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35. Nature Food Paper: “Distance” between Food Supply and Demand Local Food System vs. International Trade

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On May 9, 2020, The Economist published an article discussing the impact of the novel coronavirus infection (COVID-19) on the global food system. While farms are, by their nature, local, much of the rest of the food industry is global and today more than four-fifths of the world's population of about 8 billion (7.8 billion in 2020) is more or less dependent on imported food. The seeds, fertilizers, agricultural machinery and fuels that farmers depend on are also procured from afar by a huge network of trading companies. In the world where import dependence is increasing, the COVID-19 shock may reignite the food crisis, but at the same time, there is a view that the increase in  the number of participants in trade is contributing to the stabilization of the system. Compared to the global food crisis of 2007-2008, there is about twice as much grain stock as at that time, transportation costs have been greatly reduced, and international food trade seems to be more resilient to fluctuations in supply and demand.

Globalization has been accompanied by major changes in the food system. The expansion of food trade has enabled countries around the world to make good use of imports, overcome their own production constraints, and achieve efficient resource allocation (a comparative advantage discussion). While international trade diversified sources of nutritious food, it also sacrificed the diversity of local food production systems, increased vulnerability to market crises, and decoupled production from consumption. The negative impacts of the globalization of food trade are often discussed in terms of food sovereignty protecting local small-scale agriculture and markets. While the fact that agriculture itself is a greenhouse gas emission source is set aside,  there is even debate that the development of local value chains contributes to the reduction of emissions from transportation.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to discuss the localization of the food system in an effort to bring food supply and demand closer together. However, in the global food system, there is very limited information about the minimum distance that food can be sourced. A paper published in Nature Food in April 2020 (Local food crop production can fulfill demand for less than one-third of the population) presented six crop groups (temperate cereals - wheat, barley, rye, rice, maize; tropical grains - millet sorghum; tropical rhizome crops – cassava; legumes), and estimated the potential minimum distance between food production and consumption. Using the optimization model, the authors assume a hypothetical food distribution system that minimizes the distance between crop-specific food production areas and consumption, and use four scenarios (baseline, yield gap halving, food loss halving, yield gap and food loss halving). 

Due to the scenario of halving the yield gap and food loss (mainly due to the yield gap effect-improvement in yield), the supply and demand distance will change significantly in South America and East / Northwest Africa. Regarding rice, Sub-Saharan Africa can achieve a significant reduction in supply-demand distance. The relatively small impact on maize is that the supply-demand distance is relatively small at baseline compared to other crops. Reducing the yield gap and reducing food loss are important for expanding local production in Africa and Asia, but a global supply chain is still needed for a sufficient and stable food supply.

The authors concluded that this research was not a policy recommendation, but aimed to show the whole picture that will be the basis of future discussions, but naturally there are limitations, and states that: For example, six crops alone do not reflect the dietary conditions of each country (70% of Afghanistan and Lesotho Bangladesh diets, but less than 20% in Belgium and Iceland). It is also necessary to consider the importance of livestock products and feed in the diet and trade. Food, food production, and the food system should be considered not only as a heat source for humans, but also as a complex combination of utility, culture, tradition, socioeconomics, and life. While international trade is not a panacea of ​​food security and resource management, the debate over local food tends to fall into the idealistic theory of being a sustainable best bet than the global food supply system. While this study is not perfect, consideration of the minimum distance between food supply and demand contributes to the debate over local food systems versus international trade.


The Economist. Keeping things cornucopious. The world’s food system has so far weathered the challenge of covid-19. Briefing May 9th 2020 edition https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/05/09/the-worlds-food-system-has-so-far-weathered-the-challenge-of-covid-19

Kinnunen P, Guillaume JHA, Taka M et al. Local food crop production can fulfil demand for less than one-third of the population. Nat Food 1: 229–237 (2020). 


Contributor: IIYAMA Miyuki (Research Strategy Office)

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