A global food crisis may be less than a decade away

Our colleague James Quilligan alerted us to this video. Worth paying attention to. Originally published at TED.

From the shownotes to the video

Sara Menker quit a career in commodities trading to figure out how the global value chain of agriculture works. Her discoveries have led to some startling predictions: “We could have a tipping point in global food and agriculture if surging demand surpasses the agricultural system’s structural capacity to produce food,” she says. “People could starve and governments may fall.” Menker’s models predict that this scenario could happen in a decade — that the world could be short 214 trillion calories per year by 2027. She offers a vision of this impossible world as well as some steps we can take today to avoid it.


Since 2009, the world has been stuck on a single narrative around a coming global food crisis and what we need to do to avoid it. How do we feed nine billion people by 2050? Every conference, podcast and dialogue around global food security starts with this question and goes on to answer it by saying we need to produce 70 percent more food.

The 2050 narrative started to evolve shortly after global food prices hit all-time highs in 2008. People were suffering and struggling, governments and world leaders needed to show us that they were paying attention and were working to solve it. The thing is, 2050 is so far into the future that we can’t even relate to it, and more importantly, if we keep doing what we’re doing, it’s going to hit us a lot sooner than that.

I believe we need to ask a different question. The answer to that question needs to be framed differently. If we can reframe the old narrative and replace it with new numbers that tell us a more complete pictures, numbers that everyone can understand and relate to, we can avoid the crisis altogether.

I was a commodities trader in my past life and one of the things that I learned trading is that every market has a tipping point, the point at which change occurs so rapidly that it impacts the world and things change forever. Think of the last financial crisis, or the dot-com crash.

So here’s my concern. We could have a tipping point in global food and agriculture if surging demand surpasses the agricultural system’s structural capacity to produce food. This means at this point supply can no longer keep up with demand despite exploding prices, unless we can commit to some type of structural change. This time around, it won’t be about stock markets and money. It’s about people. People could starve and governments may fall. This question of at what point does supply struggle to keep up with surging demand is one that started off as an interest for me while I was trading and became an absolute obsession. It went from interest to obsession when I realized through my research how broken the system was and how very little data was being used to make such critical decisions. That’s the point I decided to walk away from a career on Wall Street and start an entrepreneurial journey to start Gro Intelligence.

At Gro, we focus on bringing this data and doing the work to make it actionable, to empower decision-makers at every level. But doing this work, we also realized that the world, not just world leaders, but businesses and citizens like every single person in this room, lacked an actionable guide on how we can avoid a coming global food security crisis. And so we built a model, leveraging the petabytes of data we sit on, and we solved for the tipping point.

Now, no one knows we’ve been working on this problem and this is the first time that I’m sharing what we discovered. We discovered that the tipping point is actually a decade from now. We discovered that the world will be short 214 trillion calories by 2027. The world is not in a position to fill this gap.

Now, you’ll notice that the way I’m framing this is different from how I started, and that’s intentional, because until now this problem has been quantified using mass: think kilograms, tons, hectograms, whatever your unit of choice is in mass. Why do we talk about food in terms of weight? Because it’s easy. We can look at a photograph and determine tonnage on a ship by using a simple pocket calculator. We can weigh trucks, airplanes and oxcarts. But what we care about in food is nutritional value. Not all foods are created equal, even if they weigh the same. This I learned firsthand when I moved from Ethiopia to the US for university. Upon my return back home, my father, who was so excited to see me, greeted me by asking why I was fat. Now, turns out that eating approximately the same amount of food as I did in Ethiopia, but in America, had actually lent a certain fullness to my figure. This is why we should care about calories, not about mass. It is calories which sustain us.

So 214 trillion calories is a very large number, and not even the most dedicated of us think in the hundreds of trillions of calories. So let me break this down differently. An alternative way to think about this is to think about it in Big Macs. 214 trillion calories. A single Big Mac has 563 calories. That means the world will be short 379 billion Big Macs in 2027. That is more Big Macs than McDonald’s has ever produced.

So how did we get to these numbers in the first place? They’re not made up. This map shows you where the world was 40 years ago. It shows you net calorie gaps in every country in the world. Now, simply put, this is just calories consumed in that country minus calories produced in that same country. This is not a statement on malnutrition or anything else. It’s simply saying how many calories are consumed in a single year minus how many are produced.Blue countries are net calorie exporters, or self-sufficient. They have some in storage for a rainy day. Red countries are net calorie importers. The deeper, the brighter the red, the more you’re importing. 40 years ago, such few countries were net exporters of calories, I could count them with one hand. Most of the African continent, Europe, most of Asia, South America excluding Argentina, were all net importers of calories. And what’s surprising is that China used to actually be food self-sufficient. India was a big net importer of calories.

40 years later, this is today. You can see the drastic transformation that’s occurred in the world. Brazil has emerged as an agricultural powerhouse. Europe is dominant in global agriculture. India has actually flipped from red to blue.It’s become food self-sufficient. And China went from that light blue to the brightest red that you see on this map.

