1.74 | Fall 2020 | Graduate

Land, Water, Food, and Climate

SECTION 1 | Framing the Discussion


Is food insecurity an urgent problem or an issue that is being adequately addressed by technological progress?

This course addresses the challenge of providing food security to a large and diverse global population while protecting the natural resources needed to grow crops. This challenge is complicated by on-going climate change, land use changes, and economic issues that could have significant impacts on agriculture.

Food security is often understood to include the following four components:

  1. Availability of food where it is needed (production)
  2. Access to food for different populations, age groups, and income levels (distribution)
  3. Utilization of food for proper nutrition (diet and general health)
  4. Stability and reliability of all of these factors

This perspective emphasizes that crop production is not enough, by itself, to insure food security.

The connection between food security and the protection of natural resources is a timely topic because demand for food is increasing in response to growing populations and changing diets. Simultaneously, the natural resources needed to grow food are being stressed by more intensive food production and by climate change. The challenge for scientists and society in general is to find environmentally sustainable ways to meet the growing demand for food while providing good nutrition for everyone.

In order to adequately understand food security issues, we need to consider how natural resources and food demands are distributed over space and time and how food production and access are affected by income. This requires an examination of the roles of international trade, poverty, and agricultural technology as well as the physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect crop production. Interactions between these factors make it difficult to formulate effective solutions to food security problems. Complexity and uncertainty also breed controversy and can sometimes inhibit decisive action.

The course is divided into five sections that address a series of open-ended questions dealing with food security and natural resources:

  1. Framing the discussion
    • Is food insecurity an urgent problem or an issue that is being adequately addressed by technological progress?
  2. Food and natural resources: Demand and supply, current and projected
    • How much food will we need in the future?
    • What are current and projected agricultural demands on natural resources?
    • How much land, water, and nutrients are available for agriculture, in different places and at different times?
  3. Reconciling demand and supply: Context
    • What factors determine crop yield?
    • What are the environmental impacts of agriculture?
    • How does economic development affect food security and farming practices?
    • What are the impacts of climate change on farming and vice versa?
    • How could new technology contribute to food security?
    • How does trade redistribute the natural resources needed to grow food?
  4. Reconciling demand and supply: Options
    • What are the primary options for reconciling food demand and supply? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
  5. The way forward
    • How can we move towards a sustainable food production system that meets human needs while protecting natural resources? What are the prospects for the future?

The readings we use to address these questions provide various answers and have their own merits and deficiencies, which we will discuss. Where appropriate, the readings are supplemented by Supporting Information (SI) prepared especially for this class.

The seminar encourages a critical approach that considers the implications of available evidence, accounts for uncertainty, and acknowledges the important role of value judgements in formulating policy. In the last class session students present their own findings and perspectives on selected aspects of food security.


Class 1: The Food Security Debate

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2020
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Instructor Insights