Skip main navigation

Food systems and climate change

Watch Dr Simon Mortimer discuss the relationship between food security and climate change, by examining population growth, use of land and production.
Can the world’s farmers meet the growing demand for food production, in a world where the climate of the future is uncertain? That’s the question we’re going to be looking at in this session. My name is Simon Mortimer, from the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading. And we’re here today at the University’s Sonning Farm. The demand for food, driven by an increasing population, will put pressure on natural resources, not only because of the increase in population but also because of the increases in per capita consumption. In addition to this, we need to consider environmental threats– not just climate change, but also issues relating to soil degradation, water quality, and the loss of biodiversity.
Of all of man’s activities, agriculture is one of the most demanding on land. Land’s in short supply. They’re not making any more of it. And the quality and nature of the land itself affects the pattern of farming that we see. Across the world, the distribution of farming types is influenced by soil, in spite of man’s increasing ability to alter the characteristics of soils. But what about the future? Projections of global population suggest that we may need to increase our food production by 70% by the year 2050. The increase in food production is not just related to the increase in population but also the increase in per capita consumption.
However, this faces a great challenge, in terms of supplying the necessary resources– soils, water, land– necessary to increase productivity, in order to provide food security over this period. Food security exists when a population has access to safe and sufficient quantities of food for a healthy life to be maintained. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation recognises four dimensions to food security. The first is the availability of food, linked to supply and production. Secondly, the accessibility of food, recognising that even though sufficient quantities may be produced it needs to be accessible at the level of individuals and households. Thirdly, the food available needs to have a diversity of nutrients sufficient to support human growth.
And finally, all of these dimensions need to have stability through time. It’s a measure of the success of agriculture that over the past five decades we’ve been able to take food security for granted, at least in Western countries. However, in recent years we’ve become increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of the global food-supply system. A series of poor harvests, combined with increases in demand for food, led to price spikes in 2007 and 2008 that saw a doubling of the price of cereals. Was it the result of climate change? Well, there are plenty of examples from history where climate has had an impact on food production, the most notable being the Great Famine.
Back in the early 1300s, a period of seven years of poor droughts led to famine and the loss of 10% of Europe’s population through hunger and starvation. Even if sufficient food supplies are available somewhere in the world, there’s no guarantee that they will be available within a particular country. This is often a matter of logistics, that transporting food across large distances, particularly fresh produce, is a difficult operation. And supply lines can be disrupted by factors beyond a country’s control. There’s also a question of food choice. Increasing wealth and changing patterns of consumption are leading to increases not just in per capita food consumption but also the types of food that people want to eat.
So the question is not just, can we produce enough food, but can we produce the food that people expect in their diets? As incomes grow, people’s diet moves away from staples such as maise, rice, wheat, vegetable oils, and legumes towards products such as meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products. And these higher-income diet items require not only more land for livestock production but also land for producing the feedstuffs that the livestock will consume.
In conclusion, with the world’s population growing rapidly, expected to reach 9 billion within the next 40 years, and with much of the potential agricultural land in the world already under cultivation, can we produce enough food, and food of the right type, to meet the demands of the population?

In this video, Dr Simon Mortimer explains how climate change can influence food systems and how food security can be ensured.

After watching this video, do you think we can produce enough food to meet the demands of a growing population? Share your thoughts in the comment area below. Remember you can ‘like’ or reply to comments made by your fellow learners.

References and further reading:

This article is from the free online

The Future of Farming: Exploring Climate Smart Agriculture

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education