Food and agriculture issues:

The global food crunch:

myth or reality?

Download file in pdf format Food crunch.pdf       


The global food crunch: myth or reality?

This text seeks to review evidence in order to give an answer to this question that will be of critical importance on how to orient our food system in the future.

  1. 1.Introduction

Is the global food crunch a myth or a reality? The question may have appeared futile two decades ago, such was the general optimism about the world food situation, at a time when food prices were falling and food abundant. But ten years ago, during the 2007-2008 food crisis, the world food situation suddenly became again an object of general concern.

Of course, the fears on our ability to feed ourselves are probably as old as humanity. In the XVIIIth century, for example, T.R. Malthus1 had a pessimistic view on the topic, on the ground of an excessive - in his opinion - population growth. In 1972, the so-called Meadows Report - The Limits to Growth2 - sponsored by the Club of Rome, came to similar conclusions based on the use of a model where demographic growth, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output and pollution generation were key variables. But in the 80s and 90s, despite pervasive undernourishment in poor countries, the concern for food was limited to those who were directly combating hunger.

It is not until the latter part of the first decade of this century that the issue of feeding the world was back on the agenda, at the time when the world was facing a major food security crisis. This was the time when, even though there was enough food to feed everyone, food prices rose and the general public became worried about the future of food. This issue was widely reflected in the world media and by various intergovernmental organisations such as FAO, the World Food Programme and the World Bank, and it was taken up by lobbies such as the fertiliser lobby that pointed at a sudden lack of production as being the main issue.

But the difference was that climate change, loss of biodiversity, constraints in water and land were given more importance in the debate, along with the issue of a more equitable access of food, particularly for the poorer population groups.

Today, in 2018, the concern has somewhat subsided. Food prices are falling according to the FAO Food Price Index. But the issue is still looming over us like some kind of a sword of Damocles.

So what is the answer to this question today? It will probably depend on the perspective adopted and to whom you ask it.

If you question statisticians or mainstream economists, their answer will be clearly “a myth”, as data trends clearly show a growing production that, if projected, will roughly be able to meet our future needs. FAO Statistics show an average yearly growth of around 2.3% for world gross agricultural production and world gross food production over the period 1961 to 2016 (latest figures available at the time of writing this article) and 2.2% for total gross cereal production. These growth rates are computed on the value at constant 2004-2006 US dollars. Absolute figures show a more than trebling of the value of these aggregates over the period considered (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Evolution of gross value of global agricultural, food and cereal production (valued in constant 2004-2006 US dollars)

                                    Source: FAOSTAT.                             Download file Gross production.png

Confidence of the questioned statisticians or economists will even likely be stronger as there has been a slightly more rapid growth during the last fourteen years of the period (respectively 2.4, 2.4 and 2.3 percent per annum growth rate). However, a closer look at some data, would show oddities that seem to contradict this general picture: for exemple wheat yield figures for France (which has one of the most intensive cereal cultivation systems) have been stagnating since the middle of the 1990s and show a much greater variability since 2010.

If you talk to agronomists, their answer will depend on what kind of agronomists you talk to. If they are supporters of a “modern” agriculture well integrated in the economy, they will agree with the mainstream economists and statisticians and add that the food crunch can be avoided provided more support is being given to agriculture through subsidies on inputs (fertiliser, pesticides, fuel) and research in some of the most advanced technologies (e.g. genetic improvement, digital agriculture). If they work for government or some agrifood company, they will likely be more adamant in supporting this opinion than if they are not linked to those who promote the so-called “modern” agriculture.

If you ask the question to biologists, environmentalists, biodiversity analysts and other such scientists, provided they are independent, their answer will be that the food crunch is a possibility. They will base their view on a series of changes that have been taking place over the last decades and that, in their view, make that positive trends observed in the past are not likely to continue until we fundamentally change our strategy, They will probably disagree among themselves on when and how the actual food crunch is likely to take place and on what needs to be done to prevent it, if at all possible. But for them, the food crunch is real, a real and threatening possibility.

