Food security: What’s facing all of us

Global food security is a big issue, perhaps the biggest facing humanity. This blogpost sketches an outline of its key elements through a series of infographics:

  • Agriculture needs land, water and energy. And we’re running out of all three in one way or t’other.
  • Climate change is going to affect agricultural yields greatly.
  • The global population is set to rise by another ~2.5bn people by 2050.

Land available for agriculture: The conflicting issue of a rising population against the arable land available is summed up in this infographic, which is only about until 2030:


This situation is compounded by declining soil fertility. In 2012, NASA and JPL California Institute of Technology produced this global map depicting how vegetation growth is limited by available soil nutrients:


By 2030, too, global water demand will increase by more than 50%, with agriculture alone needing more than what can be sustainable before other needs are met:

water_use_by2030(For more information about the water issue, see pp 5-6 of our paper The local food and drink sector: A global context.)

Agriculture, food processing, distribution and preparation use ~30% of the world’s energy supply and are ~20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO paper, from which these stats were taken, also points out the relationship between food commodity prices and the price of crude oil, showing the strong link between our current food system and fossil fuels:


Climate change, to which agriculture contributes so much, is going to make a big difference to agricultural yields, as this map indicates:


Although this map indicates crop yields are expected to rise in the northern temperate zones, the bulk of arable land available — which is where most of the world’s population live — looks set to decline.

After the Paris climate deal was agreed last December, Tim Benton, who’s on our Panel of Experts and is the UK’s global food security champion, wrote this important blogpost, pointing out that emissions from the agri-food sector look set to continue. He outlines three possible ways we could respond to this:

  1. We carry on as we are and miss the Paris targets, and therefore perhaps lock us into 4-5C of global warming by the end of the century;
  2. We rely on research and innovation to find ways to significantly increase yields to reduce the rate of land conversion and develop carbon capture and storage, or
  3. We recognise that demand for food is driving emissions and work to change that to meet the supply-side improvements halfway.

He continues: “The first option is unthinkable. The second has possibilities, but there is little sign of research budgets on the scale necessary being deployed, and furthermore, there is a significant gap between mitigation potential and economic viability. The third option seems, at least initially, a no-brainer.”

The Birmingham Food Council has offered the city as a laboratory to, among others, Rothamsted Research, to explore how the food demand within this city can change — more later.


note: The featured image at the top of the page is from NASA’s Earth Observatory. They describe it thus:

For two weeks in late June and early July 2015, western Europe and the Pacific Northwest of North America endured record-setting heat and parched landscapes. Other parts of the world got a taste of the heat, too, as new temperature records were set on three continents.

The map above shows daytime land surface temperature anomalies in Europe from June 30 to July 9, 2015. Temperatures for those ten days are compared to the 2001–2010 average for the same period. Shades of red depict areas where the land surface was hotter than the long-term average; areas in blue were below average. White pixels were normal, and gray pixels did not have enough data, most likely due to excessive cloud cover.

See also our paper published in January 2016: The local food and drink sector: A global context.

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