Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-cfpbc Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-20T08:47:31.645Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

5 - Food production: a mega water challenge

from Part III - Food production globally: in hotspot regions and in the landscape

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2014

Johan Rockström
Stockholm Resilience Centre
Malin Falkenmark
Stockholm Resilience Centre
Carl Folke
Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics, Stockholm
Mats Lannerstad
Stockholm Environment Institute
Jennie Barron
Stockholm Environment Institute
Elin Enfors
Stockholm Resilience Centre
Line Gordon
Stockholm Resilience Centre
Jens Heinke
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and International Livestock Research Institute
Holger Hoff
Stockholm Environment Institute
Claudia Pahl-Wostl
Universität Osnabrück
Get access


This chapter analyses the pressure on the Earth System caused by escalating agricultural production from the perspective of efforts to feed a growing human population. The focus is on the situation by 2050. Particular attention is paid to improvements in water productivity and efforts to close the currently large yield gap in the developing world. Presented estimates reveal what can be achieved on what is currently cropland. What emerges is a carrying capacity overshoot for more than half the world’s population, which must be compensated for through virtual water transfers in food traded from water surplus countries. The chapter analyses the ability of the agricultural system and its support systems to cope with shocks and change in the Anthropocene era, and the adaptability and social–ecological resilience required to deal with a more turbulent world.

Food demand trajectories and water preconditions

Hunger alleviation and population increase: two strong driving forces at work

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, increasing food production to meet the needs of a growing world population was essentially a case of continuing the expansion of the area of cultivated land. As far back as the nineteenth century there was a growing pessimism about the possibility of feeding a constantly growing population, which was put into words by Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). During the twentieth century the global population increased by more than 350%, from 1.65 billion to more than 6 billion (UNDP, 2004).

After World War II, rapid population increases were not matched by an equal increase in food production in many of the newly independent developing countries. As a result, by the mid-1960s many of these states were dependent on massive food aid from the industrialised world. In 1967, a report by the US President’s Science Advisory Committee stated that ‘the scale, severity and duration of the world food problem are so great that a massive, long-range, innovative effort unprecedented in human history will be required to master it’ (IFPRI, 2002).

