United Nations System-Wide

Food security  - updated to 1 March 1998

World grain reserves fell to their lowest level ever, a 48 day supply, at the start of 1995.  Prices rose accordingly, and food security became a major issue.  The causes were three years of poor harvests, and rising demand in developing countries experiencing rapid economic growth, such as China, where meat eating is increasing and more grain is going to feed livestock.  The success of the next few harvests in rebuilding reserves will show whether food production can keep ahead of demand, as most assessments suggest, or whether continuing food crises can be expected (Brown et al., 1996; Kleiner, 1996; WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). World cereal production did increase somewhat in 1996, raising 1997 global cereal stocks to 281 million tonnes.  This gave a ratio of stocks to utilization of 15%, up from 14% in 1996 but was still well below the 17-18% considered by FAO to be the security range (FAO, 1997).

In the longer term perspective, a recent expert study estimated that the world is approaching the limits of global food production capacity based on present technologies.  Its most optimistic projection suggests that a doubling of food production by 2050 might be technically feasible, and this could feed 7.8 billion people if grain is largely used as human food and not for animals.  A likely higher level of population growth, or a failure of sufficient commitment to increase food supplies around the world, will create severe problems for a major part of the world population (Kendall and Pimentel, 1994).  The pessimistic assumptions seem more likely, as present per capita food production is stagnating if not declining, and some crops may be close to biological and environmental limits. Already 700 million people experience endemic hunger, not counting those added by natural disasters (Serageldin, 1995).

One result of rising grain prices and concerns over food security is an expected reduction or elimination of land idling requirements, bringing such land back into production (Johnson, 1995).  However, significant areas are also being lost to production through land degradation, erosion and salinization.  For instance, China is losing 130,000 ha of arable land a year, representing 6 million tonnes of grain production (Chen, 1995).  Also, the growing problem of water scarcity is leading to conflicts between demand for human consumption, especially in urban areas, and agricultural uses, with agriculture generally losing out.  This reduction in water available for irrigation will affect agricultural productivity and could reduce the ability of water-scarce countries to feed their populations (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996).

While the Green Revolution increased grain production and helped avoid famine, it has led to nutritional problems.  Present high-yield varieties are usually low in minerals and vitamins, so many people saved from starvation have been incapacitated instead by iron, zinc, vitamin A and other deficiencies, as new diets replace traditional dietary sources.  Iron deficiency has worsened globally, affecting 1.5 billion children, and half of all pregnant women are anaemic.  The worst fall has been in South and South-east Asia where the Green Revolution has been most successful  (Welch et al., 1996; UN, 1992).  The Green Revolution has also required a continuing or even increasing use of hazardous pesticides and environmentally damaging fertilizers.  The need to reduce these inputs to achieve more sustainable agriculture may also reduce levels of food production.

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Brown, Lester R., et al. 1996. State of the World 1996. Norton, New York.

Chen Yali.  1995. "Dollars and Degradation." China Daily, 22 November 1995.

FAO, 1997. The State of Food and Agriculture 1997. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, 1997. Web version: http://www.fao.org/docrep/w5800e/w5800e00.htm

Johnson, D. Gale. 1995. Quoted in Morse, Laurie. "World-Watch president warns of food scarcity". Financial Times, 2 November 1995.

Kendall, Henry W., and David Pimentel. 1994. "Constraints on the expansion of the global food supply."  Ambio 23(3):198-205. May 1994.

Kleiner, Kurt. 1996. "Panic as grain stocks fall to all time low". New Scientist, 3 February 1996.

Serageldin, Ismail. 1995. (World Bank) Quoted in Crossette, Barbara, "Experts focus on stagnating food supplies". New York Times International, 5 February 1995.

UN. 1992. Report on nutrition. Cited in Seymour, Jane. "Hungry for a new revolution". New Scientist, 30 March 1996, p. 32-37.

Welch, Ross, Robin Graham, et al. 1996. Report from International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., April 1996. Cited in Seymour, Jane. "Hungry for a new revolution". New Scientist, 30 March 1996, p. 32-37.

World Resources Institute/United Nations Environment Programme/United Nations Development Programme/World Bank. 1996. World Resources 1996-97.  Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

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