How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

The food chain is broken

On paper, we produce enough food to feed our current population of 7 billion. Yet an estimated 805 million people go to bed hungry each night, and hidden hunger – or micronutrient deficiency – affects an additional 2 billion.

Poverty, political instability, income inequity and overconsumption in some regions of the world all play pivotal roles. But the 9 Billion Bowls report from Thomson Reuters turns its focus on a specific link in the global chain – the production and delivery of food.

It’s here where the greatest challenges – and brightest opportunities – for feeding our planet lie.

Current population of 7 billion

Worldwide hunger population comparison diagram

Wasting away

Of the food that we do grow the United Nations estimates that 30% goes to waste somewhere in the production and delivery process – and simply never reaches our tables. And it’s not just the food itself that’s lost; it’s also the water, human effort and resources that went into its production.

The increasing intensity of climate change

Perhaps no other industry has been more negatively affected by climate change than agriculture. Droughts, floods, fires and freezes all do their damage directly to global crops. Yields suffer. People suffer.

Empty stomachs, seething streets

Hunger is both intensely personal and inevitably societal. In fact, there is a direct correlation between food insecurity and social instability.

Food insecurity and social instability: 2007-2015

Affordable and available food helps form the bedrock of stable societies. When prices rise too high, or availability becomes too low, people frequently take to the streets out of frustration – and desperation.

The chart below tracks food-related riots globally since 2007 against food and oil prices. The most notable period for unrest is the cluster from 2007-2008, during the Great Recession, when both food and oil prices spiked. … continue reading

Many factors affect food prices, including trade agreements, public investment in agriculture, currency trading and others. Of particular interest is the complex interdependency between food and oil.

In the time period below we see a clear correlation, but at other times a decline in oil prices can actually influence an increase in food prices. Since crops used for biofuels are both food and fuel, changes in oil prices affect edible crop availability. Lower oil prices can also influence a greater global demand for food, sending food prices higher. For a more complete explanation, read this World Bank report.

More bowls to fill by the day

In coming years, the situation will be even more daunting: Our population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet 80% of our arable land is already in use.

As these issues converge and intensify, we are forced to confront perhaps the most critical question of our time: How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

Feeding 9 billion people using smart data innovations
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… the answer is data

The most magical aspect of big data is Smart Data: the application of statistical analytics and machine learning to data sets to find interesting connections and signals in all the noise.

Philip Brittan
Chief Technology Officer and Global Head of Platform
Financial & Risk
Thomson Reuters

Big data. Big brains. Big answers.

Davide Arcella's Portrait
Davide Arcella

Scientific Officer
European Food Safety Authority

Chris Arsenault's Portrait
Chris Arsenault

Food Security Correspondent
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Laura Barter's Portrait
Laura Barter

Director, AGRI-net
Senior Lecturer, Imperial College

Kris Carlson's Portrait
Kris Carlson

Global Head of Agriculture and Metals
Thomson Reuters

Corey Cherr's Portrait
Corey Cherr

Head of Agriculture and Weather Research and Forecasts
Thomson Reuters

Robert Colangelo's Portrait
Robert Colangelo

Founding Farmer
Green Sense farms

Kevin Frediani's Portrait
Kevin Frediani

Head of Sustainable Land Use
Bicton College, Devon

FungiAlert's Portrait

Kerry O’Donnelly
Angela De Manzanos

Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton's Portrait
Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton

Head, TT Chang Genetic Resources Center
International Rice Research Institute

Tim Large's Portrait
Tim Large

Director, Journalism and Media Programmes
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Hei Leung's Portrait
Hei Leung

Principal Scientist
International Rice Research Institute

Raptor Maps's Portrait
Raptor Maps

Edward Obropta
Nikhil Vadhavkar
Forrest Meyen

Alan Robbins' Portrait
Alan Robbins


Bob Stembridge's Portrait
Bob Stembridge

Customer Relations Manager, IP & Science
Thomson Reuters

Michael Thomson's Portrait
Michael Thomson

Molecular Geneticist
Formerly with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

Catherine Woteki's Portrait
Catherine Woteki

Chief Scientist and Under Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Perhaps no other area is so ripe for data-based solutions than the production and delivery of food.

In fact, a quiet revolution is already taking place. A diverse group of scientists, students, analysts and inventors is turning insights into innovation to meet the hungry demands of our future. They’re leveraging big data and leading-edge technologies in entirely new ways to get far better results at every link in the food supply chain. Better food, more of it, with less waste and fewer chemicals.

Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 – technology, data and creative thinking

The 9 Billion Bowls report from Thomson Reuters tells their stories in a single place

Ph.D. candidates at MIT are building drones that spot plant disease in crops previously out of view. Thomson Reuters scientists are using satellites and sophisticated algorithms to accurately predict weather patterns a full year in advance. Geneticists are breeding super seeds designed to withstand drought, heat and pestilence. Two young women in the U.K. have developed a $3 fungus sensor that could save $5 billion worth of crops.

Governments are key to the solution

And in the public sector, initiatives such as Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) are helping countries develop open (big) data to help feed the world. As one of its chief proponents, Dr. Catherine Woteki, puts it:

The interest in open data is really substantial and growing. There’s a lot of discussion about what this movement can do to help farmers and consumers all over the world.

Together, these are the stories of how big data and big brains are beating back hunger. For good.

Catherine Woteki's Portrait

Dr. Catherine Woteki

Chief Scientist and Under Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Connect with Catherine

How can a government’s open data policies help feed more people?

Dr. Woteki says that governments have vast amounts of valuable data, and we need to continue to make it more available and transparent – particularly in the area of agriculture and food production. This is why the U.S. government was one of the founding partners of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative. GODAN focuses on building high-level policy and public and private institutional support for open data.

Dr. Woteki believes this type of open data will be instrumental to feeding more people. She gives two examples:

Farmers in the developing world are already using cell phones to help them market their crops and find the best prices. She says farmers can check where others are marketing competing crops on a given day, and quickly find a different market where no one is selling the same goods.

Over the long haul, these open data sets will have a lot of benefits to farmers all over the world … There are lots of opportunities. The only limit to the possibilities is our own imaginations.

It can also help plant breeders to be better informed.

We believe data will help speed up the development of locally adapted crops that are going to be resilient to climate change, she said.

Learn more about how data is critical to food security

Davide Arcella's Portrait

How can data help reduce Europe’s exposure to food hazards?

Davide Arcella, Scientific Officer, European Food Safety Authority, responds.

We know that our food may contain a wide range of potentially hazardous substances. But interesting solutions abound. The EFSA European Food Consumption Database is using data in innovative ways to identify and help reduce the risk of contaminated food, particularly among vulnerable populations, he says. … continue reading

Infants and young children, for example, consume more food per kilogram of body weight, and are exposed to relatively higher levels of toxins as a result. So EFSA has compiled vast quantities of consumption data and dietary surveys from every country in the European Union, divided by specific categories. We’ve broken the numbers down by age, from infants to adults aged 75 years or older; food group (over 1,500); and type of consumption, covering both regular and high consumption, Arcella notes.

By analyzing this deep pool of data, we have a detailed picture of how the most at-risk people are exposed to a particular hazard through their diet. This allows us to tailor recommendations to specific populations, averting potentially damaging consequences.

Feeding 9 billion people with a single grain of rice
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… with a single grain of rice

Rice is an essential crop because half of the world eats it as a staple … When we talk about food security, it is an important component.

Dr. Michael Thomson
Molecular Geneticist
Formerly with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

Seeding change

Because rice is central to feeding billions of people – now and in the future – the Philippines-based IRRI team is leveraging data and technology to create rice that delivers higher yields and is more resistant to global warming and other environmental threats.

That team includes Dr. Hei Leung, who is splicing rice chromosomes to create greater diversity, and Dr. Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, who is preserving that variety for generations in a highly sophisticated gene bank.

Dr. Michael Thomson: Using rice to secure food for future population growth (2:48)

Securing a staple – the future of rice

More videos from the International Rice Research Institute

The MAGIC rice breeding program

Dr. Hei Leung is creating genetic combinations that resist drought and other threats.

Bob Stembridge's Portrait

Bob Stembridge

Customer Relations Manager
IP & Science
Thomson Reuters

Connect with Bob

Will China be the world’s breadbasket of the future?

Until recently, it was inconceivable that the most populous country in the world would become a net food exporter. But according to Bob Stembridge of Thomson Reuters, that is exactly the prediction over the next decade. China is making a concerted effort to up the stakes in food production, and genetically modified (GM) foods will play a crucial part, he says.

Follow the patents

How do we know? Stembridge and his team recently looked at trends in crop breeding technology, specifically at the countries with the most patent activity and companies or organizations generating the most patent requests in the area of crop breeding technology.

Worldwide crop breeding patents by company and nation

World leaders in genetically modified food patent research

The United States and China alone represent 68% of all of the patent documents associated with crop breeding around the world. These two countries are larger than the closest competing country by at least a factor of five, Stembridge said.

