Food Production Does NOT Need to Double by 2050 (And Other Required Reading for the Next USDA Secretary)

March 16, 2017 | 4:36 pm
Photo: US Agency for International Development/CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

UPDATE, March 17, 2017: Shortly after this post was published, the US Senate’s agriculture committee finally announced that it would hold a hearing on Gov. Perdue’s nomination to be Secretary of Agriculture. That hearing is scheduled for March 23.


Shortly after the inauguration, I wrote a post outlining a set of five questions I thought the Senate should ask President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture. Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue had been named to the position just days prior, and though the selection is deeply flawed, I expected a Senate hearing and confirmation vote would follow promptly.

Well, the nomination has now been on the table for eight weeks, and what seemed like a sure thing now looks less so. Amid ethics questions, a multitude of financial conflicts of interest (sound like anyone you know?), and inexplicable foot-dragging by the White House—which finally filed the paperwork to formally nominate Gov. Perdue this week—there’s still no hearing on the books.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Gov. Perdue will eventually get his hearing, be confirmed by the Senate, and take up the top post at the USDA. What will he be faced with?

He’ll have responsibility for an industrial model of farming that the USDA has long promoted, which is not doing so well. To be sure, it’s pumping out a lot of commodity crops, and more-more-more seems to be its motto and overarching goal. US farmers achieved record-high harvests for corn and soybeans last year, but at the same time, farm incomes are at their lowest levels since 2002. Farmers are losing soil to erosion at unsustainable rates, which threatens the long-term viability of their businesses and of domestic food production. And the more-more-more model relies on heavy fertilizer use, resulting in a nitrogen pollution problem that costs the nation an estimated $157 billion per year in human health and environmental damages and contributes 5 percent of the US share of human-caused heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Proponents of this approach to farming justify it because they say it’s needed to feed a growing world. But it’s debatable whether past efforts to maximize US crop production have been successful even in that realm. And the world—including its farmers—also needs clean water and a stable climate, right?

Producing more food, sustainably

Which is why I want to recommend a surprising new study as required reading for the presumptive agriculture secretary. Published last month in the journal Bioscience, the peer-reviewed paper (alas, behind a pay wall) takes apart a popular claim behind the more-more-more approach—that food production must double by 2050 to feed a growing world population—and strongly advocates for more attention to sustainability.

You’ve probably heard the claim, which stems from two recent food demand projections, one by researchers at the University of Minnesota in 2011 and the other by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2012. Neither team said food production needed to double, exactly, but one thing led to another and the myth that we need to produce twice as much food in the foreseeable future took on a life of its own. It was soon repeated by everyone from the Farm Bureau and Monsanto (naturally) to the Washington Post and National Geographic. A UCS colleague took issue with it in this 2015 blog post, but the myth has persisted.

Now, a team led by Penn State University researchers says it’s just not true. Writing at RealClear Science, lead author and plant scientist Mitch Hunter summarizes the team’s finding:

We conclude that food production does not need to double by 2050, which would require unprecedented growth, but instead needs to continue increasing at roughly historical rates. We also highlight quantitative goals that indicate the scope of agriculture’s environmental challenges.

In fact, Hunter and colleagues say, their new analysis shows that a more modest increase—somewhere between 25 and 70 percent—may be sufficient to meet 2050 food demand. The discrepancy, they explain, stems partly from the fact that the previous studies used 2005 as their baseline for demand, and food production has already increased markedly in the intervening 12 years.

An increase of 25 to 70 percent is still a lot, of course. But farm yield trends are going in the right direction. More troubling is that we’re not making the same strides when it comes to improving agriculture’s impact on our environment, as Hunter points out in an interview at

In the coming decades, agriculture will be called upon to both feed people and ensure a healthy environment. Right now, the narrative in agriculture is really out of balance, with compelling goals for food production but no clear sense of the progress we need to make on the environment. To get the agriculture we want in 2050, we need quantitative targets for both food production and environmental impacts.

Hunter and colleagues elaborate on the most important environmental challenges they see for agriculture in 2050—reducing its emissions of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere and its release of nutrients to waterways—and show how agriculture is falling short of goals that have been set to date. Asserting in the paper that “sustainability cannot play second fiddle to intensification,” the authors recommend the development of a suite of quantitative environmental goals for agriculture, and advocate for shifts in farm policy to meet them.

As I said, required reading for the incoming Secretary of Agriculture.

Agroecology FTW-W-W!

While he’s at it, Gov. Perdue should also read this excellent commentary from my colleagues Andrea Basche and Marcia DeLonge. They posit in the open-access science journal Elementa (and here on our blog) that what we need are farms that support farmers, consumers, and the environment. The governor should know that the science that can achieve such a win-win-win exists. It’s called agroecology, and the USDA needs to fund a lot more of it, according to more than 450 experts on the subject.

A recent event suggests that the interconnectedness of global food security, human nutrition, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity is gaining traction even at the USDA. Just this month, the department’s Office of the Chief Scientist hosted a day-long “listening session” titled Visioning of US Agricultural Systems for Sustainable Production. The session was described by the organizers at the USDA as a landmark conversation for the future possibilities for US agricultural systems and the research needed to develop these systems for the long term.

UCS was there, and we delivered the following four recommendations:

  • Full funding for public agricultural research programs, with a high priority given to promising agroecological research
  • Expansion of publicly-funded classical breeding programs, with a special focus on plant varieties needed in agroecological systems
  • A shift in taxpayer-funded USDA subsidies, incentives, and technical assistance toward implementing economically and environmentally viable farming practices and systems, based on agroecology
  • Greater taxpayer-funded investment in local food systems that advance economic and environmental sustainability in rural and urban communities

I’ll go ahead and put our full written comments on Gov. Perdue’s required reading list. Should he ever become Secretary Perdue, he’s got some homework to do.