Sara Menker: How Can We Farm Enough Food to Feed the World?

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 25, 2018 6:58 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Big Five.

About Sara Menker's TED Talk

Data analyst Sara Menker believes we could be less than a decade away from a global food crisis. She says Africa can help meet the world's growing demand for food.

About Sara Menker

Sara Menker was born in Ethiopia and as a child experienced her country's famine — and the rationing of food — first hand. She is the founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence, a technology company that uses data analysis to help create a more productive global agriculture industry.

Prior to founding Gro, Menker was a vice president in Morgan Stanley's commodities group, where she specialized in risk management and trading commodities. Menker is a trustee of the Mandela Institute For Development Studies and a trustee of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, the biggest challenges that affect us as a species. We're calling them The Big Five. And up next...

SARA MENKER: You know, when I think of the end of the world, I think of food scarcity.

RAZ: This is Sara Menker. And Sara knows firsthand what can happen if a country runs out of food.

MENKER: I grew up in Ethiopia in the '80s, during the famine, at a time when you had a communist government that rationed food. And I was lucky to come from a family where we got to eat. You know, we were fine. But I know what the consequences are.

RAZ: Today, Sara does global data analysis of food and agriculture production around the world. And her research focuses on predicting a global food crisis.

MENKER: Basically the point at which the system's structural capacity to produce food can no longer meet demand.

RAZ: Is that a realistic possibility in the future?

MENKER: I think it's a realistic possibility in the next decade, so it's in the near future.

RAZ: Wow. You're saying that in the near future, there is a possibility that planet Earth and the humans on planet Earth will not be able to feed all of the humans on planet Earth?

MENKER: Correct, yes.

RAZ: Sara and her team ran the numbers, and she shared their findings on the TED stage.


MENKER: We discovered that the world will be short 214 trillion calories by 2027. The world is not in a position to fill this gap an alternative way to think about this is to think about it in Big Macs. Two-hundred-fourteen 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? This map shows you where the world was 40 years ago.

RAZ: OK. So what Sara's map basically shows is that over the past 40 years, the U.S. and Brazil have become these agricultural powerhouses. But on the flip side, China has become extremely dependent on those countries for food. And that's because China's population has exploded to 1.3 billion people. And now, there's an even bigger problem.

MENKER: So the thing is with China, diets are shifting rapidly. So as people have more protein-intense diets, they then actually need to consume a lot more calories. The animals need to consume more calories to basically then provide the meat that is necessary for the markets.

RAZ: I mean, you think about the price of meat, for example. When I was a kid, it was a very big deal to eat meat, to have a steak. Like, we had steak like twice a month. You know, it was a big deal. Like, my dad grill them up in the backyard. And now, you know, people just buy steaks at the supermarket and it's like nothing.

MENKER: That's exactly it. And now imagine a scenario where every Chinese person is buying steaks at the supermarket like it's nothing.

RAZ: And so what happens then?

MENKER: That is the food crisis. That is exactly it. You know, at first, what happens is you have price increases. And when you have price increases, economic, you know, conditions stipulate that there will be more of production. But at some point, you hit the system's structural capacity to produce, right? And that scenario will have implications around the world because all these prices everywhere in the world are connected to one another.

RAZ: Wait. Can you connect the dots for me a little bit? Like, how does the rising price of meat or demand for meat in China lead to instability in the West?

MENKER: Well, it leads to instability everywhere because increased demand for meat in China basically means increased demand for feedstock, right? And so now they're buying more corn and more soy to feed animals. And that then drives up prices of all, you know, underlying commodities, not just the price of meat, right? I mean, there's so many unintended consequences.

RAZ: OK. But here's what I don't get, right? So in theory, couldn't countries like the U.S. and Brazil, which are producing most of the world's food, I mean, couldn't they just continue to produce most of the world's food and maybe all of the world's food if they were just more efficient about, like, exporting it?

MENKER: Well, the reality is that the ability to grow more - A, in the U.S., for example, there's no more land. In Brazil, there's a lot of land but you'll have to cut down the Amazon. And on the flipside, what you're having is, you know, if you look at the continent of Africa, India and China, you know, in the next - what? - six years, by 2023, they will make up about 55 percent of the world's population.

RAZ: Wow.

MENKER: And so I actually think some of the challenges we'll face will mimic the last boom we had with China, except this time around, we're not prepared to meet it.


MENKER: What I just presented to you is a vision of an impossible world. We can do something to change that. The answer really lies in India and in Africa. India has some unfarmed arable land remaining but not much. Now, the African continent, on the other hand, has vast amounts of arable land remaining and significant upside potential and 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 we need to reform and commercialize the agricultural industries in Africa and in India. Commercialization is about leveraging data to craft better policies to improve infrastructure, to lower that 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.


RAZ: So would the idea be to basically convert large parts of land in Africa and India into large-scale farms that could produce, you know, food in the same way that, you know, big agribusiness farms in the U.S. do?

MENKER: Yeah, exactly. I know it sounds like this is a 50-year project, not a 10-year project, but the reality is we know exactly what to do. We have the numbers we need. We just need commitment.

RAZ: I read that China, probably very wisely, has purchased large tracts of land in Africa - right? - like millions of acres, right?

MENKER: Yeah, in single countries at times.

RAZ: But the idea is to turn them into farms to produce food for China?

MENKER: It's the backup plan - right? - if you have to.

RAZ: It's a little - it's, I mean, it's - I get it. It makes sense, but it's kind of creepy.

MENKER: You know, I always say it'd be better if our governments - and when I say our governments, I'm speaking as an African versus just an Ethiopian - if our governments were paying attention to this and prioritizing agriculture and food security the way China is for itself.

RAZ: In other words, they would say, wait a minute. Why are we, like, selling all this land to China? Why don't we just turn it into better agricultural land and sell our food to China, make more money?

MENKER: Exactly, yeah. You know, Brazil's that today and Africa will become that.

RAZ: It's weird.

MENKER: It is, but it's planning. And whatever the price we have to pay to do it, meaning the sacrifices we make, we absolutely must.

RAZ: Sara Menker. She's the founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence. You can see her full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.