The Environmental Food Crisis


The surge in food prices in the last years, following a century of decline, has been the most marked of the past century in its magnitude, duration and the number of commodity groups whose prices have increased. The ensuing crisis has resulted in a 50–200% increase in selected commodity prices, driven 110 million people into poverty and added 44 million more to the undernourished. Elevated food prices have had dramatic impacts on the lives and livelihoods, including increased infant and child mortality, of those already undernourished or living in poverty and spending 70–80% of their daily income on food. Key causes of the current food crisis are the combined effects of speculation in food stocks, extreme weather events, low cereal stocks, growth in biofuels competing for cropland and high oil prices. Although prices have fallen sharply since the peak in July 2008, they are still high above those in 2004 for many key commodities. The underlying supply and demand tensions are little changed from those that existed just a few months ago when these prices were close to all-time highs.

The demand for food will continue to increase towards 2050 as a result of population growth by an additional 2.7 billion people, increased incomes and growing consumption of meat. World food production also rose substantially in the past century, primarily as a result of increasing yields due to irrigation and fertilizer use as well as agricultural expansion into new lands, with little consideration of food energy effciency. In the past decade, however, yields have nearly stabilized for cereals and declined for fisheries. Aquaculture production to just maintain the current dietary proportion of fsh by 2050 will require a 56% increase as well as new alternatives to wild fsheries for the supply of aquaculture feed.

Lack of investments in agricultural development has played a crucial role in this levelling of yield increase. It is uncertain whether yield increases can be achieved to keep pace with the growing food demand. Furthermore, current projections of a required 50% increase in food production by 2050 to sustain demand have not taken into account the losses in yield and land area as a result of environmental degradation.

The natural environment comprises the entire basis for food production through water, nutrients, soils, climate, weather and insects for pollination and controlling infestations. Land degradation, urban expansion and conversion of crops and cropland for non-food production, such as biofuels, may reduce the required cropland by 8–20% by 2050, if not compensated for in other ways. In addition, climate change will increasingly take effect by 2050 and may cause large portions of the Himalayan glaciers to melt, disturb monsoon patterns, and result in increased foods and seasonal drought on irrigated croplands in Asia, which accounts for 25% of the world cereal production. The combined effects of climate change, land degradation, cropland losses, water scarcity and species infestations may cause projected yields to be 5–25% short of demand by 2050. Increased oil prices may raise the cost of fertilizer and lower yields further. If losses in cropland area and yields are only partially compensated for, food production could potentially become up to 25% short of demand by 2050. This would require new ways to increase food supply.

Consequently, two main responses could occur. One is an increased price effect that will lead to additional under- and malnourishment in the world, but also higher investments in agricultural development to offset (partly) decreases in yield. The other response may be further agricultural expansion at the cost of new land and biodiversity. Conventional compensation by simple expansion of croplands into low-productive rain-fed lands would result in accelerated loss of forests, steppe or other natural ecosystems, with subsequent costs to biodiversity and further loss of ecosystem services and accelerated climate change. Over 80% of all endangered birds and mammals are threatened by unsustainable land use and agricultural expansion. Agricultural intensifcation in Europe is a major cause of a near 50% decline in farmland birds in this region in the past three decades.

Taking into account these effects, world price of food is estimated to become 30–50% higher in coming decades and have greater volatility. It is uncertain to what extent farmers in devel- oping countries will respond to price effects, changes in yield and available cropland area. Large numbers of the world’s small- scale farmers, particularly in central Asia and Africa, are constrained by access to markets and the high price of inputs such as fertilizers and seed. With lack of infrastructure, investments, reliable institutions (e.g., for water provision) and low availability of micro-finance, it will become diffcult to increase crop production in those regions where it is needed the most. Moreover, trade and urbanization affect consumer preferences in developing countries. The rapid diversifcation of the urban diet cannot be met by the traditional food supply chain in the hinterland of many developing countries. Consequently, importing food to satisfy the changing food demand could be easier and less costly than acquiring the same food from domestic sources.

Higher regional differentiation in production and demand will lead to greater reliance on imports for many countries. At the same time, climate change could increase the variability in annual production, leading also to greater future price volatility and subsequent risk of speculation. Without policy intervention, the combined effects of a short-fall in production, greater price volatility and high vulnerability to climate change, particularly in Africa, could result in a substantial increase in the number of people suffering from under-nutrition – up from the current 963 million.

However, rather than focussing solely on increasing production, food security can be increased by enhancing supply through optimizing food energy effciency. Food energy effciency is our ability to minimize the loss of energy in food from harvest potential through processing to actual consumption and recycling. By optimizing this chain, food supply can increase with much less damage to the environment, similar to improvements in effciency in the traditional energy sector. Firstly, developing alternatives to the use of cereal in animal feed, such as by recycling waste and using fish discards, could sustain the energy demand for the entire projected population growth of over 3 billion people and a 50% increase in aquaculture. Secondly, reducing climate change would slow down its impacts, particularly on the water resources of the Himalayas, beyond 2050. Furthermore, a major shift to more eco-based production and reversing land degradation would help limit the spread of invasive species, conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services and protect the food production platform of the planet.