background image

Depopulation, defertilisation, deglobalization, and domination: the end of food security?

author image

By Wim Naudé

· 7 min read

A third of the world's population lacks adequate access to food. The latest Global Food Security Index warns that "the global food environment is deteriorating […] amid skyrocketing food prices and hunger on an unprecedented scale."

Climate change will likely cause further deterioration of the global food environment, resulting in "the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible." Food security may, however, be disrupted long before Pleistocene-like climate conditions are reached due to the polycrisis. The polycrisis is marked by "strong feedback loops where the outcome from one crisis or shock impacts and bolsters others, leaving almost no space for recovery before the next one hits."

The effects of climate change will be bolstered by four interrelated headwinds to food production, stemming from depopulation, defertilization, deglobalization, and the consequences of the domination of food and agricultural markets by a few increasingly financialized firms.


Traditionally, population growth has been associated with food insecurity. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, predicting mass starvation. Ehrlich was wrong because he ignored that population growth stimulates technological innovation in food production – as Ester Boserup pointed out in 1965 in her magnum opus, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth.

One of the most critical technologies for food production has been synthetic nitrogen, a potent fertilizer invented by Haber and Bosch. It has been claimed that "almost half the world's population would not be alive today" without synthetic nitrogen. Research in Nature Geoscience estimates that "by 2000, nitrogen fertilizers were responsible for feeding 44% of the world's population." As a consequence, while in the 1960s, around 50 people per 100,000 died per decade due to famine, by the 2010s, it was down to 0,5.

With global population growth becoming negative in the coming decades (it is already negative in most advanced economies and China), the critical driver of innovation will grind to a halt. We already see this in the decline in innovation in the de-populating West. On a broad range of measures, the returns on innovation, on R&D, on science, on education - have all fallen and continue to fall. Further technological breakthroughs to help maintain food security in the face of climate change may not be feasible in an ageing, declining world population.


Synthetic nitrogen, hugely significant as fertilizer, has a downside. It contributes to global environmental degradation. The effects include raising greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), not only of carbon dioxide when it is manufactured, but also of methane, due to the input of natural gas and nitrous oxide (N2O), the result of the conversion of nitrogen in the soil by microbes. Both methane and nitrous oxide are much more potent GHGs than carbon dioxide. Synthetic nitrogen use also negatively affects air, soil, water and ocean quality - and hence human health - and decreases biodiversity.

Thus, the challenge is how to maintain the productivity and quality of global food systems without incurring these costs and decarbonize fertilizer manufacturing without reducing its supply and effectiveness. Defertilisation of world agriculture is a real threat to food security.

Addressing the global nitrogen crisis and decarbonizing fertilizer are highly complex challenges requiring cross-country policy coordination of social, technological, organizational, behavioral and economic solutions. The complexity is evident in the political polarization caused by protracted protests by farmers in Europe in recent years. It is also apparent in the ease with which supplies of fertilizer can be disrupted by shocks to global supply chains, as discussed below.


International trade allows countries to "specialize in production and diversify consumption." Coupled with transport innovations such as cold storage, shipping containers, modern ICT-driven logistics and port handling systems, agricultural products can rapidly move from the farm in one country to the fork in another - in a matter of hours. Moreover, the economies of scale that globalization of markets for food offer have allowed food prices and their inputs to decline, ultimately benefiting consumers and farmers worldwide.

The problem is that global supply chains and international trade are in jeopardy, undergoing what has been labelled deglobalization and "slowbalization." Thus, we have seen in recent years trade and technology wars, reshoring and friend-shoring, renewed protectionism, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently, wars in Ukraine and Gaza and attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

These disruptions to global supply chains threaten food security by reducing food and seeds, as well as supplies of fertilizer. The Covid-19 pandemic caused the number of food-insecure people in East Africa to more than double. A recent study estimated that the Russia-Ukraine war could "put as many as 1.7 billion people in hunger and 276 million people in severe food insecurity." The poorest countries tend to be most exposed to increased hunger due to the rise in trade protectionism, as many countries rush to impose controls over exports of food items in response to adverse global events.


ABCD stands for the four firms dominating world food production: Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. They control around 90% of the global grain trade. Despite the increase in world hunger, they have been reaping sky-high profits – in Louis Dreyfus's case, profits have been up by 80%.

Domination in world food production is not only limited to grain dealers – it also characterizes the markets for agrochemicals, seeds, farm machinery, livestock genetics and animal pharma. For example, four firms (Syngenta Group, Bayer/Monsanto, BASF and Corteva) control more than half of the world's commercial seed and more than 60% of the world's pesticide production.

Behind these megafirms are some of the world's largest financial firms that control agriculture and large swathes of the world economy. Three firms, BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, control more than 40% of all public firms in the USA. And they are major shareholders in Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Moreover, many Sovereign Wealth Funds have been investing heavily in agro-food: the Abu Dhabi based ADQ, for example, owns 45% of Louis Dreyfuss, amongst others.

The concentration of global food production is mirrored in the increasing concentration of farm ownership worldwide, as small farmers are pushed off their farms. For instance, "3% of European farms own 52% of agricultural land. While 75% of small farms are left with just 11% of the land." It is also mirrored in vastly unequal power relations in global food production, where the vast amount of subsidized food exports from the Global North depresses farming in the Global South.

Hence, there is an "insidious and deep penetration of food production systems by finance capital." This is why there have been recent warnings that the "food industry is becoming tightly coupled to the financial sector […] making it more susceptible to cascading failure […] the global food system is beginning to look like the global financial system in the run-up to 2008." Climate change shocks may very well trigger the collapse of this fragile, financialized global food system.


Food insecurity is becoming one of the most pernicious global threats. Climate change will exacerbate existing pressures on food systems, such as depopulation, defertilization, deglobalization, and domination, already causing rising global hunger. Feedback loops from these will hamper efforts to combat climate change and adapt. Global inequalities will widen as food becomes more expensive and scarcer, likely causing food wars and accelerated migration to Northern Hemisphere countries.

The countries which would be the hardest hit, such as those in Africa, should focus on at least four key strategic areas to build resilience against growing hunger. The first is to ensure energy sufficiency and energy security as a matter of urgency. The second is to invest in the further roll-out of intra-regional infrastructure, creating efficient transport and communication links and sufficient storage facilities. The third is to deepen regional integration and facilitate trade facilitation, including reducing high tariffs on intra-regional agricultural trade. Fourthly, Africa should redouble efforts to end violent conflicts and coups and maintain peace. Unfortunately, trends in these four strategic areas seems to be going in the wrong direction. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Wim Naudé is Visiting Professor in Technology and Development at RWTH Aachen University, Germany; Research Fellow at the IZA Institute for Labor Economics, Germany; and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Economics at the University of Johannesburg. According to Stanford University’s rankings, he is amongst the top 2% of scientists in the world.

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)