And if you ask the question to farmers…, the response you will get will depend on the kind of farmers with whom you talk.

Given the importance of the issue, each and every citizen needs to develop their own independent view on this essential matter - let’s not forget that we are the food that we eat as it constitutes the bricks of our bodies and we cannot survive healthy until we have regular sufficient quality food to eat.

The objective of this paper is to put on the table what is known on the issue so far, so as to help readers to develop an opinion.

  1. 2.The basics

To be able to provide an answer to our question, some basic understanding is required on how food is being produced.

Until recently, crop production, which is at the basis of food production3, was considered to be the result of the proper management of seeds, soil and water. In this representation of production, the soil was increasingly seen as a dead substratum to which fertiliser (both organic and mineral) was to be provided so that plants could get sufficient minerals to grow optimally.

Conditions have made it that today, the way we think of production has become more complex. We have realised that the soil is not a dead basis but rather a very important actor in production whose level of biological activity is essential for ensuring thriving crops.

We have also became increasingly aware that the environment in which plants grow matters: the role of climate, of course, which determines largely energy and water available to plants, but also of animals - in particular of insects - which have a critical function not only in pollinisation but also in the management of pests and diseases.The irony is that we began to give more importance to these elements in our conceptualisation of crop production when we became aware that they were becoming a limiting factor, as they were gradually disappearing.

But let’s not anticipate too much on the discussion.

Figure 2 provides a picture of the main factors that are involved in crop production and their key relationships. It highlights two other key players that have not yet been mentioned here : knowledge and fossile energy.

Figure 2: Key factors of the crop production system

Download file: Crop production diagramme.png

One remark: in the above diagramme, only key relations are represented and symbolised by arrows. Had all relations been shown, the picture would have been unreadable. The purpose of this remark is to emphasise one fundamental point: crop production is the result of a system where each element has a particular role to play and may become, at times, a limiting factor. This means that if one of these factors were to become a problem, this could be sufficient for the whole system to be in crisis; and if the crisis is sufficiently acute, it could lead to a collapse of production, a crunch.

Another consequence of the systemic nature of crop production is that whenever a new technology is being introduced, it should be evaluated not only with respect to its immediate impact on production but also on the likely impact it could have on each of the elements of the system.

This may appear to make things overcomplicated. Maybe, but agricultural production - and in particular food production - is a highly complex process!

Let’s come back to the issue of the food crunch and let’s examine each of the factors depicted in Figure 2 in order to assess whether they could become cause of such a disaster.

3. Evidence

3.1. Soil

A priori, one could think that the one item in Figure 2 that should be the stablest in the crop production system would be cultivated land. The fact is that it is not. Both the amount and the quality of the land cultivated - and its soil that is immediately used by plants - can vary substantially over time.

Amount. In the past, Europe has seen great variations of the area of land used for agriculture that were mainly linked to the size of population: regression at times of wars and epidemics, deforestation at times of peace and demographic growth. Currently worldwide, expansion of agriculture is by large the main cause for deforestation [read p.4]. However, while agricultural land is being gained on forests in some parts of the world, in others it is lost to urbanisation and infrastructure. In rich OECD countries, agricultural land has been reducing at an average rate of 4% a year in recent times. This contraction is also due in part to loss of attractiveness of agriculture in certain areas [read]. While in remote areas, it is often land with low productivity that is abandoned, in peri-urban area it is usually highly productive land that is lost to constructions. In France, for example, between 50,000 to 70,000 hectares have been lost every year to various types of constructions since the beginning of this century [read in French].

Quality. A recent study by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has shown that human activities are causing pervasive land degradation through erosion, soil fertility loss, pollution and salinisation due to intensive agricultural systems involving high use of chemicals and irrigation4. This degradation reduces the global production potential of land. The study estimates the cost of land degradation in loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services every year at 10% of global gross product (approximately $8 trillion - more than twice the GDP of Germany!). Research conducted by the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures concluded in 2015 that nearly 33% of the world’s adequate or high-quality food-producing land has been lost over the years due to degradation taking place at a rate by far higher than natural regeneration processes [read].  Loss of organic matter, in particular, has been tremendous and means that it has less food for the great number of organisms that are required in the soil, and the soil capacity to retain water is reduced, with evident dramatic consequences in case of drought [read]. This means that, unless we change the way land is being used, this on-going process will ultimately lead to a point where land area and quality will become an overwhelming challenge.

