Jeffrey Sachs on trying to feed 9 billion people by 2050

Sachs, who has led global initiatives to counteract hunger, is concerned that in the future, the demands of the human population will outstrip the Earth’s ability to provide food.

Jeffrey Sachs: We’re having a very big problem feeding a world population of 6.8 billion people. First of all, there are about 1 billion people who are chronically hungry, but more than that, the way we produce food is having very dangerous effects on the whole world’s environment.

How many people in the world today are hungry?

Jeffrey Sachs is director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He spoke to EarthSky at a meeting of agriculture experts in fall 2009, about the challenge of feeding people today, and looking ahead to a projected population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Jeffrey Sachs: We have to take very seriously the question of how we make the food supply, the population, and Earth’s ecosystems work compatibly and sustainably.

Sachs, who has led global initiatives to counteract hunger, is concerned that in the future, the demands of the human population will outstrip the Earth’s ability to provide food. Agriculture already takes up 40% of the world’s land surface. Plus,

Jeffrey Sachs: About 70% of consumption of freshwater is for irrigation for agriculture.

Dr. Sachs said our heavy use of resources, along with intensive methods of farming, degrade the environment over time. These practices aren’t sustainable into the future. Sachs believes that in order for the food supply to meet the demand, we must slow down population growth, and at the same time, invest in agricultural research.

Jeffrey Sachs: We need to direct our attention to practical solutions, and we can make tremendous headway if we do that.

Dr. Sachs told EarthSky that the warnings of Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 predicted that the demands of human population will outstrip Earth’s ability to feed them, are still true today.

Jeffrey Sachs:
Given the tremendous burden of food production on earth’s ecosystems, given the fact that we have not properly fed all the people on the planet, given the fact that the
pressures are going to increase, Malthus’ specter, his warnings, continue to loom large.

Sachs said that many people believe that Malthus has been proved wrong in the past century. But Sachs quoted Norman Borlaug, founder of the Green Revolution, as saying that the success of the past century is only a “breathing space” to deal with the need to slow population growth.

Jeffrey Sachs: We have nearly 7 billion people, and they’re on the search for enough food, water, energy to meet their needs, to make economic progress. But when you add it all up, we are already a globally unsustainable world society. Climate change, water stress, environmental degradation, species extinction. All of this is now impinging on us in many ways that are becoming more and more painful and dangerous over time.

Lindsay Patterson