People working in a maize farm
People working in a maize farm.
Photo credit: David Brazier

Half full or half empty? Are global food and water security imperilled? Shrill headlines might suggest that the world is descending into an unprecedented crisis of starvation and drought. Yet, experts agree that there is enough water and farmland to guarantee global food security until at least 2050. However, there is a big ‘if’…these resources will only deliver the food we need for a growing global population if there is a profound rethink in the way we approach agriculture and natural resource management.

In the last 50 years, global agricultural production has doubled. There is currently sufficient food to adequately feed everyone on the planet. Moreover, there is globally enough agricultural land and water available to continue to do this until 2050, despite the projected increase of the world’s population to 9 billion people. However, regionally, some areas will potentially see food and water shortages in the next 20 years.

Yet, many still go hungry. Nearly a billion people are currently estimated to be undernourished. That’s one in every seven of the Earth’s inhabitants.

Thus, to achieve universal food security, there is not simply a need to grow more food. We must also use natural resources sustainably to ensure that the poorest have year-round access to an adequate, nutritious diet. That means improving the incomes of the two and a half billion people who rely on subsistence farming for a living.

For this to happen, water is a critical resource. New crop varieties or farming techniques cannot flourish without sufficient water. Improving market access of smallholder farmers will be of little use if crops go thirsty. Indeed around 1.2 billion people (or almost one-fifth of the world’s population) live in areas of physical water scarcity, and 500 million more are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people (or almost one-quarter of the world’s population) face economic water scarcity, where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.

So, we need a bold new approach to water management. This will require investment in both infrastructure and people. We already have the technologies and techniques to significantly increase the amount of food that can be grown using existing water supplies. The challenge will be to make sure that the benefits of this agricultural expansion are shared fairly to deliver adequate food for all.