Tuesday, January 8, 2019

econlife - Why Less Land Needs To Make More Food by Elaine Schwartz


By 2050, there might be 10 billion of us, up from 7.2 billion now. With more affluence and more people, we are going to need 56% (or so) more calories than we consumed in 2010.

Let’s start by looking back. In this very clever very fast 200-year history, you can see a convergence of the health and wealth of 200 countries:




The question now is what to do as more health and wealth continue. A new report has some suggestions.

Planning for 2050

Called the three gaps, researchers at the World Resources Institute say we need to produce more food more sustainably by using as little extra land as possible.


  • The Food Gap. At 7400 trillion calories, we need a 56% increase.
  • The Land Gap. To produce those extra calories, we need extra land equal to double the size of India–even if we increase crop yields.
  • The Emissions Gap: But also, sustainability should dictate how we bridge the food and land gap.


Shown below, the keys are less demand and more production:




But How?

The report presents what it calls 22 menu items for managing the three gaps. An example? One menu item tells us to “Shift to Healthier and More Sustainable Diets.” Then, the analysis is clearly a reality check. Projecting an 88% increase, they recognize that a wealthier world eats more meat.

Here is the environmental impact:




Yes, their analysis includes “strategies” that focus on food innovators developing meat substitutes. They realize any dietary shift will need marketing that reshapes social norms. And, it all will require new government policies.

With 22 items that range from decreasing fertility rates to increasing pasture productivity, the report is voluminous and for me, a bit discouraging. As economists, we all know the role of incentives. In their 96 page report, even in the eight times they used the word incentive, they did not convincingly display what would nudge us to do all that they (wisely) suggest.



Our Bottom Line: Remembering Malthus

Perhaps one of the first environmentalists, Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) told us in 1798 that population grows geometrically while resource production expands arithmetically. Consequently, resource prices will rise and supply will become increasingly inadequate.

We just have to look at the Hans Rosling video to know that Malthus miscalculated. As economists we can ask if the same leaps in technology and the appropriate incentives will resurface during the next 32 years.

My sources and more: Thanks to the NY Times for alerting me to the World Resources Institute study. From there, naturally I thought of Hans Rosling. Finally, you might want to take a brief look at this 2011 study from Nature. Doesn’t it sound a bit too similar to the current research?



Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.