Local food crop production can fulfil demand for less than one-third of the population

Abstract

The distance between the origin and end-point of food supply chains, and the ‘localness’ of food systems, are key considerations of many narratives associated with sustainability. Yet, information on the minimum distance to food crops is still scarce at the global level. Using an optimization model based on ‘foodsheds’ (that is, self-sufficient areas with internal dependencies), we calculate the potential minimum distance between food production and consumption for six crop types around the world. We show that only 11–28% of the global population can fulfil their demand for specific crops within a 100-km radius, with substantial variation between different regions and crops. For 26–64% of the population, that distance is greater than 1,000 km. Even if transnational foodsheds were in place, large parts of the globe would still depend on trade to feed themselves. Although yield gap closure and food loss reductions could favour more local food systems, particularly in Africa and Asia, global supply chains would still be needed to ensure an adequate and stable food supply.

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Fig. 1: Food supply and demand for the baseline scenario.
Fig. 2: Optimized simulated distance from food production to consumption.
Fig. 3: Cumulative population distributions for six crops and the crop mix weighted mean.
Fig. 4: Foodsheds for temperate cereals, rice and maize.
Fig. 5: The impact of friction surfaces on optimized food flows.
Fig. 6: Comparison of modelled and reported net food flows.

Data availability

Key outcome data is available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3725646.

Code availability

All scripts for the optimization and calculations of the minimum achievable distance are available from the corresponding authors.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank their colleagues from the Water and Development research group for their comments and support. P.K. and M.T. received funding from Maa- ja vesitekniikan tuki ry. through its Majakka project. M.J.P. was supported in whole or in part by the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under award no. W911NF1810267 (Multi-University Research Initiative). The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies either expressed or implied of the Army Research Office or the US Government. M.J. received funding from Maa- ja vesitekniikan tuki ry. M.K. received financial support from the Academy of Finland project WASCO (grant no. 305471), the Academy of Finland SRC project ‘Winland’, the Emil Aaltonen foundation project ‘eat-less-water’ and the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 819202). J.H.A.G. received support from WASCO and ‘eat-less-water’. P.D. was funded by the USDA Hatch Multistate project no. W4190 capacity fund.

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M.K., P.K. and J.H.A.G. conceptualized the study. P.K. and J.H.A.G coded the numerical analyses. P.K., J.H.A.G., M.T. and M.K. analysed the data and made the visualizations in consultation with P.D., S.S., M.J.P. and M.J. P.K. drafted the manuscript. P.K., J.H.A.G., M.T., P.D., S.S., M.J.P. and M.K. wrote and edited the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Pekka Kinnunen or Matti Kummu.

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Supplementary Note 1, mathematical notation and Figs. 1–12.

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Kinnunen, P., Guillaume, J.H.A., 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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-0060-7

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