Food security and water stress, the issues for 2018

The annual report on agricultural outlooks, published on 17 June by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), gives a nuanced assessment of the situation in the world food supply. For one reason, the agricultural sector has shown more resilience to the global economic downturn than other sectors. However, the risks weighing on global food security, particularly in terms of water stress, may increase over the next ten years.

As the report points out, "The persistent weakness of the global economy will curb price rises in agricultural commodities over the next two or three years, then they should recover as a result of the economic upswing." As a result, according to Merritt Cluff, an economist with the FAO who took part in drafting the report, "we expect lower prices than last year."

Nevertheless, according to the OECD and the FAO, world agricultural prices will increase again over the next ten years without reaching the peaks of the food crisis in 2006-2008. This means that over the same period, the price of crops such as grain or even sugar will increase by 10 to 20% net of inflation compared with the average for 1997-2006, while meat prices are expected to stabilise. However, episodes of extreme price volatility cannot be ruled out.

According to the forecasts established by the FAO and OECD, agricultural production will depend in part on the availability of water. The report notes that agriculture already uses over 40% of the water consumed in the OECD countries, and that consumption is constantly increasing. Irrigation alone accounts for 99% of the volume of water used by agriculture. In 2004, a report by the FAO already underlined the direct link between the development in irrigation capacity and food security. In 2009, the report by the OECD and the FAO warns against the risks of water stress related to climate change (flooding, drought, etc.).

Faced with the challenge of global food security, the OECD and the FAO note that a potential increase in food production of some 40% over the next ten or twenty years is possible. However, to take advantage of that potential requires the development and adaptation of new technologies. According to the report, the effectiveness of international aid has to be increased. Governments should also provide greater support for the development of their domestic agricultural sector in order to reduce certain risks, particularly those affecting water resources, for example by investing in infrastructures, or by providing incentives for the sustainable use of land and water. Both organisations stress the urgency of ensuring food security, in a year when nearly one billion people are liable to go hungry.

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