Publications > The Environmental Food ... > FROM SUPPLY TO FOOD SE ...

The Environmental Food Crisis


Food security is not simply a function of production or supply, but of availability, accessibility, stability of supply, affordability and the quality and safety of food. These factors include a broad spectrum of socio-economic issues with great influence on farmers and on the impoverished in particular.

Large shares of the world’s small-scale farmers, particularly in central Asia and in Africa, are constrained by access to markets, while inputs, such as fertilizers and seed, are expensive. With lack of irrigation water, infrastructure and investments, and low availability of micro-finance combined with dependency on few multinational suppliers, crop production is unlikely to increase in those regions where it is needed the most, unless major policy changes and investments take place. These constraints are further compounded by conflicts and corruption.

Agricultural prices are forecast to decline over the next two years but to remain well above the levels of the first half of this decade. However, by 2030–2050, the current scenarios of losses and constraints due to climate change and environmental degradation – with no policy change – suggest that production increases could fall to 0.87% towards 2030 and to 0.5% by 2030–2050. Should global agricultural productivity rise by less than 1.2% per year on average, then prices, rather than declining, can be expected to rise by as much as 0.3% per year. In addition, a production short of demand, a greater geographical inequity in production and demand, combined with possibly more extreme weather and subsequent speculation in food markets, could generate much greater price volatility than before. In turn, this could potentially induce a substantially greater reduction in food security than that seen in the current crisis, if appropriate options for increasing supply and security are not considered and implemented.

The previous chapters clearly outlined the potential impact of environmental considerations on projected food demand and supply. These environmental considerations are not well addressed in global food assessments to date. Whether the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) like hunger eradication will be met in the (near) future and whether the food crisis as evolved until 2008 will impact these MDGs on the longer term, depends on how markets will respond, how price impacts will cascade through the food production system and how international governments will respond to these new circumstances. In short, the impact on food availability and food security can only be assessed through the different dimensions that play a role in the state of food security. The FAO defines food security as follows: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for a healthy and active life” (FAO, 2003). This involves four dimensions:

  • Adequacy of food supply or availability;
  • Stability of supply, without seasonal fluctuations or shortages; 
  • Accessibility to food or affordability; and 
  • Utilization: quality and safety of food.

Before conclusions can be drawn on food security, these dimensions need to be examined. The first three dimensions are elaborated upon in this chapter. The fourth dimension of food utilization is beyond the scope of this report, of which the focus is the environmental aspects of food security.


The availability of food within a specific country can be guaranteed in two ways: Either by food production in the country itself or by trade. The first option has been discussed extensively in the previous chapters. The second option has become more and more important (Figure 29), with increasing transport possibilities and storing capacities and the growing challenges faced by some countries in their domestic production, including because of limitations in available cropland. International trade in agricultural products has expanded more rapidly than global agricultural GDP (FAO, 2005).

Figure 29: World cereal trade in agriculture has increased steadily in the past decades. OECD has always been the major net exporter and Asia has become a major net importer. (Source: FAOSTAT, 2009).

The past several decades have witnessed a major increase in the integration of the world economy through trade. Many parts of the world have experienced high economic growth in recent years. For example, Asia’s GDP has increased by 9% annually between 2004 and 2006, and growth is especially high in China and India. Sub-Saharan Africa experienced 6% annual growth in the same period, after a long period of recession in many countries. Even countries with a prevalence of hunger reported some economic growth, although this is not always reflected in social conditions. However, global economic growth is projected to slow to around 4% and be in the 6% range for developing countries beyond 2008 (IFPRI, 2008).

An increasing share of global agricultural exports originates from developed countries. It increased from 32% in 2000 to 37% in 2006, but there are large regional variations. For instance, Africa’s share in global exports only increased from 2.3 to 2.8% in this period (UNCTAD, 2007). The EU countries account for most of the global growth; their share of total agricultural exports has increased from slightly more than 20% in the early 1960s to more than 40% today.

A large portion of this increase is accounted for by intra-EU trade, which represents around 30% of world agricultural trade. Conversely, during the past four decades, developing countries have seen their share of world agricultural exports decline from almost 40% to around 25% in the early 1990s before rebounding to about 30% today. This contrasts with the steadily increasing share of developing countries in total merchandise exports. Over this same period, the share of global agricultural imports purchased by developing countries increased from less than 20% to about 30% (FAO, 2005).

Another perspective of this trade is the purchase of land abroad for food production. Responding to recent food crises, a number of countries have started to purchase land abroad for cultivation of crops needed to support domestic demand (Figure 30). This is seen as a long-term solution to the high prices of agriculture commodities and increasing demand for agroforestry products such as palm oil. Among the most active countries owning, leasing or concessioning farmland overseas are China, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and United Arab Emirates; a number of other countries are only starting negotiations for the coming years. The total area of overseas farmland in different countries was estimated at 5.7 million ha at the end of 2008 or 0.4% of the global cropland area. 


Another option for meeting food demand is to ensure production in the country or region itself, by aiming at self-sufficiency and lowering the dependency on other regions. Current estimates of the developments on the demand side require increase in production in those regions with the highest economic growth or population increase (see Chapter 2). The majority of these regions will be in emerging economies in Africa and Asia. Nowadays, Africa is especially dependent on food imports. Food production in this region is lagging behind due to limited research investments and the problems for farmers to use the appropriate inputs in their production process. 