It’s notable that while the U.S. has more patent applications over the past 5 years than China, the majority of the U.S. documents are coming from a small collection of private companies, while the Chinese applications are coming from a larger number of academic institutions. Once China’s private industry begins patenting, there is a high likelihood that they will pass the U.S. in the number of crop breeding patent applications produced.

Unsurprisingly, current Chinese filings are primarily related to rice breeding, but they also show more diversification compared to filings in the U.S.

Bottom line? Based on this recent filing data, it’s clear that China has taken a significant interest in crop breeding and is using these innovations to position themselves not only to meet the needs of their own population, but to potentially challenge the U.S. for the title of Breadbasket of the World, says Stembridge.

Feeding 9 billion people with precision agriculture
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… By farming our data

The population is increasing faster than production; and as growing conditions become different … the world is going to have to get as much as it can out of every acre.

Larry Winger
Benton County, Indiana

Precision agriculture, sustainable intensification

Today’s farmers put Silicon Valley to shame, with their adoption of data, analytics and technology to maximize both yields and efficiencies. One of the most promising tools is Data Share from Thomson Reuters.

This phone app enables farmers to confidentially share crop data and photos. Collectively, it gives them and other farmers a very accurate, unbiased view of crop health in specific locations. Imagine farmers all over the globe uploading such data in real time, on a regular basis.

Kris Carlson's Portrait

Kris Carlson

Global Head of Agriculture and Metals
Thomson Reuters

Connect with Kris

How will Data Share help farmers plant more efficiently?

The key to feeding more people is connecting farmers like Larry Winger to the bigger global picture so they can adapt to changing markets and climate conditions. Increase knowledge and increase yields.

Kris Carlson: How Data Share will help farmers produce and market crops more productively (1:54)

Data Share – connecting farmers globally

Technology taking root

Larry Winger says tools like Data Share are vital to facing the challenges of the future. He’s been farming for over 40 years in Benton County, Indiana, and is as attached to his tablet as he is to his combine.

We are just on the cusp of how technology is going to change agriculture in the next 20–30 years. We’ve gone from apples to iPads in my career – and that will only accelerate.

Indiana farmers Larry and Andrew Winger: the central role of technology in agriculture (4:32)

The central role of technology in agriculture

Enter the drones

Ph.D. candidates Edward Obropta, Forrest Meyen and Nikhil Vadhavkar from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently beat out 193 competitors to win the Thomson Reuters-sponsored 2015 MIT $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competition.

Precision agriculture in motion

Their start-up company, Raptor Maps, uses camera-loaded drones to quickly scan acres of planted fields, and detect the earliest signs of pests and disease.

Going beyond human vision

Multi-spectral cameras, detecting visible and infrared light, are one of the many tools they use to create highly precise maps of analyzed crops. Their edge is in leveraging multiple sources of data and closing the loop with crop scouts to ensure the client-customized analytics are accurate. Farmers, for example, use this data to pinpoint and treat problem areas.

MIT student start-up Raptor Maps founders with an agricultural drone.

Drones are revolutionizing agriculture, says Nikhil. And everyone—from farm to table—will benefit.

The result? Raptor Maps’ service can help clients predict yields and drastically cut crop loss - as well as the need for expensive and environmentally harmful chemicals.

A $3 solution to a multi-billion dollar problem

Whilst drones scan the skies, equally innovative work is happening on the ground. Soil pathogens like Phytophthora destroy $5-7 billion worth of global crops each year. FungiAlert, a new start-up from Imperial College, London, students Kerry O’Donnelly and Angela de Manzanos has a $3 solution.

Feeding 9 billion people through urban and vertical farming
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… with urban harvests

Our lights go on and off by a timer; our watering cycles and our fertigation are all done through a computer; and we have records of our temperature and humidity. So we're constantly graphing and charting our data and looking at how to improve conditions and make them more consistent.

Robert Colangelo
Environmental entrepreneur and expert
Founder, Green Sense Farms, LLC

Growing up

In a warehouse in Portage, Indiana, entrepreneur and earth scientist Robert Colangelo is literally taking this idea to the next level, with an indoor vertical farm. It uses one-tenth the land of a traditional farm and produces 26 harvests per year.

Green Sense Farms is built on 30,000 square feet of warehouse space where Colangelo and his team grow non-genetically modified lettuces and herbs without using pesticides, herbicides, sunlight, soil or rain.

