A growing population is putting more pressure on global food resources which is increasing the risks of political and economic instability

The UK’s first food security assessment, which was launched on 10 August 2009, seeks to address how to sustain UK food supplies over the next 40 years. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn emphasizes the need for the strategy to cover all aspects of food – production, processing, distribution, retail, consumption and waste. The initiative reflects the global consensus concerning food security.

Food security has come into focus since the rises in food commodity prices in late 2007 and 2008 sparked rioting in more than 30 countries. Whilst the UK is food secure, producing about 60-65% of its own supply, numerous factors including global population growth and climate change could have a negative impact on UK food chain resilience and household food security in the future.

Global food security

In the United Kingdom producers, supermarkets and consumers have been invited by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to suggest how a secure food system should look in 2030. As global demand looks set to increase 70% by 2050 to feed a world population of nine billion, both the public and private sectors will increasingly be called upon to mitigate risk from food insecurity. The review will need to take into account the full range of factors impacting food security, in addition to global population growth and climate change. These include agricultural development and capacity, international trade flows, poverty and income distribution, foreign aid, macroeconomic policies and environmental resources.

Monitoring risk

Food security concerns in the meantime persist elsewhere in the world. As much as two-thirds of India’s 1.1bn inhabitants rely on farming as their main source of income. Twenty-one percent less land was under cultivation in August 2009, than during the same period in August 2008. This is due to a reduction in the availability of national water resources for agricultural purposes. The reduction in crop yields is likely to inject inflationary pressure into the economy.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation defines food security as a state in which ‘all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.’

Maplecroft’s Food Security Index (FSI) reveals hotspots of food insecurity. Countries in the extreme risk category are situated predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of a handful of countries in the Americas, and Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Haiti, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Yemen. Of the top 20 countries in the FSI, 14 are located in Africa.

“The reduction in crop yields is likely to inject inflationary pressure into the economy.

Both the public and private sectors in countries such as Haiti (ranked second) and Egypt (ranked 61st) have faced challenges to their political and economic stability as a result of food price inflation. This has a destabilising effect particularly in poorer countries, where the share of income spent to meet dietary requirements is higher than in rich nations.

The problem is intensified as imports of grains and foods by emerging powers such as China (ranked 107th) and India (25th) rise. It is also exacerbated where grains and vegetable oils are diverted from food production to the manufacture of biofuels.

In Ethiopia (5th) the debate around bio-fuels remains unresolved. Currently, about seven million out of a population of 77m receive food aid to supplement the food that they grow themselves. The government also faces an annual fuel bill of US$900m. To address these twin issues the government plans to develop 23m hectares for both crops and biofuel. However, whilst the government claims that Ethiopia currently has a food surplus at national level, related humanitarian risks, such as natural hazards and conflict could exacerbate shortages in north-western and north-eastern areas. The societal impacts of food insecurity could be felt across a wider area in the longer term if bio-fuel production takes precedence.

In a bid to improve food security in South African (109th) the government has excluded maize as a potential source of biofuel. Biotech company, Monsanto counters that the government’s refusal to include maize in the biofuel strategy could have a negative impact on South Africa’s land reform policy. However, in a separate move to increase food security for the continent, South Africa brokered a deal with the Republic of Congo to lease 10m hectares of farmland to South African farmers. The land will be utilised to grow maize, soya beans and establish poultry and dairy farms. China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Kuwait, have all been seeking to make similar agricultural investments in Africa.

The number of factors that impact food security are diverse. All play a central role in determining the risk that governments and business face now and in the future. Whilst there are signs that governments are taking action, and retailers are responding, a coordinated approach is required at a global level to look at how countries produce, process, distribute, retail, consume and dispose of waste food.

National strategies need to promote leaner and healthier diets, along with higher crop yields and a move towards accepting genetically modified crops. The question for the UK is how radical should the policy change be? In recent years government policy has centered on markets, choice and purchasing power. Ensuring sustainable access to resources - both for the UK and global population in years to come - will necessitate a change in focus. This may result in some uncomfortable and unpopular decisions by governments worldwide.

Fiona Place, environmental risk analyst at global risks specialist, Maplecroft