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Some countries go to extremes to ensure their food security. When Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean company, sought to rent a vast tract of land to grow food in Madagascar in 2008, the move was so controversial that it contributed to the fall of that nation's government. But is the issue of food security (and scarcity) exaggerated? A counterintuitive study this week argued that the amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide is at its peak and will fall by one-tenth in the next 50 years. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, by contrast, believes the world might need 16 per cent more productive land.

The study, by Rockefeller University in New York, argues that while the world's population is growing at 1 per cent a year, crop productivity is growing at 2 per cent. So farmers need a third less land today to produce an equivalent amount of crops compared with half a century ago. In fact, while the world's population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, the amount of arable land has expanded by only a tenth. The study's authors assume that as individuals get richer calorie consumption levels off, so that greater consumption in poor countries will be offset by declines in richer ones. They also point out that meat consumption in developing countries is not growing as fast as expected – many Indians are vegetarian, for example.

A lot can be done to boost food supply without the need for more arable land. A third of food globally is wasted; the level in countries such as India where poor logistics cause food to rot between the farm and the factory, is even higher. But making assumptions about productivity is tricky, especially when genetically modified crops remain controversial. And natural disasters will continue to affect food supplies. The drought in the U.S. this year doubled the price of corn in a matter of months.