How Will We Feed 9 Billion People in 2050?

Experts at GW’s Feeding the Planet Summit discuss sustainable innovations in food security.

Rajiv Shah
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah was the keynote speaker at the Feeding the Planet Summit. He presented the "five most innovative things the U.S. is doing to feed the planet," such as an orange-flesh sweet potato enhanced with high levels of Vitamin A.
November 03, 2013

By Lauren Ingeno

By the year 2050, experts predict the world population will rise to 9 billion.

To meet the needs of that many people, humans will have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as they have in the last 8,000, says Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation for the World Wildlife Fund. Currently, more than 800 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.

And as the world population surges, the Earth’s health is declining. Humans are destroying forests, draining rivers and building factory farms to increase food production. Meanwhile, climate change is impacting all elements of food security—availability, access, utilization and stability.

So how will we feed the world without destroying the planet? And what role will consumers, farmers, policymakers and scientists play in addressing these challenges?

These were two of the big questions tackled at the day-long Feeding the Planet Summit held in the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium on Wednesday.

“Feeding the Planet: Sustainable Innovations in Food Security” was launched by GW Planet Forward—a project created in 2009 by GW School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno and based at SMPA’s Center for Innovative Media. Planet Forward is an online community where “experts and engaged citizens come together” to find solutions in the areas of energy, climate and sustainability.

More than 20 speakers—including chef and ThinkFoodGroup owner José Andrés, New York Times correspondent Amy Harmon and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shad—brought a wide range of expertise to the summit.


“This is complicated stuff, this feeding the planet,” Mr. Sesno said in his opening remarks. “But it’s also unbelievably exciting. And it’s what I had in mind when I started Planet Forward—to create a media lab where we could learn, innovate, implement and, along the way, engage incredibly important conversations that could benefit the country and the world.”


It’s a tall order, Mr. Sesno admitted.


“But we can do it because of who we are, where we are, who you are—because you’re empowered,” he said.


More than 350 people attended the summit, from farmers to students from Purdue, Middlebury, Roger Williams, the University of Oregon and Virginia Tech, among others. Hundreds more watched via a live webcast. Many engaged in the day’s dialogue through social media by tweeting comments and questions to speakers, with more than 3000 tweets to the event’s hashtag, #foodFWD.  Five videos by SMPA students were shown at the event.


Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Steven Lerman addressed college students directly at the summit.


“Today’s summit is about what will be one of the grand challenges that will face your generation. And that challenge revolves around how you will feed a growing population in a way that is sustainable, that is healthy and that will thrive on what, turns out to be, our very small planet,” he said.


A theme that ran throughout the day’s discussions was the idea that feeding the planet will require a “balancing act” between multiple stakeholders. 


As the president and CEO of an agricultural cooperative, Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s Chris Policinski said he finds that there is actually much conversation going on about food production. The challenge, he said, is that the conversation “is happening in silos.”


In contrast, the Feeding the Planet summit offered the opportunity for leaders from all different sectors to come together. They stressed the importance of being open minded and inclusive when it comes to talking about agricultural technology and food security.


Phil Miller, vice president of global regulatory affairs at Monsanto—an agricultural biotechnology corporation that has come under fire from those who oppose genetically modified organisms, joined a diverse panel of leaders to discuss the controversial topic of GMOs.


Mr. Miller stressed that biotechnology is “not going to solve every issue” when it comes to food security, but it can be used as “one of the tools” that should be considered on a “case-by-case basis.”


Besides GMOs, there are many other sustainable innovations in food security that are changing the way we feed the planet.


USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah highlighted five of those innovations during his keynote speech at the summit.


Dr. Shah showed off innovative tools and technological advancements such as an orange-flesh sweet potato enhanced with high levels of Vitamin A and urea deep placement, a technique that increases yield percentages while reducing fertilizer costs for farmers.


"It is now possible to imagine a world without widespread hunger and malnutrition," Dr. Shah said.


Speakers such as the World Wildlife Fund’s Dr. Clay and Margaret Walsh, a senior ecologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Change Program Office, spoke about the environmental impacts of producing enough food for 9 billion people.


If we do not quickly figure out how to make agriculture more efficient, how to do more with less, then “we’re going to be in trouble,” Dr. Clay said.


He said we need to start thinking about how to optimize many different resources, rather than maximize any one thing. And he identified “nine wedges”—such as genetics, better farming practices and cutting waste—that if applied globally and simultaneously, could help to reform the food system.


“We need to figure out what we can do to move the needle,” Dr. Clay said. “No one can do everything. Everyone can do something. What are you going to do?”


Luckily, many young people are already stepping up to the challenge.


Following Dr. Shah’s keynote presentation, four young food innovators took the stage to discuss the ways they are also helping to feed the planet in sustainable ways, hosted by chef and popular restaurant owner Spike Mendelsohn.


Harman Johar, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia, encouraged the audience to “eat more bugs.”


Mr. Johar is the founder of World Entomophagy—an edible insect supplier with a range of individual and corporate clients. He said insects are nutritious and encouraged those at the summit to give them a try. To the audience’s excitement, Diane Robinson Knapp, chair of GW’s Urban Food Task Force, which hosted a Food Day extravaganza at GW last week, ate a cricket on stage.


At the closing of the summit, George Washington President Steven Knapp said it is the young people of today who will find the solutions to feed the world of tomorrow.  


“Our students are at the forefront of leading our efforts,” he said. “They are committed to ending world hunger, and they are the ones who are really going to carry this whole cause forward.”