Green Sense Farms: The benefits of vertical indoor farming (3:23)

Making green sense through vertical farming

Rapid urbanization and inefficient supply chains

More than 50% of the world’s population resides in cities, and by 2050 this will increase to 80%. To sustainably feed these swelling urban populations, cities must become smarter and produce more food locally.

A growing movement: urban agriculture

Urban agriculture has come to the fore as a sustainable solution for offsetting inefficient transport chains and producing food literally where people live – all with a range of cascading benefits: reduced carbon footprint, increased nutrients, fresher food and far less food waste.

World Population

Urban population growth from 2015 to 2050 diagram
Kevin Frediani's Portrait

Kevin Frediani

Head of Sustainable Land Use
Bicton College, Devon

Connect with Kevin

What will it take to create more resilient cities?

Kevin Frediani proposes re-enabling local food supply chains, such as market gardens – that were once central to urban living – and connecting them with existing efficient rural production and supply chains.

The solution for more resilient urban food supply chains (2:46)

Creating food-smart cities
Feeding 9 billion people using climate and weather forecasting
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… winning the weather game

The world really can make enough food to feed itself, but even with incredible advancements in technology and farming, we still sometimes see spectacular crop failures.

Corey Cherr
Head of Agriculture and Weather Research & Forecasts
Thomson Reuters
Corey Cherr's Portrait

Corey Cherr

Head of Agriculture and Weather Research and Forecasts
Thomson Reuters

Connect with Corey

Longer-term, more accurate weather forecasting

Corey Cherr and his team are driven to be able to accurately predict weather well into the future, giving farmers and commodity professionals enough notice of what coming growing seasons may bring – so they can plan their planting and strategy accordingly.

And help eliminate those spectacular crop failures in the process.

While weather prediction has always contained a margin of error, it’s even more challenging today as the pace and intensity of climate change take hold. Droughts are more common. Heat more intense. Floods more violent.

We’ve seen seasons where weather has permitted farmers to make unbelievably large harvests that swamp the market, only to be followed by some of the most decimating droughts in recent memory.

Forewarned is forearmed

To help eliminate those surprises, his team is using an innovative combination of satellite imagery, deep data resources, on-the-ground crop reporting, proprietary algorithms and expert analysis. They are connecting the dots between historical patterns and current conditions to make more accurate and longer-range forecasts.

  • 2011/12
  • 2014/15
Soybean vegetable density (2011/2012) Soybean vegetable density (2014/2015)

Busts versus bumper crops in South America

This figure shows the extreme contrast in satellite imagery and field observations between an exceptionally strong drought (2011/12), in which approximately 25% of the soybean crop in southern Brazil and Argentina was lost, and perhaps the most favorable season of recent decades (2014/15), in which wet weather raised production 10% to 15% above normal across southern Brazil and central Argentina.

Rather than being hit when it’s too late to react, the ability to see these patterns in advance helps farmers decide what to plant, how much, and when to send it to market – a win-win for farmers and the food supply chain.

Learn more about the effects of climate change

As the seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at America’s shores
Reuters Investigates

Water’s Edge: The crisis of rising sea levels

As the seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at America’s shores.
By Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson

The declining snowpack in Canada is having positive effects on Canadian agriculture, despite causing drought downstream in California

The Declining Snowpack

Even as a declining snowpack has wreaked havoc on California’s water supply, the same trends in Canada have provided a boon for farmers in the form of an earlier planting season. A joint effort by Thomson Reuters and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Feeding 9 billion people by securing land rights in the developing world
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… by securing land rights, one small farm at a time

Across the globe, across cultures, there is an irrefutable correlation between land ownership and food production. Simply put, you produce more on the land you own. The hard part is proving such ownership.

International Land Rights expert
Thomson Reuters

Land rights and hunger are intimately connected

As this report makes clear, smart data and smart people are coming together in powerful new ways to help feed our planet. One of the most astonishing matchups has already shown remarkable results: Tax and accounting professionals from Thomson Reuters are helping to secure the land rights of rural family farmers in the developing world.

What does securing land rights have to do with growing more food?

Everything. There is a direct correlation between land ownership and food yields. Intuitively, this makes sense. When you know that your property is protected by a legal document, you are willing to invest in it, assured that the food you grow is yours to eat or sell – a powerful incentive to grow as much as possible.

Farmers from Yangwan Village participate in a rural land mapping project

In 2009, Thomson Reuters, in collaboration with the provincial Anhui Agriculture Commission in China, launched the rural land registration mapping project. The team later presented a land parcel map to rice farmers from Yangwan village, who were then able to point out the land that they had contractual rights to. For the first time, their farms could be registered, certified and stored digitally in the land registration system.

