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1.3 Billion People May Be Exposed To Longer-Term Food Insecurity In 2050

By Countercurrents.org

9 May, 2013

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 doesn't allow them to afford productivity improvements, cropland expansion and/or imports from other countries.

The study, “Spatial decoupling of agricultural production and consumption: quantifying dependences of countries on food imports due to domestic land and water constraints” * , found: A number of developed countries including the UK , the Netherlands and Japan are already unable to meet the food requirements of their populations. This reliance on imports looks set to become worse as population levels rise. However, unlike the developing countries, these nations will probably be able to buy their way out of the problem.

Findings of the study are published in Environmental Research Letters .

The study by Marianela Fader, Dieter Gerten, Michael Krause, Wolfgang Lucht and Wolfgang Cramer said:

Currently, 950 million people (16% of world population) use the opportunities of international trade for covering their demand of agricultural products. The spatial pattern is pronounced — North African, Arabic and Andean countries display the highest shares (>50%) of dependent population (figure 1(a)). Population change may strongly increase the number of people depending on ex situ land and water resources up to about 5.2 billion (51% of world population).

Figure 1.

Figure1 (a) Percentage of population dependent on external water and land resources in 2000 considering current water and land productivities of the importers, present land use patterns and international trade flows averaged for 1998–2002 after COMTRADE. (b) Countries' classification according to their ability to produce the crop products they currently consume, considering current water and land productivities as well as available (i.e. unused) water and productive land. Countries colored in dark and light green have sufficient land and water to produce what they currently consume, but countries in light green are approaching at least one of those boundaries.

Today, the study report said, 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.

It said:

Combining the information in figures 1(a) and (b) illustrates the degree of trade dependence of countries. A high proportion of the population of some countries, e.g., Andean and Scandinavian countries (figure 1(a)) relies on crop imports, although not necessarily so, as these imports could be produced on domestic water and land resources (figure 1(b)). High imports in these countries (and thus high dependence) thus can have many other reasons, for example to benefit from comparative advantages, to focus on other economic sectors, or to protect natural ecosystems, or due to lack of capital, labor or know-how. In contrast, some other countries, e.g.,  North Africa and the Arabic Peninsula are characterized by high shares of trade-dependent population and consumption above their natural boundary. Given current productivity, these countries are unable to produce what they currently consume, even when increasing the use of domestic resources. Thus, currently, they seem to not have any other choice than importing goods. These results show the opportunities and constraints of each country: both groups of countries are currently trade dependent, but the first group has more available policy options than the second group, since they could change their policy to self-sufficiency if they would wish or need so, at least from a land/water resource perspective.

According to the study findings, not only a number of countries in (North) Africa and the Middle East are already dependent on external land and water resources but also that many may become (more) dependent in the future due to population growth, if increases in agricultural productivity are not achieved.

In the “Introduction” section, the report said:

Food for millions of people is being produced with land and water resources situated in countries that are sometimes thousands of kilometers away. For example, the amounts of water used in export countries to produce agricultural products imported and consumed by the US exceed 70 km3, and Japan , China and Mexico import agricultural products that need the use of almost 30 Mha land in other countries.

Importing agricultural products provides opportunities: focusing on more profitable sectors, consuming 'exotic' or seasonal goods year-round, and profiting from lower production costs (and thus prices) in other countries. If well functioning, a diversified import policy may be essential for securing food supply in years with national crop failures.

However, 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 study was based on process-based, biogeochemical simulations with the dynamic global vegetation and water balance model. In the study, calculations were made for the present and for three scenarios of future, country-specific agricultural productivity, considering three scenarios of population change and environmental potentials for cropland expansion and increased water consumption.

Human population estimates for 2050 were taken from three SRES IPCC scenarios: reaching 10.2, 9.3 and 8.6 billion people in 2050, respectively.

While comparing with other estimates the study found the dependence of the UK and Italy is high (CE > 50%) in case of land resources. The Gulf States are very dependent on agricultural imports (ratio of imports to consumption >89% for wheat, maize, rice and pulses) and vulnerable to external price shocks. The Netherlands , Belgium , Japan and North Korea do not have enough land resources to produce what they currently consume.

Discussing future situation in the global perspective the report said:

Depending on whether countries would opt for an increase in water consumption, cropland expansion, agricultural imports, and/or an improvement of crop productivities, in 2050 there might be between 0.3 and 5.2 billion people (4–51% of world population) requiring non-domestic water and land resources for producing the specified crop products (table 1 and figure 2). The highest global numbers are found in the A2r population scenario, followed by B2; B1 shows the lowest values. Strikingly, the differences between population scenarios are smaller than the differences between management scenarios, demonstrating that there are huge opportunities to ensure food self-sufficiency even for a strongly growing population.

Billions of people dependent on external water and land resources today and in 2050 for different population scenarios (A2r, B1, B2) and productivity scenarios (CUR: current productivity and management, HIG: improved productivity and management, POT: potential productivity and best management). Numbers marked in bold indicate higher values than in 2000.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Percentage of global population in need of country-external water and land resources for different population scenarios (A2r, B1, B2), productivity scenarios (CUR, HIG, POT), and with and without cropland expansion (whiskers)

Figure 2 shows that only expanding cropland or only improving agricultural productivity (HIG), i.e., without combining both would lead to a higher percentage of population relying on external resources.

As shown in figure 3, the study found, productivity increases could potentially allow for self-sufficiency, giving the possibility of maintaining or even reducing the current dependence on other countries' resources.