In 2014, on the occasion of the World Soils Day, FAO estimated that if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, marking the end of farming [read].  In the UK, for example, soil erosion and water pollution is putting food production at a risk and for the first time the British government is expected to include in it new farm bill measures and targets to preserve and improve the health of the UK’s soils [read].

This evidence from research points at a degrading soil basis of crop production both in area and quality, as depicted in Figure 3. Crop production could only increase in the recent past because of a tremendous increase of the use of fertiliser and irrigation. Other processes also impacted on soils and their way to contribute to crop production, in particular the use of pesticides (see below).

Figure 3: Soil, nutrients, water and crop production

Download file: Soil diagram.png

3.2. Biodiversity

In Figure 2, biodiversity appears in two ways: one is the diversity of the genetic material that is being used in agriculture; the other is the diversity of living organisms that play a role in agriculture.

Biodiversity as a whole constitute a vital natural capital made of thousands, millions actually, of living species set in a myriad of complex ecosystems. Its diversity resides in the diversity of species, the genetic diversity within each of these species (i.e. their many varieties) and the multiplicity of ecosystems5 of which they are part. These organisms may or may not have a role to play in agricultural production. Some may have a positive role to play (they may contribute directly to production or help protect those who produce); others may have a negative role (pests and diseases); some may not - or not yet - have a role to play. Some of these organisms have been domesticated since the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago (e.g. cattle or sheep, wheat or apples), i.e. transformed - “improved” - to better suit production; others, the vast majority, are wild.

Agrobiodiversity is that part of biodiversity that is made of organisms that are edible by humans. Out of an estimated total of 10 million species present on the planet - 1.8 million of which have so far been identified -, there are 250,000 to 300,000 edible plants, of which it is believed that around 10,000 were once consumed by humans. Nowadays, only 150 to 200 are used and just three (rice, maize and wheat) contribute to almost 60% of the plant-based diet of humans. Moreover, only a minute fraction of the huge genetic variety within each of these species is actually being used. For example, in Laos, only a dozen paddy varieties produce the bulk of rice, while researchers have inventoried several thousands paddy varieties in the country. These figures illustrate that agriculture currently only uses an insignificant share of the existing agrobiodiversity.

This last statement provides good arguments to those who are optimistic about the capability of humans to adapt agriculture to changing conditions (climate, diseases, land degradation, etc.). Perhaps, provided there is a mechanism for existing agrobiodiversity to be preserved for future use, as the risk is that plants that are not used for production are progressively eliminated and replaced by those who are more productive and more responsive to “modern” agricultural techniques (i.e. based on the use of energy intensive technologies making a massive use of agrochemicals).

This replacement has been on-going and as a result, according to FAO:

  1. During the 20th century, around 75% of agrobiodiversity was lost;

  2. 30% of domesticated animal breeds are now in danger of extinction (7% of the total or around 8,800 known livestock breeds are already extinct)6;

  3. 75% of our food comes from only 12 plants and 5 animal species7;

  4. Only ten species provide about 30 percent of marine capture fisheries8.

The narrowing of our food base (Figure 4) should be a source of concern, as it increases our vulnerability to threats (climate change, diseases, pests) to which our base may not be able to resist. This is why considerable efforts are made to preserve this genetic resource base through the creation of gene banks9 (see for example the case of Europe’s AEGIS).

The positive aspect of the evidence gathered is that only a small part of the existing agricultural biodiversity is being used, meaning that much more is yet available to cope with human needs and changing agroecological conditions, provided it is preserved.

