Climate change

What are food security and sustainable food production, and how are they linked? 

Food security and sustainable food production are both terms that are used by various organizations. What these terms mean depends on your perspective. From our scientific perspective, we look at both of these topics from the food growing and processing aspects. Our members work diligently to make sure that our seed supply is safe, that growers use the best practices, and the earth is preserved.

It has been suggested by many that secure and sustainable food production systems are crucial to maintaining geopolitical stability1 around the globe into the foreseeable future.

hand holding wheat kernels
Wheat it is a very important source of vegetable protein for humans worldwide and one of the most consumed crops in the world. Credit: Rafael Maeoka

Food security and sustainable food production are closely linked. Society must strike a balance between securing adequate nourishment for a growing world population while simultaneously sustaining or even enhancing the soils upon which food production relies.

Sub-Saharan African farmers and urban gardeners in New York City can both apply concepts that agronomists and crop scientists research. In fact, an urban gardener in the United States has a lot of agronomic overlap with a “kitchen gardener” in remote areas of Zambia or Cambodia. All of them rely on the same natural resources to grow their food: water, air, soil and sunlight. Many techniques applied by large-scale growers also apply to these smaller food growers. For example, what can be learned from research on tilling practices? Can we take knowledge about fertilization, seed selection and drought tolerance and improve yields for all gardeners? We believe what we will share in our Sustainable, Secure Food blog will be practical information for all food growers.

What are some of the key concepts of food security2?

  • Consistency
  • Affordability
  • Safety
  • Adequacy of nutrition and calories

Consistency is key. Nutritional deficiencies at critical life stages can have life-long negative impacts. Hunger occurs in every country in the world, and yet the global population continues to grow. Leaders predict global food production must increase by at least 70 percent by the year 2050 to support current population growth trends. There is an urgent need to develop secure and sustainable food production systems going forward.

Irrigation equipment
Irrigation on large fields is necessary to maintain crop yields to feed the world. Credit: Dinesh Panday

Sustainable food production addresses practices used in the entire food system. What are the basic “inputs” – such as the seed, fertilizers and water. How is the food processed, and transported before consumption? The entire food system should be designed to minimize negative environmental impacts and demand on natural resources.

Sustainable food production is not an “either or” proposition. It should be viewed as a continuum ranging from “not sustainable” on one end to “more sustainable” on the other. It is easy to identify situations that are clearly not sustainable. Anything that renders the soil unable to support plant growth is unsustainable. On the other hand, it is more difficult to declare other situations as absolutely sustainable. To do so would imply that we know that the food production practices could operate indefinitely without ever running out of resources. We simply do not know for sure that this is true.

green, yellow and purple bell peppers
Whether you grow your own or buy your peppers in a store, all peppers start out by seed. Add soil, sunshine and water, and in a few months, you can enjoy! Credit: Morguefile

Consider the complete system that it takes to grow and deliver a bell pepper to your local grocery store. Sustainability would address many issues including the health of the soil supporting the growth of the peppers; the inputs used to produce the peppers (fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation water, etc.); the amount of water used to process the peppers; and the energy used for processing, storage, and transportation. Clearly there are many opportunities to consider sustainability in getting that bell pepper to your store, and many metrics have been developed to try and quantify these concepts. These may be topics of future blog posts here. Generally, you can think of things like the amount of soil eroded or fertilizer used per pepper produced, or the total amount of energy required to get that pepper to you. In each case, of course, we want that answer to be as small as possible. This would be a form of life-cycle analysis for pepper production.

Inherent in sustainable food production is the concept of trade-offs. Trade-offs occur when changes in one area are offset by perhaps negative changes somewhere else in the system. For example, using less fertilizer improves some sustainability measures but also may reduce yields. This would then require more land to be used to produce the same amount of food. Since the most suitable land is already under cultivation around the globe, this leaves few desirable options for expanding the area for growing food, except for use of marginal/erodible lands or virgin rainforest regions in the tropics. Hence, the net effect of the trade-offs must be considered before one can determine if a change has had a positive effect on food security and sustainability.

The bottom line with sustainability and food security is this: we must grow our food in the most sustainable way to ensure our future food supply. Making sure that people have food in times of drought or flood means breeding crops that are resilient to climate change. Growing more food in the space we have means finding the right mix of fertilizer, water and seed choice. In this way, food security and sustainability are important pillars in the agronomic and crop science community.

Many of the topics addressed in this blog may represent smaller components of our food growing system. The urban gardener in New York City will learn about some of the challenges they face directly in growing their own bell peppers. In doing so, they will gain a greater appreciation for how growing their own produce fits in with the bigger picture of food security and sustainability. It is our hope to expand readers’ thought-horizons regarding the entire food system from both a technical and a philosophical perspective. We hope you check back with us on a regular basis.

Gary Pierzynski, K-State, and John Shanahan, Fortigen

  2. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply, while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities and private businesses across the United States and the world.

5 replies »

  1. Great start and thanks to an old friend. I have a question or three… how many are we? Is there moderator and polite behavior requirement? You should also consider LinkedIn as a professional social media connection? More to come….

    MidNight Mapper
    aka neil

    • Hi Neil, thanks for being one of our first readers! We do moderate comments; our sister blog, Soils Matter, often gets “spam” comments – ads, etc. that are not appropriate for our sites. We totally believe in the “it’s OK to disagree, but not disrespect” policy on social media. Some of our scientists are posting to their LinkedIn sites, yes. Our main goal is to reach the public, so we are using Facebook and Twitter, but feel free to share the links on your LinkedIn, too! SF

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