Challenges of Feeding 8 Billion People

Feb 24, 2023

By Tom Steever

WISHH Chair/ASA Director (IL) Roberta Simpson-Dolbeare (second from left) and USB Director/USSEC Chair Lance Rezac (KS) (third from left) visited Prosoya Kenya Limited while traveling with a USDA trade team in 2022. WISHH’s partnership with Prosoya Kenya exemplifies how WISHH’s long-term strategy to build new soy protein markets stands on three pillars: trade, development and global food security.

Eight billion is a big number, and when it’s in reference to the world population, it’s a lot of mouths to feed. That milestone was eclipsed this past November, and while not unexpected, it gives pause to the most ardent optimists among food producers, including a farmer/leader of the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health.

“The farmers who founded the American Soybean Association’s WISHH program 22 years ago saw this population growth coming,” said Roberta Simpson-Dolbeare, WISHH chair and a farmer in western Illinois. “They understood the developing trends in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and beyond, and as a result, they launched WISHH.” WISHH is the long-term development arm of ASA, working in emerging and developing markets to create trade opportunities for U.S. soy through the improvement of food security, nutrition and health.

Helping to put the Earth’s nutrient demands into perspective, Mac Marshall, vice-president of market intelligence for the United Soybean Board, leans on what he learned prior to his higher education. “When I was a kid, I remember the conventional wisdom was you’d have the population double every 40 years,” said Marshall. “In my lifetime we’ve seen [the world population] go from four to eight billion.”

Marshall cites 2019 data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization that the daily supply of protein needed to feed this planet is about 83 grams per person, or 660 billion grams worldwide, which amounts to more than 725,000 tons of animal and vegetable protein every day. “Moving ahead to 2050, when the planet will have over 20% more people than it does now, if we continue along the trend that we’re on, that means the supply share is going to grow by another 150 billion grams—more than 165,300 tons—daily.” These figures are highly conservative, according to Marshall, because improvements in prosperity will translate to greater per capita protein consumption.

Part of the solution to meeting the nutritional needs of the growing population is found in U.S. soybean fields, says Marshall. “Those [nutritional] needs and demands are going to get a lot stronger in the years to come as we add more and more mouths to the planet, so the question is how do we continue to feed them in a responsible way—and that’s where I think U.S. soy is at the epicenter of all of this,” Marshall said.

That’s the case not only as human food but as feed for the world’s poultry and swine, as well as aquaculture, which is expanding. “We’re seeing growing demand for fish around the world,” said Gena Perry, executive director for WISHH. “Fish is already a culturally appropriate source of protein in many countries, including many of the countries WISHH works in.”

The growing demand for protein is gaining a response by way of significant investment in the private sector. Agricultural commodities trader Bunge plans to invest approximately $550 million to build a soy protein concentrate (SPC) and textured soy protein concentrate (TSPC) facility to meet the rising demand for plant-based foods, according to a recent company news release.

Construction in Morristown, Indiana, is expected to start in the first quarter of 2023, and Bunge plans to contract with farmers to establish a traceable soybean sourcing program starting with the 2025 harvest.

The facility is expected to ultimately process close to 4.5 million bushels (122,470 mt) of soybeans.

About half the soybeans grown in the U.S. are exported. Considering such high worldwide demand for U.S. soy, and U.S. soybean growers’ high dependence on export markets, Simpson-Dolbeare sees the need for attention to trade policy during upcoming farm bill discussions. “U.S. soy producers have recognized the benefits of USDA’s trade promotion programs, like the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development Program (FMD) that are part of the farm bill,” said Simpson-Dolbeare, also an ASA director from Illinois. “Utilizing MAP and FMD funds, ASA through WISHH and the U.S. Soybean Export Council have leveraged those dollars to increase market access, address technical barriers to entry and create on-the-ground capacity and demand for U.S. soy.”

If anything positive can be taken from the worldwide pandemic, Marshall believes it might be a higher public awareness and admiration for food producers. “I believe there’s probably a greater appreciation for global collaboration than ever before, a lot of that brought on through the misfortunes and discomfort of COVID, but it is getting us to shift our mentality,” he said.

“I’m absolutely optimistic for the future. I feel very confident in the level of innovation and efficiency and desire to continue to help nourish a growing planet. I think if we take that approach and scan back out, we’ll be in a good place for the years to come. But I never want us to get to a place where we become complacent and start thinking that food just happens without a whole lot of gears turning.”