Food Security

updated April 2017

Global Food Divide
Almost 800 million people experience the hardship that hunger imposes, an indefensible statistic amidst the riches of the 21st century. Engulfed within a vortex of population growth, economic dysfunction, conflict and climate change, food security presents a formidable challenge for national and global governance.

The global divide between rich and poor countries is reflected in modern eating habits. Diets in richer countries have a foundation of meat and dairy produce, tolerant of a wasteful throw-away culture. Families spend as little as 10%-15% of their incomes on food and can shrug aside the impact of price increases. By contrast, the world’s poorest two billion people are highly vulnerable to food price changes because they have to allocate 50%-70% of their incomes to food.

The FAO reports that a quarter of the world’s land is used for livestock, whilst a third of arable land is dedicated to grain which is fed to animals. According to a 2014 study published in The Lancet, as many as 2.1 billion people are obese or overweight. The World Health Organization confirms that more deaths are caused by eating too much than those resulting from hunger.

The divide is even more apparent in the contrasting profile of agriculture. In the poorest developing countries, most farming resembles the primitive rural economy of 19th century Europe. 500 million smallholders labour on plots of less than two hectares, attempting to feed about two billion people, almost a third of humanity.

This model struggles against the elements and creates one of the ironies of the modern world, in that three-quarters of global hunger is found amongst farmers and their workers. In the developed world, farmers manage sophisticated capital-intensive businesses.

Price volatility has calmed in recent years thanks to a benign combination of favourable harvests and falling oil prices. However, the latest El Nino climate phenomenon, straddling 2015 and 2016, has been of unusual severity, forcing prolonged drought and serious hunger back on to the humanitarian agenda.

Unfortunately, strategies to narrow the global food divide remain bogged down in ideological divisions, a frustrating constraint as the impact of climate change threatens to reverse recent improvements in global food security.

Definition of Food Security
“Food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Originated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, this is the most commonly accepted food security definition. It can be applied on any scale, from a single household to the global population. In its least serious degree, a lack of food security indicates only the risk of hunger, not necessarily its presence.

If this definition seems unnecessarily elaborate, the lessons of history warn that hunger is not a simple concept. Even in 2017, with world food prices at a 10-year low, and global grain stocks in surplus, a food security crisis has emerged in several countries across Africa and the Middle East. Physical access to affordable food for poor households is as important as availability measured by global supply statistics.

Famine is the most extreme state of food insecurity. It exists where a series of hunger indicators, including mortality, cross critical thresholds set by the UN. Although very rare, famine has been declared for a region of South Sudan in early 2017, with Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia also at risk. The previous famine, in Somalia in 2011/12, killed over a quarter of a million people.

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South Sudan: First famine declared since 2011
from BBC News


What is food insecurity?
An explanation from Thomson Reuters Foundation.

more Food Security briefings
Right to Food
Sustainable Development Goal for Food
Causes of Food Insecurity
Governance of Food Security
Solutions to Food Insecurity
Source material and useful links

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