12 April 2017

One-fifth of world’s population depends on food imports

Posted by Lauren Lipuma

New research shows nearly half of the world’s population lives in areas where imports compensate for food scarcity and one-fifth of the world now depends upon these imports to survive. 
Credit: Rosana Prada, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

As populations grow, countries are becoming more reliant on food produced elsewhere

By Lauren Lipuma

Countries unable to feed their growing populations are increasingly importing food to meet demand, a new study finds. Nearly half of the world’s population lives in areas where imports compensate for food scarcity and one-fifth of the world now depends upon these imports to survive, according to the new study published today in Earth’s Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Previous research has shown that in many places, scarcity of resources like water and land is already limiting the environment’s capacity to feed local populations. But the relationship between resource scarcity and trade is complex, and past research has not shown a direct link between the two.

The new study, however, compares a region’s net food imports to its ability to produce food. The results show that when an area’s capacity to feed its population is limited, food imports tend to increase. The success of this import strategy depends on the country’s ability to purchase imported food, according to the study’s authors.

“In about 10 to 15 percent of cases, this increase in imports was not sufficient to keep up with population growth,” said Miina Porkka, an environmental scientist at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, and lead author of the new study. “In these cases, at least in theory, the food supply will now be insufficient. And this is something that is highly dependent on economic power.”

Many North African and Middle Eastern countries seem to be successful at importing food to meet demand, according to the study. Most of these countries are in arid regions where the environment can no longer support the local population, but since these countries are relatively wealthy, they have supplemented their limited food supply with imports, Porkka said.

India and Nepal, on the other hand, have been relatively unsuccessful at importing food to feed their growing populations despite increasing agricultural productivity and recent increases in economic power. Some of the more densely populated areas in India can’t feed their local populations even with current levels of imports and food from other areas of the country, according to the study.  

The results highlight the need to evaluate whether importing food is the best strategy for overcoming food scarcity or whether some countries should encourage other options, Porkka said.

“Despite its advantages, dependence on trade does come with many risks,” she said. “The global trade network is a very vulnerable system. Production and price shocks, for example, have been shown to cause food shortages in countries that are dependent on imports.”

Where an area’s ability to feed its population is limited, it’s worth asking whether trade dependence is a reasonable choice, Porkka said. It’s also worth considering other additional means of improving food security, such as using more efficient agricultural methods, reducing vulnerability to disturbances in the trade network, or keeping the demand for food under control, she said.

“Global food security is one of the big challenges we’re facing, and this is something that’s only going to be getting more difficult in the future as the population grows,” she said.  

— Lauren Lipuma is a public information specialist and writer at AGU. Follow her on twitter at @Tenacious_She.