The negative aspect of the evidence is that the narrowing down of our use of agrobiodiversity has tended to neglect its ecosystemic dimension, e.g. the potential synergies existing between species and has favoured the development of highly standardised, “universal” modes of production that are based on technologies that attempt to ignore if not obliterate the diversity of agroecological conditions in order to create an artificial environment where growth is optimised through the intensive use of inputs on soils that are taken as an inert substratum10.

Figure 4: The narrowing down of agrobiodiversity

in the dominant view of agriculture

Download file: Use of agrobiodiversity.png

This has, in a way, cornered us into an extremely fragile scenario, from which we may want to try and exit. The current efforts in developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a step further on the dangerous historical footpath on which agriculture has proceeded during the last 150 years [read p.4 and following]. So is the development of increasingly artificially controlled environments such as greenhouses, precision agriculture, germ free production and other technologies of the same kind. Most of these developments are promoted by giant multinationals and carry the additional disadvantage of excluding the poorest and most vulnerable from benefiting of results of research [read]. This effort of detaching production from natural processes cannot but be put in parallel with the typical individualistic Western philosophical view in which humans are seen as being “outside” and “above” nature, with a role of “dominating” it. This a quite opposite view from that of Asian philosophies or those of indigenous populations in South America or Africa, for example.

Agrobiodiversity, as already mentioned, is only a small part of global biodiversity. There is now convincing evidence that global biodiversity is also on the decline. In Europe, for example, farmland birds are disappearing from the countryside at a stunning speed as illustrated by the 56% decline of the EU Farmland bird index [read].

Similarly, insects are also diminishing, as recently documented in the case of Germany where the total flying insect biomass in protected areas fell by more than 75% over 27 years, a huge decrease that cannot be without effect on the functioning of ecosystems [read].

The EU State of Nature Report published by the EU Environment Agency found that 64 % of grassland (non-bird) species and 86% of grassland habitats are in an unfavourable state. Furthermore, 70% of cropland (non-bird) species are also deemed to be in a similar situation. The report also explains that there is variation across the UE but that agriculture and that changes in hydrology are the main sources of pressure on these ecosystems.

At global level, a recent scientific study considers that the Earth is facing a 6th species extinction crisis (the 5th took place 65 million years ago which saw the end of dinosaurs and ammonites). Working on a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species, scientists found an extremely high rate of population loss in terrestrial vertebrates. 32% of the species analysed saw decrease in population size and range. In the case of mammals, authors state, “more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (more than 80% range shrinkage)”. Observed shrinkages “have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization”. “Hundreds of species and myriad populations are being driven to extinction every year”, two vertebrate species every year, on average, during the last 100 years, but many more see their population dying out at a rapid speed and this is an extremely worrying process. “Habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive organisms, pollution, toxification, and more recently climate disruption, as well as the interactions among these factors, have led to the catastrophic declines in both the numbers and sizes of populations of both common and rare vertebrate species”. A similar conclusion was drawn by the Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on the basis of work conducted by a group of 600 researchers reviewing as many as 10,000 studies conducted on the subject (publication yet expected at the time of writing this article).

Figure 5: Biodiversity and food production

Download file: Biodiversity.png

Implications for food production, and particularly crop production, is that many of the endangered species play a key role in the production process. Among many forms of life that are of importance, two crucial examples are highlighted here: pollinators and earthworms.

Pollinators: pollinators (insects, some birds and bats) are responsible for about 35 percent of the world’s crop production, increasing outputs of about 75 percent of the leading food crops worldwide. French scientists estimated at more than 153 billion euros ($180 billion) the value of the ecosystems services they provide worldwide [read in French]. They are essential for fruit, vegetable and forage production, as well as for the production of seeds for many root and fibre crops (FAO), and their numbers are diminishing as they are threatened by pesticides, but also by destruction of habitats within which they reproduce (e.g. hedges) and that should be imperatively preserved.

