There are 7 billion people in the world today, according to the United Nations. By 2050, the world will have more than 9 billion.

How do you feed and shelter them all?

That’s the question the agriculture industry is now asking itself, and in Alabama, ag leaders are determining the state’s role in this effort.

The Growing Middle Class

It’s not just that the world is growing – it’s also growing wealthier. The global middle class is expected to grow from about 1 billion people today to 3 billion by 2050, according to the U.N. Population Fund’s report State of the World Population 2011. As people move into the middle class, they generally add more meat to their diets.

With 12,000 commercial growers producing more than 1 billion broiler chickens each year, Alabama is already the third-largest poultry producer in the United States. In 2010, poultry accounted for almost half of all Alabama agricultural exports.

And the market is set to expand, fast.

“I think all of the United States agribusiness community is going to have some good export opportunities as we assist in feeding population growth,” says John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, adding that Alabama already exports more than $800 million worth of agriculture products annually.

Another Food Revolution

The world’s booming middle class owes much of its existence to the Green Revolution of the 20th century, which saw massive gains in crop yields thanks to the creation of disease-resistant plants and the growing use of chemical fertilizers and mechanization. Instead of starving, places such as India and China became home to rising economies.

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The rise of the middle class also indirectly affects crop demand, which is expected to double by 2050. As more people add meats to their diets, more corn, soybeans and other grains are needed for animal feed.

“The grand challenge when you have 9 billion people is, how do you provide enough fiber and food? How do you produce enough energy for them? How do you intensify your agriculture in an environmentally sustainable way?” says William Batchelor, dean of the College of Agriculture at Auburn University. “Those challenges fall right within the mission of Alabama agriculture.”

University researchers are working to boost crop yields and lower the costs for producing livestock. One major project has resulted in a way to grow three times as much catfish in an acre of pond, and researchers are developing methods for growing poultry more efficiently.

More Than Food Products

World population growth will also mean greater demand for housing and paper goods, which Alabama is well-positioned to provide. Alabama is already the No. 2 timber-producing state in the United States, almost in spite of itself.

James Shepard, dean of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University, says that much of Alabama’s timberland isn’t actively managed. Rather than planting and tending to trees, many landowners simply sell their timber to a harvester once a generation, then allow nearby trees to reseed the soil.

“A lot of people don’t really understand what their timber is worth,” Shepard says. “We had a guy who drove a bread truck his whole life but also owned some timber land. Somebody offered him $150,000 to harvest his timber, so he started calling around.”

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He eventually received $750,000.

Shepard says that the housing downturn has sapped much of the demand for forestry products, but he expects Alabama to step up once the market rebounds. Sustainable forestry, and education, will be key, he says.

The World’s Population Growth

The world’s population has doubled in the past 50 years, reaching 7 billion in October 2011. Between now and 2050, it’s expected to grow by more than 30 percent, resulting in an estimated 9 billion people to feed. Of the 7 billion people in the world, 1 billion currently do not have enough food to eat.

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