Agriculture and Food Systems (Part 1) by M S Swaminathan

This blog is from the series Science and Sustainable Food Security- Selected Papers of Prof. M S Swaminathan. Check out other blogs of the series here.

1. The Changing Scenario

  • The unfavourable weather of 1972 and 1974 in the middle latitudes and the failure of monsoons in the sub-Saharan countries provided the backdrop to the discussions on the impact of climate on global food security at the first World Climate Conference in 1979.
  • The eighties witnessed both uncomfortable food gluts in some parts of the world and acute food scarcity in others, particularly in the Sahelian region of Africa. 
  • According to the State of Food and Agriculture Survey of FAO (1989), the years 1987 and 1988 witnessed a marked turnaround in the world agricultural and food security situations. 
  • Some important agricultural commodity markets shifted from having a global surplus to a situation of relative scarcity, and international prices increased significantly, after having fallen to their lowest levels in many years. 
  • FAO's March 1990 Food Outlook predicts that the cereal supply situation will remain tight in 1990/1991. Even assuming normal weather, 1990 production is unlikely to be large enough to meet trend consumption in 1990/1991 and allow stock replenishment. 
  • With stocks at their lowest level for many years, adverse weather would have serious consequences (Figure 1)


  • The past 10 years have witnessed great progress in methods of both monsoon forecasting and climate impact assessment. 
  • In addition, several basic shifts have occurred in our approach to the analysis of the inter-relationships between climate and food production systems. 
  • First, while in the past, the focus was on the impact of climate on human activity, the current concern is more on the impact of human activity on climate. 
  • Second, while studies on the possible impact of a cooling trend in the world's climate on crops like maize and soybeans attracted interest in the seventies (Thompson, 1975), the interest now is more on interactions among C02 concentration in (the atmosphere, temperature, precipitation and biological productivity. The feed-back linkages among climate change, crop yields and spatial shifts of crop potential are being investigated in several countries and in several major crops (Parry, Carter and Konijn, 1989). There have been apprehensions about a possible increase in the warming of the El-Niiio current, thought to be a major contributory factor to droughts in Brazil, India, Australia and the Sahelian region of Africa during 1982-1983, in case of a rise in world temperature.
  • Third, with an increase in human population, precipitation patterns are assuming great significance not only for the stability of crop production but also for drinking water security for human and animal populations. 
  • In spite of a growing awareness of the need to stabilise the human population, a global annual population growth of 1.6 to 1. 7% is still occurring. This would lead to a net increase of 90 million more people to feed each year. 
  • The course of fertility decline during the current decade will largely determine whether the world's ultimate population reaches 10 billion, 15 billion, or some other plateau. 
  • Demographically the industrialised and developing countries will differ not only in the absolute size of the population but also in the age composition. For example, in India, about 70% of the population will be below the age of 35 in the year 2000, while in the United States a similar percentage will be above the age of 50. 
  • In many developing countries, over 60% of the population will be rural, depending on their livelihood security on crop husbandry, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, and agro-industries. 
  • While at present about 75% of the world's population lives in developing countries, the proportion will increase to 79% in 2000, to 81 % in 2010 and to 83% in 2025, according to UN data. 
  • FAO (1989) predicts that although agricultural production will continue to increase in most developing countries, there will be little improvement on a per capita basis.
  • About half a billion people are believed to be at nutritional risk because they have limited access to a balanced diet. 
  • FAO (1989) estimates that the number of people with consumption levels below the critical threshold value is likely to increase from the present 510 million to 630 million in 2000. 
  • A recent report from the World Bank defined poverty as the inability to attain a minimum standard of living (World Bank, 1990).
  •  By this standard, it has been estimated that 1.1 billion people are struggling to survive on less than $370/year. 
  • About three-quarters of these poor, about 800 million people, live in Asia, primarily in Bangladesh, China and India. 
  • The largest absolute number of people affected by a potentially critical shortage of land is also in Southeast Asia. It is in this context that the further complication likely to arise in relation to national and global food security systems will have to be viewed.

Finally, an important development between 1979 and 1990 is the addition of the dimensions of ecological sustainability and equity to the goal of enhancing productivity and profitability in research and development programmes designed to improve the major farming system.

  • Equity is now defined in two-time dimensions: 
  1. intra-generational equity safeguarding the interests of those living today, and 
  2. inter-generational equity safeguarding the interests of the generations yet to be born. 
  • Agricultural scientists are thus now faced with the task of combining ecological sustainability, economic viability and intra and inter-generational equity in technology development and dissemination.

2. Nature of Food Security Challenge

  • During the seventies, the major food security challenge was quantitative adequacy or physical access to food supplies.
  • During the eighties also, physical access continued to be an important problem in some years and in some regions. For example, the 1988 harvest worldwide was about 5 % less than the 1985 harvest. 
  • The Sahelian food famine of the mid-eighties also underlined the precarious food situation in many African countries where per capita food production was declining steadily (Table 1).
  • On the other hand, the spread of modem technology, particularly irrigation, fertilizer and high-yielding seeds of cereals helped the densely populated countries of South and South-East Asia to keep growth rates in food production above that of the population. 
  • In such countries, the food security challenge became one of economic access 10 food or one of lack of entitlements, to use the terminology "I Amartya Sen (1981). Sen (1987) has also emphasized that public distribution system geared to the needs of the vulnerable sections of the community can bring the essentials of livelihood within easy reach of people whose lives may remain otherwise relatively untouched by the progress of real national income (Table 2 and 3).
Source: Based on United Nations Children's Fund, State of the World's Children 1989

Swaminathan (1987) has stressed that while dealing with food systems the following three evolutionary steps should be recognized.

a) Food Self-sufficiency which implies adequate supplies in the market

b) Food Security which involves both physical and economic access to food, and

c) Nutrition Security which implies physical and economic access to balanced diets and safe drinking water for all people at all times.

  • Many developing countries including India which have experienced a "green revolution" are still in the first stage of this evolutionary process.
  • Kates et al (1989) have calculated that the biosphere at current production levels could support about 6 billion people, if the diet of all human beings were vegetarian. 
  • If 15% of calories were derived from animal products, planet earth could support about 4 billion people. If 25% of calories are derived from animal products, the total population which could be supported would fall to 3 billion. 
  • Fish production is the most efficient from the point of view of the conversion of plant calories into animal protein.
  • In this context, F AO's (1989) report that the world fish catch levelled off in 1987, after ten years of steady growth is a matter for concern. 
  • The world harvest of fish in 1987 was 92.7 million tons, as compared to 092.4 million tons in 1986. 
  • El Nino warm currents in the Southeastern Pacific substantially reduced catches of some pelagic species in South America. 
  • In contrast to this trend, consumer demand for fish is likely to increase by 28.4 million tons by the year 2000. Therefore, an integrated approach to coastal and inland aquaculture and capture fisheries will be important.

The blog on Agriculture and Food Systems (Part 1) by M S Swaminathan pertains to UPSC papers GS 2 hunger and malnutrition, GS 3 Agriculture and Food security. Don’t forget to subscribe so that you never miss out on such important and interesting topics. Check out our previous blogs on various topics here.


Blog Post written by:
Anurag Trivedi
UPSC Mentor