Half of World Population Dependent on Food Trade by 2050

“Eating on an Interconnected Planet” is an interesting article by Graham K MacDonald in the Environmental Research Letters 8/ 2, 2013.

It argues that more and more countries will need to rely on food imports to satisfy their food needs. This will be the case for 51 percent of the world population by 2050, depending on expected population growth and development of agricultural productivity.

Over the last decade 70 percent of global cereal exports were undertaken by only 8 ocuntries that constituted only 11 percent of the world population. Hence such increase in global food trade will constitute a formidable challenge, but also a potential increase in geopolitical leverage for exporter countries.

Politicization of food trade that is outlined in the food weapon chapter of Oil for Food will  possibly increase. In the 1970s the US tried to exert pressure on Arab countries to counter their oil boycott. Gulf countries were clearly concerned as their Sudan bread basket plan and their reaching out to Australia for oil for food barter deals showed.

Later the US implemented a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. On other occasions it hoped to dampen domestic food inflation by export restrictions, very much like Argentina, Vietnam or Russia did during the global food crisis of 2008.

Politicization of food trade would not be  good news for the Middle Eastern countries that are the most food import dependent countries in the world as the following chart from MacDonald’s article shows:

Figure 1.

The chart describes the countries of origins of key crops (maize, milled/paddy rice, soybean, and wheat) that are imported by 49 countries that have lost the ability for self-sufficiency because of either water or land constraints or both.

Beside the Middle East and North Africa this is also the case in Mexico,Southern Africa and the OECD countries Italy, Netherlands, UK and Japan. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer is not included in the map, which looks rather strange, given the fact that its land reserve is maxed out and its future irrigation potential might be compromised by unfolding hydropolitcis along the Nile.

The large weight of the US as an exporter nation also appears rather dominating in the  chart compared to Brazil, Australia, Canada and Russia, all of which are major exporters of soybeans and  cereals. I doubt that this exactly reflects global food trade patterns, but possibly the trade with the 49 disadvantaged countries on the map. Here, the dominating US role might be the result of politically motivated food aid shipments, preferential trade agreements and other related factors.

Yet the basic message for a region that already imports a third of globally trade cereals is clear: The future of food security in the Middle East and North Africa are food imports. Maintaining them will require export revenues beyond oil, liquid global food markets and maneuvering their geopolitics which will likely become more tricky.