This paper evaluates the future impact of soil degradation on national food security and land occupation in Ethiopia. It applies a spatial optimization model that maximizes national agricultural revenues under alternative scenarios of soil conservation, land accessibility and technology. The constraints in the model determine whether people remain on their original site, migrate within their ethnically defined areas or are allowed a transregional migration. Key to this model is the combination of a water erosion model with a spatial yield function that gives an estimate of the agricultural yield in its geographical dependence of natural resources and population distribution. A comparison of simulated land productivity values with historical patterns shows that results are interpretable and yield more accurate outcomes than postulating straightforward reductions in yield or land area for each geographic entity. The results of the optimization model show that in absence of soil erosion control, the future agricultural production stagnates and results in distressing food shortages, while rural incomes drop dramatically below the poverty line. Soil conservation and migration support a slow growth, but do not suffice to meet the expected food demand. In a transregional migration scenario, the highly degraded areas are exchanged for less affected sites, whereas cultivation on already substantially degraded soils largely continues when resettlement is confined to the original ethnic-administrative entity. A shift to modern technology offers better prospects and moderates the migration, but soil conservation remains indispensable, especially in the long term. Finally, an accelerated growth of non-agricultural sectors further alleviates poverty in the countryside, contributing to higher income levels of the total population and, simultaneously, relieving the pressure on the land through rural-urban migration. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.