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Local food crops can feed less than one third of the world's population

06 January 2021

In discussions about sustainability of food production and consumption, it is often suggested that the proportion of locally produced products should increase. However, it is largely unknown how high this share can be whilst still meeting current demands for food.

An international research team led by the University of Aalto (Finland) with participation from the University of Göttingen has analysed data on food production and consumption. By using an optimisation model, the researchers minimised the distance or transport time between production and consumption worldwide. The results have been published in the scientific journal Nature Food.

The team showed that, depending on the crop, 11 to 28 percent of the world's population could meet their demand by food produced within a radius of 100 kilometres. However, for 26 to 64 percent of the world's population, the distance to the place of food production is over 1,000 kilometres.

Half the world's population could meet their needs for cereals that grow in a temperate climate - such as wheat, barley or oats - within a distance of less than 900 kilometres. However, for a quarter of the world's population, the minimum distance is more than 5,200 kilometres. In contrast, the supply of maize could be more local and the global average distance between production and consumption is 1,300 kilometres.

"Higher yields and reduced food loss would reduce the distance between production and consumption of food, especially in Africa and Asia," explains Professor Stefan Siebert from the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Göttingen, who was involved in the study.

Nevertheless, international trade flows remain essential to meet the demand for food worldwide.

"The results show that food has to be transported over long distances almost everywhere to ensure the supply to the population and maintain their current diets," says Siebert. "Trade or transport restrictions, for example as a result of an epidemic, could be risky, lead to hunger or force the population in the affected areas to change their diets.”

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