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I. Agricultural and food security trends worldwide: An overview

I. Agricultural and food security trends worldwide: An overview


The capacity exists to produce sufficient food for all people in the world. This requires, however, an increase in food production, particularly in low-income, food-deficit countries. According to the World Food Summit Draft Plan of Action, "production increases need to be achieved while ensuring both productive capacity, sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the environment" (pare. 22). Sufficient food production alone will not guarantee food security, however, unless action is also taken to ensure access to food by all people.

Progress in attaining food security has been slow and uneven up to the present time. This situation is likely to continue well into the 21st century unless concerted efforts are made to remove the obstacles to food security and promote overall rural development and poverty eradication, especially in the countries most affected by food insecurity.

Overall, there are better prospects for growth in the developing countries, with significant exceptions. By the year 2010, it is predicted that most developing countries will have been able to increase per caput food supplies and decrease malnutrition. Much of sub-Saharan Africa, however, is likely to continue to suffer from food insecurity and parts of South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean will still be in a difficult position (FAO, 1995b).

The lack of adequate incomes and purchasing power of large parts of the population is expected to slow down world agricultural growth. Predictions are that the world production of cereals will not grow in per caput terms, due to the slow growth of demand from countries and population groups with low levels of food consumption (FAO, 1995b).

There has been a shift in the general trend of giving low priority to agriculture as compared to industrialization. A new recognition is growing in many parts of the world of the crucial role of the agricultural sector for increasing export earnings, generating employment and improving food security. This has been combined with economic liberalization and privatization.

Trends in trade policies at the international and national levels are towards deregulation of trade, opening of economies to foreign competition and promoting export expansion. According to FAO, developing countries are likely to turn from net agricultural exporters to net importers. For countries which depend on agricultural exports to finance food and other imports, this may negatively affect the food security situation. For other countries, this may indicate growing exports of manufactured goods, growing incomes and increasing food consumption.

National and transnational agribusiness dealing in commodities, pesticides, plant genetic resources and other inputs are likely to benefit from economic and trade liberalization. The globalization of food industries and the accompanying pressures to raise productivity and efficiency and to lower costs will have an impact on employment and wages of rural workers, particularly plantation workers, which may directly and negatively affect household food security (ILO, 1995).

Economic liberalization and privatization are major features of Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs), which aim at the rationalization of fiscal and monetary policies and the creation of a macro-economic environment favourable to economic growth. SAPs focus on the reduction of public spending and price supports, liberalization of markets, reduction and elimination of agricultural and food subsidies and the elimination of marketing and transportation controls. These measures are likely to have a negative impact on small and poor farmers. Cuts in social services and the increase in food prices adversely affect the more vulnerable parts of the population, particularly women and children, and place a disproportionate burden of work on women who must make up for the services that have been cut.

Paradoxically, the rural people who produce the world's food also make up the majority of the world's poor and are among those most vulnerable to food insecurity (ILO, 1990).

Approximately 70 percent of the world's poor are women. The trends towards economic and trade liberalization and privatization which are intended to boost agricultural production and the economy may well result in increasing food insecurity among poor farmers and other vulnerable population groups, unless measures are taken to ensure equitable access to food by all.

Some of the key characteristics, trends and issues of agriculture and food security in different regions of the world are given below.


Agriculture has long been the dominant sector in much of sub-Saharan Africa in terms of output, employment and export earnings. It accounts for approximately 21 percent of the continent's GDP (FAO, 1994). Agricultural output, however, has been lagging behind population growth since the 1960s. Between 1965 and 1990, agricultural production grew at an annual rate of 1.7 percent, while the population grew at an annual average of 2.8 percent. Food imports, including food aid, in the region have increased substantially to offset the deficiencies, and in early 1994 represented about 10 percent of the food consumed. At current growth rates, the food gap is projected to increase to more than nine times the present gap by 2020 (Saito, 1994).

Asia and the Pacific

In contrast to sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural growth in Asia has shared in the general trend of rising economic growth in the region, and there have been significant improvements in food grain production per caput and calorie intake in most countries, especially in East Asia. Agricultural growth in comparison to population growth was particularly strong in the 1980s, although there has been a decline in the 1990s, as Table 1 shows.

Table 1: Growth rates in Asia and the Pacific






GDP per caput

East Asia and the Pacific

















South Asia

















Source: World Development Report 1993, Table 2 and World Development Report 1996, Table 11.


Despite their divergent economic and social systems, both Western and Eastern Europe gave great attention to developing their agricultural sectors following World War a. By the 1960s, food production in the region was sufficient to feed the population of Europe, although this did not necessarily ensure food security for all sectors of the population. Today agriculture is in a state of transition in both Western Europe and the Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC).

Agriculture in Western Europe has been characterized by modernization, intensification of agriculture through the high use of external inputs, substantial farm subsidies and protectionism, which has resulted in surplus production. At present agriculture is going through a period of adjustment as the countries of the region grapple with problems related to intensive agriculture: environmental quality, nature conservation, food safety, farm diversification and human development. The CEEC is undergoing a period of privatization and structural reform of agriculture and food systems, as well as dealing with environmental problems related to intensive food production.

Latin America

Agriculture in Latin America has been characterized by the concentration of land in the hands of relatively few large landowners, with the consequence that smallholders and landless farmers have little access to credit, water and productive resources. The agrarian reform programmes undertaken in most countries in the 1980s did not result in significant changes in patterns of land ownership.

The economic policies that have been implemented in the countries of Latin America in the 1990s are based on economic and trade liberalization. This has exposed rural economies to the forces of the market and has resulted in lower public investment in rural areas. The incidence of rural poverty has been on the rise, with increasing poor health and malnutrition. On the other hand, these policies have been accompanied by democratization which pays heed to civil society, the need for sustainable development, gender relations, decentralization and local governments.

The Near East

The Near East is predominantly arid or semi-arid and agriculture is primarily rainfed. Rainfall is both scarce and variable from one season to the next. Many countries of the region are considered water scarce and in 1991, only 7.3 percent of the land in the region was considered arable. Overgrazing, desertification, deforestation, erosion, water-logging, salinization, urbanization, industrialization and the effects of political instability, civil strife and war have negatively affected land and water resources. Consequently there is little potential in the region to expand its cultivation. The majority of farms are small (ten hectares or less) and occupy about 25 percent of all arable land. Given this situation, agricultural policies are directed to increasing agricultural yields rather than expansion of agriculture.

The self-sufficiency ratio (SSR) for major food commodities in the Near East decreased drastically from 1979/1980 to 1989/1990: the SSR for cereals decreased from 98 to 70 percent, sugar from 75 to 62 percent and meat from 99 to 85 percent. This has led to increasing dependence on food imports.

Table 2: Global Estimates of the Incidence of Chronic Undernutrition by Region



UNDERNOURISHED % Total Population

Sub-Saharan Africa






Near East/North Africa






East Asia






South Asia












* Three-year averages.

Source: Adapted from FAOSTAT (1994).

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