Figure 3.

Figure 3 Countries' opportunities for reaching self-sufficiency in 2050 for the A2r (a), B2 (b) and B1 (c) population scenario

Additional use of currently unused land and water resources is accounted for. Countries colored in orange and red are simulated to have two options for supplying their population with food in the future: improving agricultural productivity or importing agricultural goods. Countries colored in dark red are shown to have to import agricultural goods, since their natural boundaries do not allow them to produce all products they will need, even if they improved agricultural productivity to the assumed maximum. 30 countries will need imports in all population scenarios, even after achieving potential productivity (POT). These are mainly situated in North Africa and the Arabic Peninsula (countries colored in dark red in figures 3(a)–(c)). Countries like Chad , Angola and Iran are only in some population scenarios above their natural boundary. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East would have to reach HIG or POT productivity to be able to produce what they will need in 2050, as an alternative to importing the needed products. This raises the question whether countries will be able to afford productivity increases or more imports.

The study assumed that the economies of LIE countries will not develop fast and strong enough in the next 40 years said they will not have financial means for improving agricultural productivity, expanding cropland or importing agricultural goods, in 2050 there would be a food security gap in those countries equivalent to 0.9–1.3 billion people (figure 4(a)). In Bangladesh , Congo , Ethiopia and Uganda the numbers are above 100 million people each (figure 4(b)).

However, it said, 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 (compare figure 4(b)). Assuming that all LIE achieve full potential productivity (POT) 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 (areas colored in red in figures 4(a) and (b)), with >20 million in Niger and Somalia alone.

Interestingly, it said, the number of people 'saved' through improvement of productivities from CUR to HIG is significantly higher than from HIG to POT (compare figure 4(a)), indicating that even small yield improvements could have pronounced effects.

Figure 4.

Figure 4 Global (a) and national (b) numbers of people in low-income economies simulated to be at risk of food insecurity in 2050 (total bar heights). Bars' subdivisions depict possibilities for domestically supplying those people and total bar height represents the CUR scenario


The study found:

Some countries could freely choose between increasing productivity and expanding cropland (such as China , Brazil or the UK ), for others only one of both options appears feasible (e.g. cropland expansion for Chile , productivity increases for many African and Middle East countries). A third group would have to combine both options, e.g.  Saudi Arabia and Mali . Finally, countries such as Bolivia , Niger and Somalia seem to have no other alternative than increasing imports and accepting higher dependence on trade. The spatial patterns are astoundingly similar in all population scenarios, especially when comparing A2r and B2 (compare figures 5(a)–(c)). Note that figure 5 shows the opportunities of avoiding higher dependence: for example in many countries in North Africa through productivity increases, although they are already highly dependent today.

Figure 5.

Figure 5 Opportunities for eluding an increase in the proportion of population dependent on external water and land resources assuming A2r (a), B2 (b) and B1 (c) population change by 2050

It said:

Currently, the food of almost 1 billion people is produced outside their countries. 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.

The study shows that productivity increases and cropland expansion hold substantial potential of avoiding ever-increasing dependence on international trade, even when population growth is taken into account. Still, an intensification of international trade (and thus an increase in transport emissions and dependence) may be promoted for other reasons, such as for taking advantages of lower prices, for access to goods that are only produced in some areas, or for being able to consume seasonal goods throughout the year. Those preferences and other economic factors including comparative advantages, economies of scale, technology, capital and labor costs may be stronger determinants of trade patterns than natural resources' endowment or trade-dependence level.

Regarding the estimated future trade dependences, the study said, some implications can be drawn at regional level:

1. For some countries the projected demographic development influences most the dependence on external resources: for example, Iran and Uzbekistan will have to import agricultural products in the A2r population scenario, but not necessarily in B1 or B2 (figure 3).

2. Some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East (colored in orange and red in figure 3) may require, additionally to cropland expansion, more imports and/or increased agricultural productivity, implying the necessity of evaluating trade-offs between these options.

3. Many countries in North Africa and the Middle East may need to increase, maintain and diversify trade relations, develop the national economy to be able to afford more imports and improve infrastructure to receive, store and distribute imports (countries colored in dark red in figure 3).

4. Some LIEs may be at risk of food insecurity by 2050 if they cannot afford participation in trade (figure 4).

5. Many countries in Asia , Europe and America identified here as countries with potentials for producing surplus food (colored in green in figure 3) may become increasingly engaged as exporters of food.

It added:

Results for big, heterogeneous countries such as China, Russia and the US that were found to be able to be self-sufficient in future, even under current productivities, may be too optimistic, since the most suitable areas of these countries are probably already under cultivation.

On the basis of relevant literature review the study said:

Of the world population, 36% could be living in countries not able to be self-sufficient in terms of food production by 2050 and the number of people unable to produce enough food on current croplands and where the import potential may be limited by weak national wealth level could reach 3.8–4.2 billion by 2050.

It said:

Egypt , the Netherlands , Jordan and the UK , among others, were found to be highly dependent on water resources in other countries.

Figure B.1.

Figure B.1 Available (i.e. not used and accessible) renewable water resources (a), and land (b). Global values are 17?953 km3 and 1322 Mha, respectively

Citing another 2011-study the present study report said:

In a per capita basis, developed countries waste more food than developing countries, especially at the consumption stage. Food is lost in developing countries especially at early stages of the food chain due to e.g. lack of storage infrastructure.


* doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/014046

© 2013 IOP Publishing Ltd, IOP science, http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/1/014046/article

Content of this work is being used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.





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