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Food security in the twenty-first century

With the population on the planet set to continue growing, with an estimated 9-10 billion people on the planet by the middle of this century, how will these people be sustainably fed? As part of Earth Day 2015, the following extract from Is the Planet Full? looks at the issue of food security from the need of the planet and its inhabitants alike.

There are currently about 7 billion people on Earth and by the middle of this century the number will most likely be between 9 and 10 billion. A greater proportion of these people will in real terms be wealthier than they are today and will demand a varied diet requiring greater resources in its production. Increasing demand for food will coincide with supply-side pressures: greater competition for water, land, and energy, and the accelerating effects of climate change. The need to produce food in ways that are more environmentally sustainable will become ever more pressing. And while global wealth will grow, not everyone will benefit, and the world will continue to be faced with the challenges of hunger and malnutrition, especially in the least developed countries. At the other end of the nutrition spectrum, we face a global epidemic of obesity.

Over recent decades the security of food supply at the global level has been some way down the political agenda. The food system, chiefly private sector and increasingly globalized, supplied food to consumers in the developed world at historically low prices so that the fraction of income spent on food in Europe and America has never been less. Indeed, many of the major policy issues in the rich world have involved problems of over-production and the maintenance of rural communities in the face of competition from developing countries with low wage advantages. The last 20 years have seen rapid growth in many developing countries and in particular within their agricultural sectors, increasing food supply and raising many food producers out of poverty. Even in the poorest countries the fraction of people suffering poverty and hunger was declining, and in the mid 2000s there was optimism that the first Millennium Development Goal—that no more than 8 per cent of people should go hungry in 2015—would be met.

Today, food security is a major policy priority for national governments and international organizations. The turnaround has occurred for several reasons. First, a number of prospective studies have concluded that there is a real danger that demand for food will rise more rapidly than the world’s ability to supply it, leading to price rises of a magnitude that would risk economic and political instability. Second, there has been an increasing realization that environmental deterioration poses a real threat to food production. Factors such as insufficient access to water and the negative effects of climate change may severely affect yields. Finally, there has been the sharpest rise in global food prices since the oil crises of the 1970s, as well as episodes of high price volatility. Higher food prices have triggered civil unrest in a number of low-income countries and have contributed to changes in governments and regimes.

Featured image credit: Wheat grain, by suraj. Public domain via Pixabay.

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