World food prospects

critical issues for the early twenty-first century

By the year 2020 the world’s population is projected to grow by some 30 percent, become more urban, and have more income. Meeting the world’s food needs under these conditions will have profound implications for the world’s agricultural production and trading systems in coming decades. World Food Prospects: Critical Issues for the Early Twenty-first Century, a recent Food Policy Report by Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Rajul Pandya-Lorch, and Mark W. Rosegrant, presents the most recent IFPRI projections of the future world food situation and identifies six recent developments and emerging issues that will influence the prospects for global food security.

Prospects for Food Security

Almost all of the increase in world food demand will take place in developing countries. Developing countries will account for about 85 percent of the increase in the global demand for cereals and meat between 1995 and 2020. However, a developing-country person in 2020 will consume less than half the amount of cereals consumed by a developed-country person and slightly more than one-third of the meat products.

A demand-driven “livestock revolution” is under way in the developing world. Between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, the volume of meat consumed in the developing world grew almost three times as fast as it did in the developed countries. Demand for meat in the developing world is projected to double between 1995 and 2020. In response to the strong demand for meat products, demand for cereals for feeding livestock will double in developing countries. Demand for maize in developing countries will increase much faster than for any other cereal and will overtake demand for rice and wheat by 2020.

To meet demand, the world’s farmers will have to produce 40 percent more grain in 2020. Increases in cultivated area are expected to contribute only about one-fifth of the increase in global cereal production between 1995 and 2020, so improvements in crop yields will be required to bring about the necessary production. However, growth in farmers’ cereal yields is slowing from the heyday of the Green Revolution during the 1970s. Without substantial and sustained additional investment in agricultural research, it will become more and more difficult to maintain, let alone increase, cereal yields in the long run.

Food production is increasing much faster in the developing world than in the developed world. By 2020, the developing world will be producing 59 percent of the world’s cereals and 61 percent of the world’s meat. Nevertheless, cereal production in the developing world will not keep pace with demand, and net cereal imports by developing countries will almost double between 1995 and 2020 to fill the gap between production and demand. Net meat imports by developing countries will increase eightfold during this period to 6.6 million tons.

About 60 percent of the developing world’s net cereal imports in 2020 will come from the United States. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are forecast to emerge as major net exporters, and the European Union and Australia are projected to increase their net exports as well.

Food prices will remain steady or fall slightly between 1995 and 2020. The much slower decrease in food prices compared with past trends is due to the continued slowdown in crop yield increases, as well as strong growth in demand for meat in developing countries. In the scenario described in the report, food insecurity and malnutrition will persist in 2020 and beyond. It projects that 135 million children under five years of age will be malnourished in 2020, a decline of only 15 percent from 160 million in 1995. With more than 77 percent of the developing world’s malnourished children in 2020, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will remain “hot spots” of child malnutrition and food insecurity.

Emerging Issues

A number of emerging issues could significantly influence the outlook for the world food situation in the early years of the next century. First, new IFPRI research finds that improvements in four critical areas helped improve child nutrition in the developing world between 1970 and 1995: women’s education, per capita food availability, the health environment, and women’s status relative to men. This research suggests that investments in these four areas could significantly reduce child malnutrition.

Second, world market prices for wheat, maize, and rice, adjusted for inflation, are the lowest they have been in the last century. This situation may threaten producer incomes and future food production and stocks. Although increased climatic variations may cause larger production fluctuations in the future, current large grain stocks and continued productivity increases make it difficult to believe that another significant price spike will occur in the next few years.

Third, the next round of world trade negotiations will begin in November 1999. To gain from trade talks, developing countries must participate effectively in the negotiations. Among other things, developing countries should pursue better access to markets in industrial countries for their agricultural commodities.

Fourth, the desire to help poor farmers, combined with concerns about excessive dependence on fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation water, has stimulated interest in an “agroecological approach” to agricultural production. The agroecological approach aims to reduce the amount of external inputs that farmers use, relying instead on available farm labor and organic material, as well as on improved knowledge and farm management. It has tremendous potential to promote sustainable productivity increases in small-scale agriculture.

Fifth, the extent to which modern biotechnology will contribute to the achievement of food security for all is still an open question. While molecular biology-based science is moving at great speed, its application to agriculture has been mostly limited to solving problems facing farmers in the industrial countries and large farmers in a few developing countries. If focused on solving small farmers’ problems, biotechnology may help these farmers reduce production risks and increase productivity, which will, in most developing countries, result in both higher incomes for small farmers and lower food prices for poor consumers. Biotechnology to make foodgrains more nutritious could help combat widespread nutritional problems among the poor in developing countries.

Sixth, the recent revolutionary developments in information and communication technology (ICT) have dramatically reduced the cost of processing and transmitting information. In developing countries, access to ICT can open up new opportunities for education, primary health care, and agricultural extension as well as for conveying information on markets, transport options, road conditions, employment opportunities, and other issues important to the rural poor.


IFPRI projections suggest that, under the most likely scenario, food insecurity and child malnutrition will remain widespread in 2020. Many millions of people will suffer from hunger and its debilitating consequences. This does not have to be so. If we can harness the political will to adopt policies and make investments that will eradicate poverty, foster food security, and protect natural resources, then a food-secure world-a world in which each and every person is assured of access at all times to the food required to lead healthy and productive lives-will be within our reach.

Pinstrup-Andersen, Per
Pandya-Lorch, Rajul
Rosegrant, Mark W.
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
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