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The world food situation: New driving forces and required actions
4 December 2007
Joachim von Braun

The world food equation, rewritten

The world food situation is currently being rapidly redefined by new driving forces. Income growth, climate change, high energy prices, globalization, and urbanization are transforming food consumption, production, and markets. The influence of the private sector in the world food system, especially the leverage of food retailers, is also rapidly increasing. Changes in food availability, rising commodity prices, and new producer–consumer linkages have crucial implications for the livelihoods of poor and food-insecure people. Analyzing and interpreting recent trends and emerging challenges in the world food situation is essential in order to provide policymakers with the necessary information to mobilize adequate responses at the local, national, regional, and international levels. It is also critical for helping to appropriately adjust research agendas in agriculture, nutrition, and health. Not surprisingly, renewed global attention is being given to the role of agriculture and food in development policy, as can be seen from the World Bank’s World Development Report, accelerated public action in African agriculture under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and the Asian Development Bank’s recent initiatives for more investment in agriculture, to name just a few examples.

Demand driven by high economic growth and population change

Many parts of the developing world have experienced high economic growth in recent years. Developing Asia, especially China and India, continues to show strong sustained growth. Real GDP in the region increased by 9 percent per annum between 2004 and 2006. Sub-Saharan Africa also experienced rapid economic growth of about 6 percent in the same period. Even countries with high incidences and prevalences of hunger reported strong growth rates. Of the world’s 34 most foodinsecure countries,1 22 had average annual growth rates ranging from 5 to 16 percent between 2004 and 2006. Global economic growth, however, is projected to slow from 5.2 percent in 2007 to 4.8 percent in 2008 (IMF 2007a). Beyond 2008, world growth is expected to remain in the 4 percent range while developing-country growth is expected to average 6 percent (Mussa 2007). This growth is a central force of change on the demand side of the world food equation. High income growth in lowincome countries readily translates into increased consumption of food, as will be further discussed below.

Another major force altering the food equation is shifting rural–urban populations and the resulting impact on spending and consumer preferences. The world’s urban population has grown more than the rural population; within the next three decades, 61 percent of the world’s populace is expected to live in urban areas (Cohen 2006). However, three-quarters of the poor remain in rural areas, and rural poverty will continue to be more prevalent than urban poverty during the next several decades (Ravallion, Chen, and Sangraula 2007).

Agricultural diversification toward high-value agricultural production is a demand-driven process in which the private sector plays a vital role (Gulati, Joshi, and Cummings 2007). Higher incomes, urbanization, and changing preferences are raising domestic consumer demand for high-value products in developing countries. The composition of food budgets is shifting from the consumption of grains and other staple crops to vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, and fish. The demand for ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat foods is also rising, particularly in urban areas. Consumers in Asia, especially in the cities, are also being exposed to nontraditional foods. Due to diet globalization, the consumption of wheat and wheat-based products, temperate-zone vegetables, and dairy products in Asia has increased (Pingali 2006).

Today’s shifting patterns of consumption are expected to be reinforced in the future. With an income growth of 5.5 percent per year in South Asia, annual per capita consumption of rice in the region is projected to decline from its 2000 level by 4 percent by 2025. At the same time, consumption of milk and vegetables is projected to increase by 70 percent and consumption of meat, eggs, and fish is projected to increase by 100 percent (Kumar and Birthal 2007).

In China, consumers in rural areas continue to be more dependent on grains than consumers in urban areas (Table 1). However, the increase in the consumption of meat, fish and aquatic products, and fruits in rural areas is even greater than in urban areas.

In India, cereal consumption remained unchanged between 1990 and 2005, while consumption of oil crops almost doubled; consumption of meat, milk, fish, fruits, and vegetables also increased (Table 2). In other developing countries, the shift to high-value demand has been less obvious. In Brazil, Kenya, and Nigeria, the consumption of some high-value products declined, which may be due to growing inequality in some of these countries.

  1. The most food-insecure countries include the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of undernourishment and the 20 countries with the highest number of undernourished people as reported in FAO 2006a. Six countries overlap across both categories.

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