How To Feed 10 Billion People – The Supply Chain Challenge Of The Future

Richard Howells

The world’s population didn’t hit 1 billion until 1804. It wasn’t until 1927 that the 2 billionth person was born.  However, it only took 33 more years to reach 3 billion people, in 1960. Today, we are over 7.7 billion and counting – with the number estimated to be over 8 billion by 2023 and 10 billion by 2055 (and I hope to be one of them).

To put it in perspective, since the year I was born, the world’s population has more than doubled, and I expect to see it triple in my lifetime.

Food for thought

It’s estimated that at the current consumption rate and considering changing dairy habits, economic growth, and income levels in developing countries, global agriculture production must increase about 60% to 70% to meet the increased food demand in 2050.

That is simply not sustainable.

So, what can consumers, suppliers, and manufacturers do to address these challenges?

Consumers: Shift to healthier, more sustainable diets

As individuals, we need to change what we eat for a sustainable future. This was highlighted in a report published in October 2018 in the journal Nature that argues that “a sustainable food system that doesn’t ravage the environment is going to require dramatic reforms,” including a radical change in dietary habits. It concluded that “the current methods of producing, distributing, and consuming food aren’t environmentally sustainable and that damage to the planet could make it less hospitable for human existence.”

For example, in 2016, the global production of meat was 318 million tons. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in 2050, global meat production will increase to 455 million tons. Cows generally need 8 to 10 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of meat. When translating this to calories, for every 100 calories fed to animals, the return is only about 25 calories in the form of meat and dairy products. So as the amount of meat and dairy consumed increases, so does the exponential increase in cereal and food stock.

Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. The report calculated that “global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

I am seeing this play out in fast food and supermarket chains across the globe, with the rise of “meatless meats” such as Impossible BurgerBeyond MeatLightlife Italian Sausage, and Plant Based Nuggets on display. These products have been designed by deconstructing the animal to reconstruct a plant-based replacement that looks, tastes, and cooks like the real thing.

Suppliers: Better utilize the world’s resources

So how do we ensure that we have the raw materials to serve a growing population? Here we have the ultimate challenge of “doing more with less.”

We need to produce enough to feed the world’s exponentially growing population in an efficient and sustainable way. This puts farmers around the world under pressure to produce on a larger scale and increase yields while remaining limited to the same physical space and time to do it.

Recently, the  BBC show Follow the Food showcased this issue and the work of Brazilian agricultural-machine manufacturer Stara to leverage technology in precision farming.

Agriculture is extremely important in Brazil, and the country produces hundreds of millions of tons of crops such as coffee, soybeans, wheat, corn, and sugarcane each year for export and domestic use. However, due to deforestation regulations to protect the Amazon implemented over the past decade, Brazilian farmers have had to be more innovative. Stara was the first Brazilian company to equip agricultural machinery with IoT technology, and this has truly revolutionized its business. With a platform connected to the cloud, farmers can now monitor vital farming processes. They can collect real-time data about planting, soil preparation, fertilizing, harvesting, and more – allowing them to better manage their farms. And with real-time data at their fingertips, they can determine the exact amount of fertilizer to apply in each section of farmland. This has resulted in increased productivity, the right amount of fertilizer used, and sustainable farming.

Manufacturers: Eliminate waste from farm to plate

But we can also drive sustainable practices across the supply chains that will service our growing population. According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tons – gets lost or wasted. And this waste occurs all along the food chain, from farm to plate. In developing countries, 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.

So, the good news is that we already produce enough food to feed a larger population. But we need to figure out how to distribute, track, and trace it across the supply chain while keeping it fresh.

This requires food manufacturers to:

  • Design products that are portion-controlled, in packaging that can extend the life of products and track freshness and viability of packages
  • Plan to produce the right products to meet changing geographical demand and ensure that inventory is positioned in the optimal locations across the globe to meet that demand
  • Manufacture using ethically sourced materials and with processes that are geared to eliminating waste
  • Deliver sustainably while ensuring the quality, freshness, and shelf life of products from farm to plate

Sustainably feeding 10 billion people means eating better and growing, designing, manufacturing, and delivering smarter. I look forward to seeing you in 2055. I will be the old vegan sitting in the corner solving the world’s problems.

To learn more on how to drive sustainable supply chain processes, download the IDC report “Leveraging your intelligent digital supply chain.”

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About Richard Howells

Richard Howells is a Vice President at SAP responsible for the positioning, messaging, AR , PR and go-to market activities for the SAP Supply Chain solutions.