Bees are emblematic among pollinators and their situation is a source of concern throughout the world. In the UK, the number of managed honeybee colonies fell by 53% between 1985 and 2005 and wild honeybees are thought to be nearly extinct [read]. In the US, honey production has been decreasing by 9% for large production units (more than five colonies) and by 22% for smaller units only for 2017 [read]. In France, mortality rates in bee colonies has exploded in recent years and this situation has made authorities ban neonicotinoids (a type of insecticide which are similar to the nicotine present in tobacco) starting from this year. Worldwide, it is estimated that decrease in bee population has been between 50 and 90% since the end of last century [read]. Causes of such a drastic fall are, in addition to those already mentioned for pollinators in general, parasites (e.g. Varroa destructor) and predators (e.g. Asian hornet).

Earthworms are known to be important regulators of major soil processes and functions such as soil structure, organic matter decomposition [mainly performed by microorganisms], nutrient cycling, microbial decomposition and activity, and plant production”. [read] They also contribute to carbon sequestration in soils, as well as to the restoration or remediation of contaminated soils. “In soil, earthworms represent the largest component of the animal biomass and are commonly termed ‘ecosystem engineers’” [read]. There are an estimated 10,000 thousands to species of earthworms and they can weigh up to 2-3 tons per hectare and may process up to 400 tonnes of organic matter per hectare and per year in good healthy soils. On healthy pasture land, the earthworm biomass is equivalent to that of four cows!  [read in French].

The earthworm population depends very much on the quality of organic matter that is added to the soil, on the way soil is tilled and on the type of fertiliser used. Deep ploughing and intensive tilling reduces earthworm populations in some types of soils, while no-till management systems promote their abundance. Similarly, organic fertiliser is more favourable to earthworms than mineral fertiliser [read]. Pesticides result in a dramatic decrease in earthworm population [read]: for example the herbicide glyphosate impacts negatively on earthworms [read]. Pesticides tend to disrupt earthworm enzymatic activities, increase individual mortality, decrease fecundity and growth, change individual behaviour such as feeding rate and decrease the overall community biomass and density. Insecticides and fungicides are the most toxic pesticides impacting survival and reproduction, respectively [read]. Moreover, in Europe of recent, an invasive flatworm originating from Brazil is threatening to further decimate an already diminishing earthworm and snails population.

Scientists consider more and more that the presence of earthworms is a good potential indicator of the sustainability of agricultural practices used on a particular plot. One reason for that is that, as for earthworms, mineral fertiliser and chemical pesticides have been observed to impact negatively on other types of biological activity in the soil (e.g. microorganisms), according to a number of scientific publications, while it is now proven that the presence of a buoyant biological activity plays a key role in the absorption by cultivated plants of minerals indispensable to their growth [read].

As a result of these considerations, we can agree with FAO when stating that to secure the future of our food, everyone needs to mobilise and become biodiversity stewards, particularly farmers [read in French].

3.3. Knowledge

For centuries, knowledge in the area of food production was based on experimentation and observation conducted by generations of farmers. This led to complex land use systems adapted to a diversity of ecosystems where a multiplicity of crops and animals coexisted with the view to produce the food required by the population that was rural in its overwhelming majority.

Urbanisation, which implied a greater role for market processes (for bringing food from the countryside to urban dwellers), and the need to generate greater production surplus have pushed for the development of new and more productive technologies. The industrial revolution that gave birth and expanded the chemical and mechanical industries required agriculture to become the main client of these emerging sectors. Discoveries made by Justus Liebig and Fritz Haber and the rural-urban drift that saw a radical decrease of agricultural labour in industrialised countries led to the rise of the so-called “industrial agriculture” relying on extensive use of machinery, energy and agrochemicals [read p.4].

Progressive withdrawal of the State from the food sector at time of Structural Adjustement Programmes (SAP) opened an avenue for private companies that little by little took over agricultural research in order to develop technologies that are embodied in sellable inputs (seeds and agrochemicals) and equipment that remain inaccessible to the mass of poor farmers [read on seeds, on SAP and on research]. This evolution has been, until now, successful both in terms of production (see Figure 1 above) and business (see the case of pesticide use in Figure 6).

