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Are We Doomed to Food Insecurity?

New study shows billions more people reliant on food imports in 2050

Andrea Germanos

Half the world's population—5.2 billion people—could be doomed to an insecure and greenhouse gas-causing reliance on food imports by 2050, according to a new study.

In the study appearing in Environmental Research Letters, Marianela Fader of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and her team looked at water and land constraints affecting national food self-sufficiency, and investigated how cropland expansion and increased productivity could create the potential for greater national food self-sufficiency.

As the image below from the study shows, 16% of the world's population—950 million people—is currently dependent on other countries for their agricultural demands:

Water, as climate change has underscored, is a key factor.  The researchers write:

Today, 66 countries are not able to be self-sufficient (figure 1(b)) due to water/land constraints: the consumption of agricultural products in 22 countries is above the national water boundary, and in 62 countries above the land boundary. Some countries are approaching a level of consumption that is near to at least one natural boundary, for example Bangladesh and Egypt (land), Slovenia (water) and Spain (both). From the 950 million people depending on external resources (figure 1(a)), about a third will not have the possibility of meeting their demand with domestic water and land resources, even if all productive land and renewable water still available in the respective countries was used for agriculture (figure S1 available at

Fast forward a few decades, and the number of countries relying on imports increases.

"Assuming that all low-income economies achieve full potential productivity by 2050 in addition to full cropland expansion – which would be a huge societal and technological challenge and thus a very optimistic assumption – the food self-sufficiency gap will still be equivalent to about 55–123 million people, with over 20 million in Niger and Somalia alone," stated Fader.

Summarizing their findings, the researchers write:

Currently, the food of almost 1 billion people is produced outside their countries, and 66 countries, mainly situated in Africa, were found to be unable to produce all the crop products they currently consume due to water and land constraints, even if their potentials for cropland expansion were taken advantage of. Future population growth will exacerbate this situation leading to up to 5.2 billion people dependent on external water and land resources, and thus, on international trade. Finally, up to 1.3 billion people may be exposed to longer-term food insecurity in 2050 in low-income economies (mainly in Africa), if their economic development will not allow them to afford productivity improvements, cropland expansion and/or imports from other countries.

Of note is the cropland expansion the study bases increased self-sufficiency on.

From the study:

...taking into account that conversion of natural ecosystems into cultivated areas could be made at relatively low costs (e.g. slash-and-burn) and assuming all LIE countries convert the unused, productive areas into cropland, the global number of people at risk of food insecurity would reduce to 0.5–0.7 billion, especially in Madagascar, Ethiopia and Congo but less so in e.g. Niger, Tanzania and Uganda

Many would argue that converting natural ecosystems, which support biodiversity and may serve as buffers to climate change, i.e. mangroves, is not a low-cost operation.

Further, increasing food production is not a recipe for planning for a food-secure future, as food system experts such as Food First's Eric Holt-Giménez have argued that the world already produces enough food for the projected world population of 10 billion in 2050, and the hunger that exists is due to poverty and inequality.

Food sovereignty advocates have also charged that a system that relies on imports, thus not smaller shareholder farmers, would further exacerbate food crises.

Who is controlling the area of expanded cropland is also not discussed in the study, but evidence on international landgrabs for agricultural purposes reveals a system that profits multi-national corporations and leaves local farmers in jeopardy.

The study does note that

an import-intensive policy also implies a number of disadvantages, such as costs and greenhouse gas emissions from transport, indirect support of low environmental standards and human exploitation, and a certain dependence of consuming countries on the political, environmental, demographic and economic situation in the exporting countries that might choose or be forced to alter the supply available to the market.

* * *

The full article is "Spatial decoupling of agricultural production and consumption: quantifying dependences of countries on food imports due to domestic land and water constraints."

Marianela Fader et al 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 014046 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/014046


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