There is a fundamental tension between population growth and carrying capacity, i.e., the population that could potentially be supported using the resources and technologies available at a given time. When population growth outpaces improvements in food production locally, food imports can avoid local limits and allow growth to continue. This import strategy is central to the debate on food security with continuing rapid growth of the world population. This highlights the importance of a quantitative global understanding of where the strategy is implemented, whether it has been successful, and what drivers are involved. We present an integrated quantitative analysis to answer these questions at sub-national and national scale for 1961–2009, focusing on water as the key limiting resource and accounting for resource and technology impacts on local carrying capacity. According to the sub-national estimates, food imports have nearly universally been used to overcome local limits to growth, affecting 3.0 billion people—81% of the population that is approaching or already exceeded local carrying capacity. This strategy is successful in 88% of the cases, being highly dependent on economic purchasing power. In the unsuccessful cases, increases in imports and local productivity have not kept pace with population growth, leaving 460 million people with insufficient food. Where the strategy has been successful, food security of 1.4 billion people has become dependent on imports. Whether or not this dependence on imports is considered desirable, it has policy implications that need to be taken into account.