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What Should a World of Nine Billion People Look Like?

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This week we celebrate World Food Day. This is an opportune moment to address the question - what should a world of 9 billion people look like? This is the single most important question that we face today. If we address it in the right way, we can overcome the massive challenges facing the global population and create a genuinely sustainable future.

According to the UN and other population experts, the number of people in the world is expected to reach roughly 9 billion by the year 2050. This means that every month, an extra 6.5 million people are putting ever more demand on the planet's resources to meet their health, food and material needs.

Under the assumption that the demographic decline is now spreading from the established to the emerging economies, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that the planet's population may peak in the late 21st century rather than continue to grow indefinitely or until it has exhausted available resources.

If this theory is correct, it leads to a clear conclusion: we need to start constructing a world that works with 9 billion people on it, especially since up to five billion of our fellow Earth-dwellers may be middle class (and therefore increasingly resource hungry). We need a new model, a new framework, a new approach, design it and take control.

In doing so, it is essential we recognise that if population growth underpins the great global challenges we face, then one key driver is fundamental to constructing a solution: "It's the resources, stupid!" Therefore, if we are to feed, fuel, house, clothe, transport and provide a fulfilling future for 9 billion people, we need to do a number of things right:

This means utilising the world's resources like land, water, biomass, minerals, fossil energy, or renewables like sun or wind most efficiently. Everything we do must be as efficient as possible, maximising the beneficial impact of every type of resource, and in parallel we have to make a fundamental shift from finite and rapidly depleting reserves to renewable resources.

Feeding the planet has to be at the top of the priority list; so we need, for example, to design foods where both the caloric and the nutritional content is optimised and the bio-availability of nutrients is as high as possible. In other words, we take as much of the vitamins, micro-nutrients and other ingredients as we can from every mouthful we eat. The same kind of zeal for efficiency has to apply to energy, use of raw materials or water, and so on.

Agriculture will once again become the central activity for the production of food, energy and materials. We need an agricultural revolution if we are to ensure enough sustainable biomass is available and we must maximize the true potential of plant matter. Thankfully, this process is already underway.

We are pioneering the development of advanced biofuels which allow us to generate truly renewable energy from the non edible parts of plants and agricultural residues, including the stalks, blank cobs, and leaves from corn. In addition to the sustainability benefits, this development, and the emerging bio based economy more broadly, will create jobs and transform rural economies.

We must reduce waste to a minimum. In fact, we need to get to the point where there is no such thing as waste. Again, this means bio-refineries must use every single element of biomass - from starch and sugar to cellulose to lignin - in the most intelligent and sustainable ways possible to simultaneously meet our need for energy, materials, and food. The days of wasting food and casually burning our most precious resource must come to an end.

Being flexible and very strategic in terms of how we manage our resources will become even more important. This means, for example, that although the era of abundant and cheap fossil resources is over, in certain situations it will still make most sense from a resource efficiency perspective to generate energy and manufacture using fossil fuels and traditional chemical routes. The emerging bio- economy will not, and should not, be a simple like-for-like replacement for the fossil based economy.

This transformation will require an awful lot of innovation and an awful lot of science. Luckily, this we have. The capabilities in industry, but even more so among the partners in academia around the world with whom we cooperate is significant. Virtually every fossil-derived product could be manufactured from biomass, and we are certain we can meet these challenges by working closely together on this one big goal.

Finally, business has an absolutely vital role to play in this transformation. To do so individual companies need to recognise that sustainability is not a 'nice to have' but a 'need to have', and their growth prospects will be determined by their capacity to fully integrate sustainability into all of their activities.

Now, all this makes the challenge sound very easy. It is not. The changes required are monumental, and change is never easy. We firmly believe that we can successfully address these challenges. But to do so, resource use has to be absolutely central to our approach, and we have to work towards a shared vision of what a genuinely sustainable world of 9 billion will look like.