizations like FAO and Oxfam as the year the world will run out of food.

But the problem with this, and most, assessments of food insecurity, Menker says, is that it uses mass and weight, and not nutritional value. “Why do we talk of food in terms of weight?” Menker asked recently at the second TEDGlobal event in Arusha, Tanzania. “Because it’s easy. But what we care about in food is nutritional value. Not all foods are created equal even if they weigh the same.”

She argues that if you look at the nutritional value of current food production instead, global food security is already more tenuous than we think. Further, population and economic growth in China, India, and African countries will exacerbate this trend, as they continue to grow as net importers of food. The year 2023, Menker says, is the crossover point for population growth in these three areas.

By 2023, the population in China, India, and Africa will combine to make up over half the world’s population. Africa already has to import food, and by 2023, India, which currently doesn’t import food, will have to start. In China, population growth will eventually level off, but overall calorie intake in the country will continue to increase through the early 2020s, Menker says. In recent years, people in China have begun to add more and more meat—and especially red meat—a very high-calorie food to their diets. Menker predicts that more and more people in China will demand this sort of high-calorie diet.

By 2023, even if all the surplus produce from countries in Europe, North and South America was solely exported to China, India, and Africa, it still would not be enough, says Menker. Four years later, Menker predicts, there will be a 214 trillion calorie shortage. Menker compares it to the calories provided by 379 billion Big Mac hamburgers—more than McDonald’s has produced in its entire existence.

Menker, a former commodities trader, and a 2015 Quartz Africa Innovator, started Gro Intelligence to provide individuals, governments, and businesses insights into agriculture, tracking data from weather patterns to pricing dynamics. She has some solutions to avert the oncoming crisis: reform the agricultural industries in Africa and India by changing how farmers farm, how people buy and consume food, decrease food waste, improve infrastructure, and increase farm yields exponentially. But she also emphasized the importance of data to inform and influence this decision-making process.

“For the first time ever, the most critical tool[s] for success in the industry—data and knowledge—[are] becoming cheaper by the day. And very soon, it won’t matter how much money you own, to make optimal decisions and maximize probability of success in reaching your intended goal,” Menker said. “We have the solution. We just need to act on it.”

Correction: At one point, the article mentioned the year we will no longer be able to produce enough food to feed a growing population as 2023. It is 2027.