Photograph by Spencer Millsap
Photograph by Spencer Millsap

Is Your Country Food Independent?

In a hyper-connected world, our food also brings us together more than it used to.  Food production has morphed over time from a local agrarian system to a global corporate one replete with imports, exports, and shipments big enough to cross oceans and continents every day.

Here in the U.K., a collection of islands, that’s been great news. The country, like many others, once produced all of its food domestically. But as tastes evolved and shipping became cheaper, more food started to come from abroad. Now people from England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland import 38 percent of all food they eat.

That number isn’t exorbitant (at least not compared to Hawaii, which imports 92 percent), although it does get at the question of food self-sufficiency and whether being food independent is a goal worth pursuing. The underpinning of local food thinking is to grow food in one’s backyard or on the roof not just to reduce the distance food needs to be shipped, but also to eliminate the reliance on large-scale manufacturers, transport companies, and the cost of fuel.

Determining food independence is complex. A country like the U.K. could grow strawberries domestically, but buys them mostly from Spain because they’re cheaper. That doesn’t mean the U.K. is reliant, just financially prudent. But for a country like Saudi Arabia, there’s less of a choice. The kingdom flush with oil but still in the middle of the desert imports 80 percent of its food—a number that rises every year. So self sufficiency comes down to whether a country could feed its people with its own production, not whether it actually is.

By that measure, which is the one used by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, very few countries qualify. The only country in Europe that’s self-sufficient is France. Other countries in the exclusive club of self sufficiency: Canada, Australia, Russia, India, Argentina, Burma, Thailand, the U.S. and a few small others. You can see how your country compares on this map.

The trend lines aren’t promising. About 16 percent of the world’s population depends on food produced elsewhere. By 2050, that number will jump to 50 percent. With the exhaustion of farmland and the ways that climate will impact arable land, half of the world’s population could rely on food imports.

That’s sobering. But it doesn’t account for a few variables that could make the situation easier. And they’re both in human control.

One is farm productivity. By innovating growing techniques, either with better seeds, more effective pesticides, or more efficient ways to irrigate without losing as much water, farmers can increase their yields. They can even grow in places that have traditionally been environmentally off limits to agriculture.

The other factor will be the change in human tastes. Today’s calculations are done based on the foods people eat now. Next year, in five years, in 10 years, new foods will rise and fall based on fads, trends, and what’s accessible near where people live. By then, it’s hard to know what we’ll all prefer to eat. Except that tomorrow’s foodies will hardly be satiated by those horribly passé items from today’s menus.