food and water security

The human population of Earth is rapidly increasing; currently it is over seven billion and is expected to increase to eight to eleven billion by the middle of the century.  Not only is the human population of Earth increasing, but the affluence of all of those people is increasing too.  One-and-a-quarter billion people in Asia are expected to rise to middle class levels of consumption by 2020, and similar expectations are held for Africa.  This huge number of people will not only require feeding but due the increased affluence will expect food that is more fossil-fuel-energy intensive, and more inefficient and wasteful to produce.


While the need for food production is increasing with the growing affluent population, the ability of Earth to supply the increased demands for food is decreasing due to a range of factors.

agricultural land loss

As the human population of Earth increases so the land space is increasingly taken up for human habitation.  The more affluent the people are the more space they use directly for habitation and the more space they take up for the provision of the services that they expect, such as transportation, industry, recreation, and other amenity.  This increasing urbanisation reduces the land that is available for agriculture.


Before modern transport made it cheap and easy to move food great distances most human settlements developed in areas of the best agricultural land.  Those settlements have now grown into modern towns and cities and their urban area has expanded onto that agricultural land.  So, not only is urbanisation taking up space that was once available for growing food, in many situations it is taking up the best areas for growing food.


Modern agriculture is very destructive of the agricultural properties of land, and has resulted in huge areas of agricultural land being lost to salination, soil leaching, top-soil loss, and soil damage from chemical fertiliser use .


Climate change is destroying agricultural land.  Climate change may also be creating new agricultural land (thawed tundra); however, it is likely to result in an overall loss of agricultural capacity.  Climate change will result in great disruption as agricultural activities have to be relocated to the new agricultural lands requiring redevelopment of infrastructure associated with agriculture and ongoing clearing of remaining natural environments


Fuel crops, to be converted into liquid fuel, are displacing food crops in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to reduce the political issues associated with obtaining imported fossil fuels.


As the land area in use for agriculture is reduced by these factors, and as the demand for food supply increase, more and more wild and semi-wild environment is destroyed to increase the area of land under agriculture, causing ongoing loss of biodiversity

fossil-fuel dependency 

Modern agriculture is expected to supplant traditional agriculture to facilitate the needed increase in food production; however modern food production is highly mechanised and therefore is energy intensive, requiring vast amounts of fossil fuel to complete its processes. While the energy that we get from eating our food is still the energy from the sunlight that falls on the plants at the beginning of the food chain, the energy that goes into providing our food is ten times greater; the rest coming from the fossil fuels used in the process – we effectively eat fossil fuels. 


Modern agriculture is dependent upon artificially maintaining soil with fossil-fuel-derived nitrogen fertilisers, created from natural gas and nitrogen from the atmosphere.  Nearly 80% of the nitrogen in human tissues comes from this process. 


Modern agriculture is also dependent upon minerals that are translocated around Earth, at a huge energy and energy–related pollution cost.  


Modern agriculture depends on obtaining vast quantities of water; much of this water is translocated great distances across the surface of Earth or from great depths, which incurs huge energy cost for infrastructure construction and pumping energy.


As fossil fuels are depleted these dependencies on fossil fuel will mean that the amount of food that can be produced will also reduce. 


Modern agriculture's dependence on fossil fuels means that food production results in the production of greenhouse gasses that result in global warming that causes dangerous climate change, which further reduces that ability of Earth to provide our food.

finite resource limitations

Many of the minerals that modern agriculture relies on are finite and there are no replacements for them – not even in theory.  Phosphorus, which is essential for plant health, is a particularly problematic example of this.


Modern agriculture depends on obtaining vast quantities of water.  Much of the water upon which modern agriculture has been developed is fossil water taken from aquifers that will not be replenished because they are being drawn-down unsustainably.  The water in many of these aquifers first soaked into the surface ten-thousand or even a million years ago and has been heavily depleted in the last 50 to 100 years.


Much of the water upon which modern agriculture depends comes from seasonal snow melt and glaciers in alpine regions.  As the atmosphere warms  snow fall is reduced and so these water flows are commonly reduced. As the atmosphere warms glaciers melt more quickly, causing a temporarily increase in water flow (which may cause dependency as the increased water flow allows more agricultural production), followed by a long-term reduction in water flow.


Much underground water, including in Australia and in the United States of America, is now under threat from pollution caused by coal seam gas mining.

reduced food species diversity 

Modern agriculture concentrates on a very limited range of varieties of species that are tightly bred to be dependent of the whole modern agricultural process; including high water use, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, mechanical harvesting, and processed animal food.  If any part of the agricultural process fails these highly dependent plants are likely to fail too.  


These inbred species with limited genetic range are also likely to be susceptible to epidemics brought about by evolution of disease or pest species, or by population explosions of pest species brought about by the vast resource supplies these plants and animals represent.


Modern farming techniques

There are many that argue that the only way to resolve feeding Earth's growing population is to push modern agriculture harder and harder with more fossil-fuel applications, and more technology.


The origin of modern agriculture was the 'green revolution', a series of technologies including high-yielding crop varieties, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, and the creation of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, that were developed in the 1960s.  However, many of the food supply-related issues described here are a direct result of the practices of modern agriculture.  


Norman Borlaug, a biologist who is considered to be the father of the green revolution, was well aware of the limitations of modern agriculture to endlessly feed the growing human population; in his Nobel prize acceptance speech  he said "There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort."




Global population growth, our high and increasing individual resource consumption, and economic growth, are other factors that place our food and water security at risk.

more information and ideas

Jeremy Grantham, from asset management firm GMO, writes an excellent newsletter.  The issue: Resource Limitations 2: Separating the Dangerous from the Merely Serious covers some of these resource limitations relating to food production in more detail.  


This page is linked from:

the issues that humanity faces 

energy security


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