Figure 6: Evolution of pesticide use for agriculture in the world

between 1990 and 2016 (in tonnes of active ingredients)

Source: FAOSTAT. Download file: Pesticides.png

As a result of this history, technologies that are dominant today are energy intensive and are in a large part responsible for the reduction of both agro- and global biodiversity as was just noted in the previous section. Their spreading has been concomitant with a drastic decrease of labour (and jobs -  see Figure 7) in the agriculture sector and have consigned to oblivion knowledge accumulated over centuries that would have benefitted from being revisited by science. This evolution has also transformed farmers from knowledgeable pragmatic experimenters to simple implementers despised as “ignorant” by those who are in charge of technological development and extension. These technologies are now in full bloom in industrial countries, and although their negative implications have become increasingly visible, they are being promoted in poor countries, particularly in Africa [read].

They have also made the food sector responsible for as much as 35 to 40% of total greenhouse gas emissions. [read]

Figure 7: Evolution of the share of agricultural labour force in total labour force in selected countries between 1990 and 2017 (in %)

Source: ILO, Modeled ILO estimate.  Download file: Labour.png

Traditional knowledge in agriculture is yet despised and generally not a field of research, with some rare exceptions. From this point of view, agriculture is far behind medicine, for example, which has been building new remedies on the basis of traditional knowledge11. As already mentioned, of recent, there has been some renewed interest in traditional crops and farming technologies and systems, FAO being in the forefront with its GIAHS (Globally important Agricultural Heritage Systems).

Our idea here, of course, is not to propose to go back to ”the good old days of the golden age” as some apologists of ”modern” agriculture like to say with contempt. Rather, it is to use the scientific methodology to find new ways of producing, based on principles such as ”using and building on ecosystems processes and complementarities” that have proven to be effective in past, instead of overlooking them or, worse, combatting them. Some results of this type of research have led to results - too few so far - such as agroforestrysustainable rice intensification (SRI), push-pull and integrated pest management (IPM). Much more needs to be done in order to produce innovative science-based technologies that will be more sustainable and capable of proposing a credible alternative to currently dominant technologies. For that, public resources are required, as it is likely that a large part of these new technologies will be more knowledge-intensive than input-intensive, and will therefore offer less opportunities for sales and profits to private companies. [read]

3.4. Climate and fossile energy

Climate is a perfect illustration of the complexity of relations existing among elements presented in Figure 1. Food is at the same time a cause and a victim of climate change, and the mode of operation of our food system is at the heart of what is endangering its future: deforestation, animal production, wastage, food processing, transport and conservation, agricultural technology are among the main causes of the rise of temperature and the amplification of extreme climatic events (droughts, floods, hurricanes…) that require a profound adaptation of agriculture to new conditions [read ‘Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too’].

In this context, water is becoming a major issue that is vital for an increasing number of people throughout the world, both in terms of availability and quality.

Water availability. Let’s recall here that agriculture uses around 70% of the water consumed in the world and irrigated land produces approximately 40% of available food including 60% of the cereals produced [read]. This is the result of priority given to irrigation development in the technological package promoted by the Green Revolution during the last decades. Climate change is already modifying the pattern of availability of water, encouraging some to go for more irrigation12 and threatening future use of irrigation infrastructure, including that constructed since the middle of last century13. The ‘‘all-out irrigation’’ strategy adopted in agriculture has led to a fragile, wasteful and inegalitarian system [read].

Figure 8: Evolution of irrigation infrastructure 

between 1961 and 2015 (in million hectares)

Source: FAOSTAT.   Download file: Irrigation.png

Water availability has been a cause of conflict and is now increasingly a reason for migration. A recently published study showed that the accelerated melting of Greenland’s icecap resulting from climate change could lead to a reduction of the monsoon in the Sahel that could cut by around one million hectares the area cultivated in food crops in West Africa, with as consequence the possible migration of several tens of million persons14. Climatic migrants could, according to the Worldwatch Institute, reach 150 million by 2050, creating instability in several parts of the world that could, in turn, affect food production and its stability.

