Food Security

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 19:46
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Social    Topic: Food security

There were concerns about food security in the mid-1990s, when world grain reserves fell to their lowest level ever, a 48 day supply, at the start of 1995 because of three years of poor harvests and rising demand in developing countries experiencing rapid economic growth, such as China, where meat eating is increasing and more grain is going to feed livestock. The next few harvests succeeded in rebuilding reserves allowing food production to keep ahead of demand, as most assessments suggested (Brown et al., 1996; Kleiner, 1996; WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). World cereal production increased somewhat in 1996, raising 1997 global cereal stocks to 281 million tonnes. This gave a ratio of stocks to utilization of 15%, up from 14% in 1996 but was still well below the 17-18% considered by FAO to be the security range (FAO, 1997). Governments then lost interest in food security, and investments in agricultural research diminished.

Food security came back on the agenda with the sudden and steep rise in food prices in mid-2007, followed by a surge of 51% between January and August 2008, which led to food riots in many places as food was priced out of reach of the poor. Since then, prices have fallen again by 50%, due in part to the financial crisis and the drop in world crude oil prices. However in the medium to long term, prices are expected to remain high. "Supply and demand dynamics, high fuel prices, global threats such as climate change, water stress and scarcity and natural resource degradation are expected to keep food prices well above their 2004 levels, posing a continuing challenge for the global community." (High Level Task Force, 2008)

In the longer term perspective, an expert study estimated that the world is approaching the limits of global food production capacity based on present technologies. Its most optimistic projection suggested that a doubling of food production by 2050 from 1990 levels might be technically feasible, and this could feed 7.8 billion people if grain is largely used as human food and not for animals. A likely higher level of population growth (which seems inevitable given 6.8 billion today), or a failure of sufficient commitment to increase food supplies around the world, would create severe problems for a major part of the world population (Kendall and Pimentel, 1994). The pessimistic assumptions seem more likely, as present per capita food production is stagnating if not declining, and some crops may be close to biological and environmental limits. In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 report, predicts that yields from rain-dependent agriculture will decline 50% by 2020. In the 1990s, 700 million people experience endemic hunger, not counting those added by natural disasters (Serageldin, 1995), and this has now risen to nearly a billion people with recent increases in food prices (FAO, 2008). A recent study suggests that half the world's population could face serious food shortages by 2100 as rising temperatures reduce crop yields (Battisti and Naylor, 2009)

One result of rising grain prices and concerns over food security is an expected reduction or elimination of land idling requirements, bringing such land back into production (Johnson, 1995). However, significant areas are also being lost to production through land degradation, erosion and salinization (see Soil). For instance, China is losing 130,000 ha of arable land a year, representing 6 million tonnes of grain production (Chen, 1995). Also, the growing problem of water scarcity is leading to conflicts between demand for human consumption, especially in urban areas, and agricultural uses, with agriculture generally losing out. This reduction in water available for irrigation will affect agricultural productivity and could reduce the ability of water-scarce countries to feed their populations (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). A recent worrying trend has been the purchase by governments and investors of vast areas of agricultural land in poor countries to meet food and biofuel needs at home, often displacing local users like nomadic herders, and growing food for export when local populations face food shortages (Borger, 2008; MacKenzie, 2008).

While the Green Revolution increased grain production and helped avoid famine, it has led to nutritional problems. Present high-yield varieties are usually low in minerals and vitamins, so many people saved from starvation have been incapacitated instead by iron, zinc, vitamin A and other deficiencies, as new diets replace traditional dietary sources. Iron deficiency has worsened globally, affecting 1.5 billion children, and half of all pregnant women are anaemic. The worst fall has been in South and South-east Asia where the Green Revolution has been most successful  (Welch et al., 1996; UN, 1992). The Green Revolution has also required a continuing or even increasing use of hazardous pesticides and environmentally damaging fertilizers. The need to reduce these inputs to achieve more sustainable agriculture may also reduce levels of food production.

Taken together, the challenges to food security in the years ahead seem enormous. It is not at all clear that the planet can feed the projected world population.


Battisti, David, and Rosamond Naylor. 2009. Science. Quoted in Ian Sample, Billions face food shortages, study warns. The Guardian, Friday 9 January 2009.

Borger, Julian. 2008. Rich world buys rights to the fields of the poor, p. 1-2 and case studies p. 10-11. The Guardian Weekly, 29 November-4 December 2009.

Brown, Lester R., et al. 1996. State of the World 1996. Norton, New York.

Chen Yali.  1995. "Dollars and Degradation." China Daily, 22 November 1995.

FAO, 1997. The State of Food and Agriculture 1997. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, 1997. Web version:

FAO, 2008. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008. FAO, Rome.

High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis. 2008. Comprehensive Framework for Action, July 2008.

Johnson, D. Gale. 1995. Quoted in Morse, Laurie. "World-Watch president warns of food scarcity". Financial Times, 2 November 1995.

Kendall, Henry W., and David Pimentel. 1994. "Constraints on the expansion of the global food supply." Ambio 23(3):198-205. May 1994.

Kleiner, Kurt. 1996. "Panic as grain stocks fall to all time low". New Scientist, 3 February 1996.

MacKenzie, Debora. 2008. The 21st-century land grab. New Scientist, 6 December 2008, p. 8.

Serageldin, Ismail. 1995. (World Bank) Quoted in Crossette, Barbara, "Experts focus on stagnating food supplies". New York Times International, 5 February 1995.

UN. 1992. Report on nutrition. Cited in Seymour, Jane. "Hungry for a new revolution". New Scientist, 30 March 1996, p. 32-37.

Welch, Ross, Robin Graham, et al. 1996. Report from International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., April 1996. Cited in Seymour, Jane. "Hungry for a new revolution". New Scientist, 30 March 1996, p. 32-37.

World Resources Institute/United Nations Environment Programme/United Nations Development Programme/World Bank. 1996. World Resources 1996-97.  Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

Article last updated 13 February 2009

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