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Alexandratos, N. (2009). World Food and Agriculture to 2030/50: Highlights and Views from Mid-2009. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
Allen, R. G., Pereira, L. S., Raes, D. and Smith, M. (1998). Crop evapotranspiration, guidelines for computing crop water requirements. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 56. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
Anseeuw, W., Boche, M., Breu, T. et al. (2012). Transnational land deals for agriculture in the global south: analytical report based on the land matrix database. The Land Matrix Partnership. Available at: .
Barrett, C. B. (2010). Measuring food insecurity. Science, 327, 825–828.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bruinsma, J. (2009). The Resource Outlook to 2050: By How Much do Land, Water and Crop Yields Need to Increase by 2050?Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
Carpenter, S. R., Arrow, K. J., Barrett, S. et al. (2012). General resilience to cope with extreme events. Sustainability, 4, 3248–3259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chapagain, A. K. and Hoekstra, A. Y. (2003). Virtual water flows between nations in relation to trade in livestock and livestock products. Report No. 13: UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.
Cifdaloz, O., Regmi, A., Anderies, J. M. and Rodriguez, A. A. (2010). Robustness, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity in small-scale social–ecological systems: the Pumpa Irrigation System in Nepal. Ecology and Society, 15, 39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
de Haan, C., Gerber, P. and Opio, C. (2010). Structural change in the livestock sector. In Livestock in a Changing Landscape. Volume 1. Drivers, Consequences and Responses., ed. Steinfeld, H., Mooney, H., Schneider, F. and Neville, L. E.London: Island Press, pp. 35–50.Google Scholar
Elmqvist, T., Folke, C., Nyström, M. et al. (2003). Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1, 488–494.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fader, M., Rost, S., Müller, C., Bondeau, A. and Gerten, D. (2010). Virtual water content of temperate cereals and maize: present and potential future patterns. Journal of Hydrology, 384, 218–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Falkenmark, M. and Lannerstad, M. (2005). Consumptive water use to feed humanity: curing a blind spot. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 9, 15–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Falkenmark, M. and Rockström, J. (2004). Balancing Water for Humans and Nature: The New Approach in Ecohydrology. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
Foley, J. A., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K. A. et al. (2011). Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature, 478, 337–342.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Folke, C. and Rockström, J. (2009). Turbulent times. Global Environmental Change, 19, 1–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Food and Agriculture Organization (2009). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009: Economic Crises – Impacts and Lessons Learned. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
Food and Agriculture Organization (2011). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011: How does International Price Volatility Affect Domestic Economies and Food Security?Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
Food and Agriculture Organization (2012). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012: Economic Growth is Necessary but not Sufficient to Accelerate Reduction of Hunger and Malnutrition. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).Google Scholar
Food and Agriculture Organization (2013a). FAO: Food security indicators. Rome: Committee on World Food Security (Cfs) Round Table on Hunger Measurement. Available at: .
Food and Agriculture Organization (2013b). FAOSTAT online database. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization. Available at: (accessed multiple dates).
Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Hoff, H. et al. (2011). Global water availability and requirements for future food production. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 12, 885–899.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Global Health Observatory (2013). Overweight and Obesity. Global Health Observatory, Geneva. Available at: .Google Scholar
Godfray, H. C. J., Beddington, J. R., Crute, I. R. et al. (2010). Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science, 327, 812–818.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R. and Meybeck, A. (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
Hansen, J., Sato, M. and Ruedy, R. (2012). Perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 14726–14727.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hazell, P. B. and Hess, U. (2010). Drought insurance for agricultural development and food security in dryland areas. Food Security, 2, 395–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Heinke, J., Lannerstad, M., Hoff, H. et al. (forthcoming). Livestock and water: a blue, green and green continuum. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, submitted.
Herrero, M., Thornton, P. K., Gerber, P. and Reid, R. S. (2009). Livestock, livelihoods and the environment: understanding the trade-offs. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 1, 111–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
International Food Policy Research Institute. (2002). Green revolution: curse or blessing? International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC. Available at: .
Kabat, P., van Schaik, H., Appleton, B. and Veraart, J. (2003). Climate changes the water rules: How water managers can cope with today’s climate variability and tomorrow’s climate change. Dialogue on Water and Climate, Wageningen, the Netherlands. Available at: .
Keller, A. and Seckler, D. (2004). Transpiration: constraints on increasing the productivity of water in crop production. Winrock Water. Paper for Winrock Water Forum, Winrock International, Arlington, VA.
Kremen, C. and Miles, A. (2012). Ecosystem services in biologically diversified versus conventional farming systems: benefits, externalities, and trade-offs. Ecology and Society, 17, 40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lannerstad, M. (2009). Water realities and development trajectories: global and local agricultural production dynamics. PhD thesis, Linköping University, Sweden.
Lehner, B. and Döll, P. (2004). Development and validation of a global database of lakes, reservoirs and wetlands. Journal of Hydrology, 296, 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