The quality of water has been impacted negatively by the type of economic development adopted by humanity: pollution by industrial effluents, by agriculture (agrochemicals, animal dejections) and by human waste has deteriorated water quality to the extent that, in some places, it has become unsuitable for use for human or animal consumption, and that it generates risks of toxicity of food harvested on some of the irrigated land.

Last but not least, higher temperature and CO2 concentration in the air are likely to have an impact on the quality of our food. Research suggests that harvests increase with temperature (all other factors being equal), but that the resulting product has reduced protein and mineral nutrient concentrations, as well as altered lipid composition15. These changes, on which more research is needed, could impact the nutritional status of large number of people throughout the world as and when climate further changes.

The issue of climate is of course intimately intertwined with the use of fossil energy. The need to drastically cut on fossil energy use and leave unexploited “a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves … from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2 °C16 implies that our food system will have to become less fossil energy dependent. Considering the historical evolution of our food system already briefly described above, this challenge constitutes another threat on our food, unless we start from today to develop food production technologies that do not require these types of energy.

4. Conclusion

The reader will have noticed a change in the tone of the paper as evidence was being presented. Initially, we had adopted an impersonal and “objective” stance, but as we proceeded to analyse various factors affecting food production, we could not but realise that there were serious threats endangering the future of our food.

Worse, many of these threats were related in one complex nexus: technology with climate, soil with climate, technology with biodiversity, etc. etc… These relations can be generalised from crop production, which lies at the basis of our food system, to food production. It is the complex system of food production that is at risk. Figure 9 summarises the main threats identified in this paper.

Figure 9: The food nexus

Download file: Conclusioneng.png

Proven facts clearly demonstrate, in our view, that the global food crunch is not a myth. It is not (yet) a reality, but facts show that it is a possibility, worse, a threatening possibility.

So the question now should be twofold:

  1. What needs to be done for the crunch not to take place?

  2. If nothing is done, when will the crunch take place?

At, we do not want even to consider the second question and prefer to concentrate on the first one. For that, we have already given several suggestions on what would need to be done to avoid the food crunch in three main texts that outline some fondamental changes required in the policy framework that orients our food system in the worrisome direction it has been taking for several decades17.

Of course, we know that transition to a more sustainable food system cannot take place overnight. Abandoning harmful policies and practices abruptly while alternative approaches are not ready would be the recipe for disaster. But this should not be an excuse for postponing change indefinitely.

Take the example of the ban on glyphosate: fixing a deadline for application of the ban, whether it is one, three, five or twenty years will be perfectly useless until efforts are made to ensure an alternative, or else the argument of “continue as before or else there will be a disaster…” will be repeated for ever at the time of the deadline, and the ban will never be effectively implemented. It is therefore indispensable to define principles for change and take practical steps to prepare its implementation. In the case of glyphosate, just looking for “an alternative molécule” is not the solution, as whatever the new molecule, it is likely to have its own unexpected negative effects. The solution is in developing adapted technological packages that build and work with ecosystems processes and complementarities, not against them, and it should in no case rely on an artificially created ecosystem. They should also be adapted to a variety of social, economic and agroecological conditions.

That is a major R&D programme!

Materne Maetz

(September 2018)


To know more:

  1. FAO, Sustainable agriculture for biodiversity, FAO, 2018.

  2. Rovillé, M., Le ver de terre, star du sol, Sagascience, CNRS, undated (in French).

  3. Aldred, J., £10m a year needed to ensure England's soil is fit for farming, report warns, The Guardian, 2018.

  4. Hallman, C.A., et al., More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas, PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809, 2017.

  5. Ceballos, G., et al., Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines, PNAS 2017.

  6. Cailloce, L., Pourquoi les abeilles disparaissent, CNRS, Le Journal, 2016 (in French).

  7. Pelosi, C., Pesticides and earthworms. A review, Agronomy for Sustainable Development 34(1) · November 2013.

  8. Vieille-Blanchard, E., Le rapport au Club de Rome : stopper la croissance, mais pourquoi ?, Reporterre, 2012 (in French).

