Putting food and water on nine billion tables

Addressing global food and water challenges

Quentin Grafton, John Williams, Qiang Jiang

Environment & energy, Science and technology, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

15 April 2015

Recent food price spikes should be a wake up call to policymakers.

The large food price spikes in 2008-2011 provided a wake-up call to all of us about the state of food security in the world. These price hikes pushed an additional 100 million people into becoming chronically malnourished.

Much higher food prices over this period pose policy questions. Questions such as what crop yield productivity improvements need to be made to ensure that there will be sufficient food available to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050?

Given that agriculture currently accounts for about 70 per cent of world water extractions, what will be the implications of higher food production on water use?

Should there be a shift to sustainable intensification of food production, which does not involve greater use of arable land or use of key inputs (such as water), what will be the role of fertilisers in ‘feeding the world’?

Increasing global food production by at least 60 per cent by 2050 without further environmental impact is arguably the greatest challenge for food security.  Unlike 50 years ago, land and water resources are much more stressed and there are key challenges in terms of soil degradation and salinisation of irrigated areas. There is also increasing competition of food-producing inputs (land, water and energy) for uses other than for food production.

Pumping in dry season Cambodia. Photo by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfataustralianaid/10715532746

Pumping in dry season Cambodia. Photo by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfataustralianaid/10715532746

A recent and comprehensive global analysis provides evidence that crop yield increases of 1.1 per cent per annum (relative to 2010 yield) are the minimum required to feed the world in terms of average food availability by 2050 at real prices close to those in 2010. By comparison, the current average global crop yield growth of the world’s major cereals varies between 0.9 per cent and 1.6 per cent per year, and the rates of increase have fallen in the past two decades. A key policy challenge is whether the lower rates of crop farm yield increase, together with modest increases in cultivated land, are sufficient to meet the projected increased food demands by 2050.

In response to these critical food policy challenges, we developed the Global Food and Water System (GFWS) Platform. This Platform allows the user to explore food availability deficits for scenarios of crop production under various fertiliser, water use, crop improvement and land use options. The Platform is an Excel spreadsheet, but has an underlying ‘engine’ of crop yield data under different combinations of water and nitrogen fertiliser use. It allows the user to assess the effects of annual crop productivity improvements on food production and incorporates data from 19 major food producing nations to generate projections of food and water gaps in dryland and irrigated agriculture.

Our analysis with the Platform has highlighted four key public policy findings.

First, nitrogen fertiliser applications are of critical importance to ensure there is no gap between global food availability and requirements.

Second, crop yield improvements of at least 1 per cent or more each year are required to avoid food availability deficits under reasonable scenarios about water and fertiliser use and with the existing arable land. This result emphasises the critical need for appropriate investment in research and development to ensure current rates of yield growth do not fall any further.

Third, we project a growing food deficit in South Asia out to 2050 over a range of possible scenarios. Further, food supply projections by country indicate that, even if there were to be sufficient food available in total by 2050, there will likely be a number of ‘choke points’. Thus, food trade will be critically important to ensure an adequate distribution of food across countries.

Finally, the projected water use for irrigated agriculture highlights substantial water deficits in key food producing countries, such as India, even in the absence of growth in water demand for non-agricultural purposes.

Overall, our findings support the view that effectively responding to current and future food-energy-environment-water risks should be one of the key global policy priorities of the coming decade.

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Follow up readings

Fischer, R.A., Byerlee, D. & Edmeades, G.O. (2014) Crop yields and global food security: will yield increase continue to feed the world? ACIAR Monograph No. 158. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, Canberra. 634 pp.

Grafton, RQ, Williams, J and Q Jiang (2015). Food and Water Gaps to 2050: Preliminary Results from the Global Food and Water Systems Platform. Food Security 7, pp. 209-220. DOI 10.1007/s12571-015-0439-8.

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