Data that delivers documentation

But in many parts of the world, those documents have been hard to come by. This is particularly devastating because three-quarters of the world’s chronically hungry live in rural areas of the developing world – the very places where land rights are difficult, expensive and sometimes dangerous to secure.

Enter Aumentum

Which is where Aumentum comes in. This software, developed by Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting professionals, helps communities in the developing world conduct rapid inventory of land rights so the governments may issue documentary evidence attesting to those rights.

Thomson Reuters Aumentum land rights management software screenshot

It uses a sophisticated mix of geographic information systems and mapping tools that digitize new features on aerial or satellite images, and links spatial information as displayed on printed maps – all of which helps document who is the rightful property owner.

This irrefutable hard data secures land rights in places where such documentation never before existed. Places, as it turns out, often hungry for more food production.

The ripple effects of securing land rights go far beyond individual farmers and their families. As one expert put it:

Recorded and mapped rights aggregated to the national level provide very rich data sets to make better informed policy and planning decisions – for example, the risks of over-dependency on a single crop, be it palm oil or bananas.

Alan Robbins's Portrait

Alan Robbins


Connect with Alan

On his LinkedIn blog, Alan Robbins poses the question:

What’s the one sentence you would use to describe the connection between property rights and food security?

See the surprising and wide-ranging responses here: LinkedIn channel

Feeding 9 billion people by using media and technology to make connections
How will we fill 9 billion bowls by 2050?

… by connecting the dots

There is nothing inevitable about global hunger.

Chris Arsenault
Food Security Correspondent
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Cause for hope

Food security is about much more than food. Our supply chain is a complicated web of policy, climate, economics, finance, science and technology.

Factors influencing food security and the supply chain

Yet through that complexity, a framework for eliminating global hunger is emerging. It’s found in the stories of the people we’ve met in this report.

Each is leveraging smart data to fix specific links in the food chain. Indoor farming that yields 26 harvests a year? Camera-laden drones? Sophisticated mapping that ensures property rights – and eliminates the yield gap?

Many of these ideas were unimaginable even a decade ago. But today, smart data in the right hands has shifted the landscape, and raised real hope. When you look at these individual solutions scattered across the globe and across the food chain, it’s clear where we go next to help fill 9 billion bowls by 2050.

Making connections, raising awareness

According to Timothy Large from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Data is the glue that connects the dots. And making those connections is vital to tackling food security because it enables people to share, spread and build on innovative solutions.

Timothy Large: The importance of journalism to confront the challenge of food security (2:57)

Tackling food security with journalism

More videos from the Thomson Reuters Foundation

AGRI-net: Case in point

Dr. Laura Barter has seen the power and synergy of making connections. Her organization, AGRI-net, connects over 700 experts from a range of disciplines. It hosts events, offers virtual networking and facilitates discussion between people who might never have interacted before – and helps spur innovations that tackle food security.

The pivotal role of journalism

As Large of the Thomson Reuters Foundation puts it, We now live in a world of open data, where journalists can mine data sets to tell stories and make connections that they couldn’t make before.

Food security is one of the big stories of our century, says Large, which is why the Thomson Reuters Foundation is working with the United Nations Foundation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to train journalists, particularly those in rural and developing nations where the real needs are, to better report and connect on food security issues.

At the policy level, journalists can play a key role in asking tough questions and understanding and interpreting the issues, making sure the stories are relevant locally but resonate globally.

Chris Arsenault's Portrait

Chris Arsenault

Food Security Correspondent
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Connect with Chris

Is hunger a permanent fact of global life?

Arsenault answers: South America has virtually eliminated starvation since 1990, with smart policies and economic growth. Free school lunches for poor children. Cash transfer programs that pay rural parents to keep their kids in school. Investments in rural communities where most of the people who don’t have enough food live.

Unfortunately, the situation has actually worsened in Sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly one in four people don’t get enough to eat. The difference between these two regions shows that nothing is inevitable.

The problem here isn’t production. It’s distribution, income and political realities. If we rearranged the current food supply, made it more fair and efficient, we could eliminate hunger today.

There is nothing inevitable about hunger. But problems of inequality and conflict … well, that might be a different story.

Global Food Security News

Global Food Security News

The Thomson Reuters Foundation reports on food security challenges being faced around the world today.

There is nothing inevitable about global hunger - we can feed 9 billion people by 2050

Learn more about how we can fill 9 billion bowls by 2050

Solutions for a Hungry World