  9. Freshwater, D.,  Farmland Conversion - The spatial dimension of agricultural and land-use policies, OECD, 2009.

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems, 2018.

  2. What are the challenges to be met in order to secure a sustainable future for our food system? 2017.

  3. Food, Environment and Health, 2014/2017.

  4. Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too - Towards a “new food and agricultural revolution”, 2016.

  5. To produce more: build an alliance with nature rather than combat it, 2016.

  6. A solution to combat climate change: an agriculture that stores carbon in the soil, 2015.

  7. For a more sustainable agriculture : three myths to debunk, 2015.

  8. The reasons why the Green Revolution might still not be an option for Africa, 2015.

  9. Biodiversity or GMOs : how to increase plant resistance against drought?, 2014.

  10. Imposing the liberal economic model, 2013.

  11. Water and Hunger - The ‘‘all-out irrigation’’ strategy has led to a fragile, wasteful and inegalitarian system, 2013.

  12. Genetic resources: acceleration of privatisation of living organisms is a threat to food security and biodiversity, 2013.

  13. The decrease in population of bees is a threat for our food, 2013.

  14. Seven principles for ending hunger sustainably, 2013.



  1. 1.Malthus, T.R., An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers (1ed), 1798, J. Johnson in St Paul's Church-yard, London.

  2. 2.Meadows, D. et al.. The Limits to Growth - A Report for The Club Of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, 1972, A Potomac Associates Book, Universe Books, New York.

  3. 3.Around half of the grain and a substantial part of root crops produced are fed to livestock reared for animal production.

  4. 4.Total area equipped for irrigation has roughly been multiplied by 3 over the last 60 years (FAO). Mineral fertiliser use has also considerably increased: +34% for Nitrogen, +39% for Phosphate and +44% for Potash between 2002 and 2016 (FAOSTAT).

  5. 5.Ecosystems are different habitats such as temperate or tropical forests, mountains, cold and hot deserts, oceans, wetlands, rivers, and coral reefs that are characterized by complex relationships between living components such as plants and animals and non-living components such as soil, air and water. (FAO)

  6. 6.Making agriculture work for- not against- biodiversity, FAO website.

  7. 7.FAO, What is Agrobiodiversity? 2004.

  8. 8.FAO Website, Ibid.

  9. 9.About 3.6 million crop accessions (collections of plant material from a particular location) are conserved in gene banks by 71 countries and 12 international centres, with about half the total holdings belonging to nine major food crops. However, although crop wild relatives represent about 13 percent of the world's gene bank holdings, about 70 percent of such species are still missing (FAO).

  10. 10.It is encouraging to note a recent revival of the interest for traditional crops and varieties (e.g. “orphan” drought-resistant crops such as millet, sorghum, teff or fonio in Africa, barley in temperate countries).

  11. 11.Today, it is estimated that biopiracy (using without compensation traditional knowledge accumulated in local communities, in violation of the Nagoya Protocol) has become a systematic activity generating a turnover of several tens of billions dollars every year.

  12. 12.Even in temperate Europe, irrigation has been developing along with crops such as maize, and it is now envisaged to extend irrigation to economically important crops like vineyards in Southern Europe.

  13. 13.For example, the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas is endangering future continued and regular replenishment of dams supplying water for irrigating the millions of hectares in South Asia that have played a crucial part in the combat against hunger in that part of the world.

  14. 14.Defrance, D. et al., Consequences of rapid ice sheet melting on the Sahelian population vulnerability, PNAS, 2017,

  15. 15.See for example DaMatta F.D. et al., Impacts of climate changes on crop physiology and food quality, Food Research International, Volume 43, Issue 7, August 2010, Pages 1814-1823 and the work conducted by mathematician Irakli Loladze [read article in Politico].

  16. 16.McGlade, C. and P. Ekins, The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C, Nature volume 517, pages 187–190 (08 January 2015).

  17. 17.See: Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems 2018, Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too - Towards a “new food and agricultural revolution” 2016, and Seven principles for ending hunger sustainably, 2013.


Last update:    September 2018

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