How did we get here? What happened? So this chart shows you India and Africa. Blue line is India, red line is Africa.How is it that two regions that started off so similarly in such similar trajectories take such different paths? India had a green revolution. Not a single African country had a green revolution. The net outcome? India is food self-sufficientand in the past decade has actually been exporting calories. The African continent now imports over 300 trillion calories a year. Then we add China, the green line. Remember the switch from the blue to the bright red? What happened and when did it happen? China seemed to be on a very similar path to India until the start of the 21st century, where it suddenly flipped. A young and growing population combined with significant economic growthmade its mark with a big bang and no one in the markets saw it coming. This flip was everything to global agricultural markets. Luckily now, South America was starting to boom at the same time as China’s rise, and so therefore, supply and demand were still somewhat balanced.

So the question becomes, where do we go from here? Oddly enough, it’s not a new story, except this time it’s not just a story of China. It’s a continuation of China, an amplification of Africa and a paradigm shift in India. By 2023,Africa’s population is forecasted to overtake that of India’s and China’s. By 2023, these three regions combined will make up over half the world’s population. This crossover point starts to present really interesting challenges for global food security. And a few years later, we’re hit hard with that reality.

What does the world look like in 10 years? So far, as I mentioned, India has been food self-sufficient. Most forecasters predict that this will continue. We disagree. India will soon become a net importer of calories. This will be driven both by the fact that demand is growing from a population growth standpoint plus economic growth. It will be driven by both. And even if you have optimistic assumptions around production growth, it will make that slight flip.That slight flip can have huge implications.

Next, Africa will continue to be a net importer of calories, again driven by population growth and economic growth.This is again assuming optimistic production growth assumptions. Then China, where population is flattening out,calorie consumption will explode because the types of calories consumed are also starting to be higher-calorie-content foods. And so therefore, these three regions combined start to present a really interesting challenge for the world.

Until now, countries with calorie deficits have been able to meet these deficits by importing from surplus regions. By surplus regions, I’m talking about North America, South America and Europe. This line chart over here shows you the growth and the projected growth over the next decade of production from North America, South America and Europe. What it doesn’t show you is that most of this growth is actually going to come from South America. And most of this growth is going to come at the huge cost of deforestation. And so when you look at the combined demand increase coming from India, China and the African continent, and look at it versus the combined increase in production coming from India, China, the African continent, North America, South America and Europe, you are left with a 214-trillion-calorie deficit, one we can’t produce. And this, by the way, is actually assuming we take all the extra calories produced in North America, South America and Europe and export them solely to India, China and Africa.

What I just presented to you is a vision of an impossible world. We can do something to change that. We can change consumption patterns, we can reduce food waste, or we can make a bold commitment to increasing yields exponentially.

Now, I’m not going to go into discussing changing consumption patterns or reducing food waste, because those conversations have been going on for some time now. Nothing has happened. Nothing has happened because those arguments ask the surplus regions to change their behavior on behalf of deficit regions. Waiting for others to change their behavior on your behalf, for your survival, is a terrible idea. It’s unproductive.

So I’d like to suggest an alternative that comes from the red regions. China, India, Africa. China is constrained in terms of how much more land it actually has available for agriculture, and it has massive water resource availability issues. So the answer really lies in India and in Africa. India has some upside in terms of potential yield increases.Now this is the gap between its current yield and the theoretical maximum yield it can achieve. It has some unfarmed arable land remaining, but not much, India is quite land-constrained. Now, the African continent, on the other hand,has vast amounts of arable land remaining and significant upside potential in yields. Somewhat simplified picture here, but if you look at sub-Saharan African yields in corn today, they are where North American yields were in 1940.We don’t have 70-plus years to figure this out, so it means we need to try something new and we need to try something different. The solution starts with reforms. We need to reform and commercialize the agricultural industries in Africa and in India.

Now, by commercialization — commercialization is not about commercial farming alone. Commercialization is about leveraging data to craft better policies, to improve infrastructure, to lower the transportation costs and to completely reform banking and insurance industries. Commercialization is about taking agriculture from too risky an endeavor to one where fortunes can be made. Commercialization is not about just farmers. Commercialization is about the entire agricultural system. But commercialization also means confronting the fact that we can no longer place the burden of growth on small-scale farmers alone, and accepting that commercial farms and the introduction of commercial farmscould provide certain economies of scale that even small-scale farmers can leverage. It is not about small-scale farming or commercial agriculture, or big agriculture. We can create the first successful models of the coexistence and success of small-scale farming alongside commercial agriculture. This is because, for the first time ever, the most critical tool for success in the industry — data and knowledge — is becoming cheaper by the day. And very soon, it won’t matter how much money you have or how big you are to make optimal decisions and maximize probability of success in reaching your intended goal. Companies like Gro are working really hard to make this a reality.

So if we can commit to this new, bold initiative, to this new, bold change, not only can we solve the 214-trillion gap that I talked about, but we can actually set the world on a whole new path. India can remain food self-sufficient and Africa can emerge as the world’s next dark blue region.

The new question is, how do we produce 214 trillion calories to feed 8.3 billion people by 2027? We have the solution. We just need to act on it.

Thank you.


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