What happens when there are 9 billion mouths to feed

National Geographic Cover

The cover of National Geographic's May 2014 issue.

As it stands right now, the world has a little over 7 billion people. 

Come 2050, however, that "7" will look more like a "9," and those 2 billion extra mouths could mean disaster for the planet's already-strained resources.

Jonathan Foley wrote the cover story for the May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicking off an eight-month series on food and sustainability. In his words: "We've got to get more value out of agriculture.We need to figure out how to feed a growing and more prosperous world, but we also have to figure out how to make it more sustainable."

Foley teamed up with National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz on this "big-picture approach" to landscapes of industrial food:

Vulgamore farm near Scott City, Kansas

On the Vulgamore farm near Scott City, Kansas, each combine can harvest up to 25 acres of wheat an hour—as well as real-time data on crop yields. Most of the food Americans eat is now produced on such large-scale, mechanized farms, which grow row after row of a single crop, allowing farmers to cover more ground with less labor.

Eight million hens lay 5.4 million eggs a day

At Granja Mantiqueira in Brazil eight million hens lay 5.4 million eggs a day. Conveyor belts whisk the eggs to a packaging facility. Demand for meat has tripled in the developing world in four decades, while egg consumption has increased sevenfold, driving a huge expansion of large-scale animal operations.

Brazil nut trees

Only the Brazil nut trees—protected by national law—were left standing after farmers cleared this parcel of Amazon rain forest to grow corn. Despite progress in slowing deforestation, this northern state of Pará saw a worrying 37 percent spike over the past year.

Nutribras pig farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil

At the Nutribras pig farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil, sows are confined to sectioned crates that allow a mother to suckle her piglets without acci­dentally crushing them. Hog farms can be big polluters—the average 200-­pound pig produces 13 pounds of manure a day—but Nutribras recycles waste as fertilizer and methane power.

Monsanto’s North Carolina lab

At Monsanto’s North Carolina lab, corn plants emerge from an automated photo booth that documents their growth. The company is trying to develop strains of corn and soybeans that need less water and fertilizer—a goal that’s eluded biotech thus far. Reducing the use of such resources is key to feeding the world in the coming decades. 

Check out the entire series on National Geographic's website.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...