In Egypt, bread is so much a staple that its Arabic name aish also means ‘life’. Before the uprising of 2011, bread prices soared. Why? Because the nation imports most of its wheat, and that year wheat exporters suffered widespread crop failures. It acts as a powerful example of how food dependency can affect a country.
Egypt is not alone. Many countries look abroad to compensate for low food production at home. Research by the University of Aalto in Finland has found that 1.4 billion people have become dependent on food imports, while an additional 460 million live in regions where increased imports do not make up for a lack of local production, overwhelmingly in developing countries.
Dr Joseph Guillaume, postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the study, says:
‘It seems obvious to look elsewhere when local production is not sufficient, and our analysis clearly shows that is what happens. Perhaps it’s the right choice, but it should not be taken for granted.’
The research found that water is the key limiting resource. However, even in less wealthy countries, money that could be spent on increasing production and improving irrigation is often spent on imports. In other words, countries spend money on foreign food before exploring other options.
In any case, the populations of many regions, such as Nepal and Ethiopia, have exceeded the amount of food they could produce. For that reason, other measures must be taken to maintain food security. ‘It would also be important to reduce food waste and meat consumption,’ says Miina Porkka, researcher of water and food security and co-author of the study. ‘Since one quarter of all the food produced in the world is wasted, reducing this would be really significant on a global level.’
This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.