The world regions are sharply divided in terms of their capacity to use science in promoting agricultural productivity in order to achieve food security and reduce poverty and hunger. For every US$100 of agricultural output, developed countries spend US$2.16 on public agricultural research and development (R&D), whereas developing countries spend only US$0.55 (IFPRI, 2008). Total agricultural R&D spending in developing countries increased from US$3.7 billion (1991) to US$4.4 billion (2000), or by 1.6% annually (IFPRI, 2008). This spending was largely driven by Asia, where annual spending increased by 3.3 percent. Today, Asia accounts for 42% of total agricultural R&D spending in developing countries (with China and India accounting for 18 and 10%, respectively). In Africa, agricultural R&D expenditure declined slightly, by 0.4%/year. Although Africa is geographically large, its share in R&D spending is only 13%. Latin America accounts for 33% (with Brazil being responsible for 48% of the region’s spending). 

Figure 30: An increasing number of countries are leasing land abroad to sustain and secure their food production. Data are preliminary only. (Source: GRAIN, 2008; Mongabay 2008).

Productivity has risen in many developing countries, mainly as a result of investment in agricultural R&D combined with improved human capital and rural infrastructure. In East Asia, land productivity increased from US$1,485/ha in 1992 to US$2,129/ha in 2006, while labour productivity rose from US$510 to US$822/worker. In Africa, the levels of productivity are much lower and their growth has also been slower. In 1992, land productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa was only 79% of that in East Asia; by 2006 this gap of 21% had increased to 59% (IFPRI, 2008).


One of the major options for significantly raising crop production is increasing the use of mineral fertilizers. The Africa Fertilizer Summit 2006 concluded that the use of fertilizers should be increased to a level of at least 50 kg/ha by 2015. The present use of fertilizers in Sub-Saharan Africa is only about 9 kg/ha of arable land, compared to a world average of 101 kg/ha (Camara and Heinemaan, 2006; FAOSTAT 2009). Within Africa, there are strong differences in fertilizer use between regions, with relatively high use in Northern and Southern Africa, and very low use (around 1 to 2 kg/ha) in Western and Central Africa. Taking the increase as proposed by the Africa Fertilizer Summit as a starting point, this would mean a growth of the yearly use of fertilizers from 1 to 6 million tonnes. Based on the price of fertilizer (DAP) of approximately US$600/tonne (beginning of 2008), this would mean US$3 billion/year for the purchase of DAP only. A more moderate price of US$200/tonne would still mean US$1 billion/year. Added to this are significant costs of and investments in transport and distribution, developing agricultural research, extension programs, capacity building, etc. Indeed, there are many reasons for this low use. One of the reasons is the high retail prices of fertilizers, especially in areas with poor infrastructure. A metric tonne of urea costs $90 in Europe, $120 kg in the harbor of Mombassa, $400 in Western Kenya and $770 in Malawi (Sanchez, 2002).

A major challenge is to find ways of making fertilizer available to smallholders at affordable prices. There is also a need for holistic approaches to soil fertility management that embraces the full range of driving factors and consequences of soil degradation (TSBF-CIAT, 2006). This would include the integration of mineral and organic sources of nutrients, thereby using locally available sources of inputs and maximizing their use efficiency, while reducing dependency upon prices of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. The use of perennials, intercropping and agroforestry systems, such as the use of nitrogen fixating leguminous trees, are ways to increase nutrient availability, but also enhance water availability and pest control, in a more sustainable manner (Sanchez, 2002).


A major challenge is to find ways of making fertilizer available to smallholders at affordable prices. There is also a need for holistic approaches to soil fertility management that embraces the full range of driving factors and consequences of soil degradation (TSBF-CIAT, 2006). This would include the integration of mineral and organic sources of nutrients, thereby using locally available sources of inputs and maximizing their use efficiency.


Irrigated land area increased rapidly until 1980 with expansion rates of more than 2% a year. In Asia in particular, it led to a steady increase of staple food production together with other elements of the green revolution package (Faures et al., 2007). After 1980, growth in expansion of irrigated area decreased and it is assumed this trend will continue in the near future. One of the reasons is that the areas most suitable for irrigation are already used, leading to higher construction costs in new areas (Faures et al., 2007). Another reason is the strong decline in relative food prices over the last decades, which makes it less profitable to invest in irrigation. Current irrigation systems could be improved by investing in water control and delivery, automation, monitoring and staff training. 

The irrigated area has remained very low in Sub-Saharan Africa and of the land under irrigation, 18% is not used (FAO, 2005b). In most African regions the major challenge is not the lack of water, but unpredictable and highly variable rainfall patterns with occurrences of dry spells every two years causing crop failure. This high uncertainty and variability drive the risk-averse behaviour of smallholder farmers. Rarely are investments made in soil management and fertility, crop varieties, tillage practices and even labour in order to avoid losses in case of total crop failure (Rockstrom et al., 2007a,b). Managing the extreme rainfall variability over time and space can provide supplemental irrigation water to overcome dry periods and prevent crop failure. In combination with improved soil management (in regions with severe land degradation, only 5% of the rainwater is used for crops), this should reduce the risk of total crop failure and enhance the profitability of investments in crop management, for example, fertilizers, labour and crop varieties. Increasing crop canopy coverage reduces evapo-transpiration from the soil, improving soil moisture and the provision of water for the crop.