April 13 (UPI) -- Almost 2 billion people now rely on imported food, new research shows.
The study, conducted by scientists at Aalto University in the Netherlands, is one of the first to analyze the connections between resource scarcity, population growth and food imports. It was published this week in the journal Earth's Future.
"Although this has been a topic of global discussion for a long time, previous research has not been able to demonstrate a clear connection between resource scarcity and food imports," postdoctoral researcher Miina Porkka said in a news release. "We performed a global analysis focusing on regions where water availability restricts production, and examined them from 1961 until 2009, evaluating the extent to which the growing population pressure was met by increasing food imports."
As populations grow, pressures on regional water and soil resources increase. When local agriculture can't keep up, populations must look elsewhere.
According to the latest findings, 1.4 billion people rely on food produced elsewhere. Another 460 million live in regions where imports fail to make up for the shortcomings of the local food supply.
"It seems obvious to look elsewhere when local production is not sufficient, and our analysis clearly shows that is what happens," said study co-author Joseph Guillaume. "Perhaps that is the right choice, but it should not be taken for granted."
There are other options, however. Farmers, scientists and policy makers can work minimize food waste, boost efficiency and soften demand.
As the planet's resources become taxed and global food supply chains become increasingly interconnected -- and fragile -- researchers say it's important to encourage sustainable solutions to food scarcity problems.
Another recent study showed crops reliant on vulnerable water resources are being traded with increasing regularity, shrinking water tables across the globe.
"Keeping food demand in check is the key issue," Porkka said. "Controlling population growth plays an essential role in this work, but it would also be important to enhance production chains by reducing food waste and meat consumption. Since one quarter of all the food produced in the world is wasted, reducing this would be really significant on a global level."