Mitchell, T. D. and Jones, P. D. (2005). An improved method of constructing a database of monthly climate observations and associated high-resolution grids. International Journal of Climatology, 25, 693–712.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Molden, D. (2007). Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
Molden, D., Oweis, T., Steduto, P. et al. (2010). Improving agricultural water productivity: between optimism and caution. Agricultural Water Management, 97, 528–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Peden, D., Tadesse, G. and Mammo, M. (2003). Improving the water productivity of livestock: an opportunity for poverty reduction. Paper for the workshop ‘Integrated water and land management research and capacity building priorities for Ethiopia’. International Livestock Research Institute, Addis Adaba.
Pimentel, D., Houser, J., Preiss, E. et al. (1997). Water resources: agriculture, the environment, and society. Bioscience, 47, 97–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Popkin, B. M., Horton, S. and Soowon, K. (2001). The nutrition transition and prevention of diet-related diseases in Asia and the Pacific. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 22, no. 4 (supplement). United Nations University Press, Tokyo.
Portmann, F. T., Siebert, S. and Döll, P. (2010). MIRCA2000-Global monthly irrigated and rainfed crop areas around the year 2000: a new high-resolution data set for agricultural and hydrological modeling. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 24, Gb1011.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Renault, D. (2003). Value of virtual water in food: principles and virtues. In Virtual Water Trade: Proceedings of the International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, ed. Hoekstra, A. Y.Delft: IHE Delft, pp. 77–91.Google Scholar
Rijsberman, F. R. (2006). Water scarcity: fact or fiction?Agricultural Water Management, 80, 5–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Robinson, T. P., Thornton, P. K., Franceschini, G. et al. (2011). Global Livestock Production Systems. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).Google Scholar
Rockström, J. (2003). Water for food and nature in drought-prone tropics: vapour shift in rain-fed agriculture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences, 358, 1997–2009.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Rockström, J., Axberg, G. A., Falkenmark, M. et al. (2005). Sustainable Pathways to Attain the Millennium Development Goals: Assessing the Role of Water, Energy and Sanitation. Stockholm: Stockholm Environment Institute.Google Scholar
Rockström, J., Falkenmark, M., Karlberg, L. et al. (2009). Future water availability for global food production: the potential of green water for increasing resilience to global change. Water Resources Research, 45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rockström, J., Gordon, L., Folke, C., Falkenmark, M. and Engwall, M. (1999). Linkages among water vapor flows, food production, and terrestrial ecosystem services. Conservation Ecology, 3, 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rockström, J., Hatibu, N., Oweis, T. Y. et al. (2007a). Managing water in rainfed agriculture. In Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, ed. Molden, D.London: Earthscan, pp. 315–351.Google Scholar
Rockström, J., Lannerstad, M. and Falkenmark, M. (2007b). Assessing the water challenge of a new Green Revolution in developing countries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 6253–6260.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Rohwer, J., Gerten, D. and Lucht, W. (2007). Development of functional types of irrigation for improved global crop modelling. PIK Report No. 104: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany. Available at: .
Rosegrant, M. W., Leach, N. and Gerpacio, R. V. (1999). Alternative futures for world cereal and meat consumption. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 58, 219–234.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Rost, S., Gerten, D., Bondeau, A. et al. (2008). Agricultural green and blue water consumption and its influence on the global water system. Water Resources Research, 44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Smil, V. (2000). Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T. et al. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: FAO.Google Scholar
Taiz, L. and Zeiger, E. (2010). Plant Physiology, 5th edn. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
Tanner, C. B. and Sinclair, T. R. (1983). Efficient water use in crop production: research or re-search? In Limitations in Efficient Water Use in Crop Production, ed. Taylor, H. M., Jordan, W. A. and Sinclair, T. R.Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, p. 538.Google Scholar
Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J. and Befort, B. L. (2011). Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 20260–20264.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2010). World Urbanization Prospects. The 2009 Revision. New York: United Nations Population Division. Available at: .Google Scholar
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2011). World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision. New York: United Nations Department of Social Affairs. Available at: (accessed 21 November 2012).Google Scholar
United Nations Population Division (UNDP) (2004). World Population to 2300. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Available at: .Google Scholar
van Breugel, P., Herrero, M., van de Steeg, J. and Peden, D. (2010). Livestock water use and productivity in the Nile basin. Ecosystems, 13, 205–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
von Braun, J. and Meinzen-Dick, R. S. (2009). ‘Land Grabbing’ by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities. Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.Google Scholar
Walker, B., Barrett, S., Polasky, S. et al. (2009). Looming global-scale failures and missing institutions. Science, 325, 1345–1346.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
World Bank. (2009). Minding the stock: bringing public policy to bear on livestock sector development. Report no. 44010-GLB. World Bank, Washington DC.
World Bank. (2011). Country and lending groups. World Bank, Washington DC. Available at: .
World Health Organization. (2011). Global status report on noncommunicable diseases 2010. World Health Organization, Geneva.
World Resources Institute. (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Wetland and Water Synthesis. Washington DC: World Resources Institute.Google Scholar
Zwart, S. J. and Bastiaanssen, W. G. M. (2004). Review of measured crop water productivity values for irrigated wheat, rice, cotton and maize. Agricultural Water Management, 69, 115–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats