Causes of Food Insecurity

updated April 2017

Political Neglect
Until recently, state intervention in food production and marketing was discouraged by the international financial institutions that advise poor countries. In support of this orthodoxy, the proportion of foreign aid (including grants from charities and foundations) allocated to agriculture fell from 9% in 1995 to 5% in 2014, according to figures published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Commitment of domestic funds to agriculture has been insufficient to compensate. The 2003 Maputo Declaration signed by African leaders called for 10% of national budgets to be dedicated to agriculture. Only a handful of governments in sub-Saharan Africa have achieved this goal in any one year.

These trends have started to reverse, in the wake of the 2007/08 food price crisis. Growth in agriculture output in Africa has improved over the last decade. However, the consequence of such prolonged lack of investment is an inadequate infrastructure for rural economies. As much as 40% of harvested crops may be wasted due to ineffective storage facilities and poor roads in many developing countries.

For individual households, poverty is the driver of food insecurity. Lack of money precludes the purchase of food, however plentiful its availability. Shortage of food is not the cause of global hunger.

Without determined intervention, poverty and hunger lock together in a downward spiral of cause and effect. Hunger and malnutrition reduce the physical and mental capacity of families to escape poverty though work and learning. It is no coincidence that the official statistic for global poverty (836 million) is very similar to that for global hunger (795 million).

Although headline economic performance in Africa has improved, development experts regularly warn against the presumption that national prosperity correlates with food security. Published by a distinguished Panel headed by Kofi Annan, the Africa Progress Report 2014 observes that “Africa’s recent growth has not done nearly as much as it should to reduce poverty and hunger.”

Land and Gender
Whilst small farms in Africa have many advantages in striving for productivity, the division of plots through shared inheritance sooner or later becomes unsustainable. A related obstacle to rural economic development is insecure tenure, a fact of life for the majority of poor farmers. Less than 10% of the land in Africa is covered by title documents. This deters investment and increases vulnerability to eviction by state or corporate interests.

Weak tenure has become more acute with the feminization of agriculture brought about by men migrating for urban work. Women now produce 60%-80% of food in the poorest countries, despite owning only 10%-20% of the farms. Discrimination limits availability of credit, advisory support and access to local economic decision-making.

Conflict and Governance
A 2015 report on Ending Rural Hunger by the Brookings Institution observes that “Nine of the ten countries with the most serious hunger challenges are on the OECD list of fragile states. These are countries associated either with periods of internal conflict or very low standards of governance.

The four countries at severe risk of famine in early 2017, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, are all experiencing significant insurgent conflict. Food production in Syria has collapsed. Warring parties in these countries show little compunction in the denial of food as a weapon.

For all the principled vision of the Sustainable Development Goals, the dream of ending global hunger by 2030 cannot be realised without fresh resolve to activate mechanisms for conflict resolution. It is generally impossible even to measure undernourishment and malnutrition in conflict zones.

Soil Degradation
The productivity of modern industrial farming has been phenomenal. Global grain production increased by 169% between 1961 and 2010, a period in which the area under cultivation expanded by only 25%. The dynamic performance of food production in Asia over the last 40 years has been described as the “green revolution”.

But this productivity has been achieved at the expense of the natural environment on which agriculture depends. Modern crops require heavy inputs of chemicals and water. More than half of the world’s arable land is moderately or severely degraded, according to a report by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.

In sub-Saharan Africa the incidence of arable degradation may be as high as 65%. Fragile topsoil is losing vital nutrients through unbroken cycles of planting and overgrazing. Desertification in West Africa may be advancing at the rate of 5km per annum.

At a time of need to increase land under cultivation, 12 million hectares a year are lost through soil degradation around the world.

The US and the European Union have led other developed countries in providing state incentives for production of biofuels. In 2016, 35% of the US corn (maize) crop was processed for ethanol. This represented 13% of world maize production, sufficient to feed over 400 million people for a year.

The lure of biofuels for these governments is lower dependence on fossil fuels for transport, together with a corresponding reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. However, the net saving in carbon dioxide emissions from maize-based ethanol has been exposed as less than 20%.

The 2011 report, Price Volatility and Food Security, produced by a High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, expressed disquiet about a future in which rich countries seek national energy security through “food-for-fuel”, regardless of the state of global food security. Identifying biofuels as a key driver of rising food prices, it recommended that global leaders should withdraw biofuel targets and financial incentives.

In 2016, US production of ethanol from corn reached record levels. In Europe, efforts to halve the use of biofuels and eliminate subsidies by 2020 have been deferred.

Climate Change
Climate models predict that richer countries in temperate zones will benefit from higher crop yields within the two degree temperature rise envisaged in international climate change negotiations.

By contrast, crop yields and grazing quality in tropical regions are already close to their limit of temperature sensitivity. With temperatures in many parts of Africa rising faster than the global average, maize yields may be affected even within the coming decade. “Slow onset” events such as desertification and ocean acidification present fundamental challenges to poorer farmers and fishing communities.

The uniquely insidious impact of climate change is to exacerbate all the underlying social and political dysfunctions that cause food insecurity. The State of Food and Agriculture published in 2016 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that: “climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in countries and regions that are already highly food-insecure. These impacts will jeopardize progress towards the key Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and poverty by 2030.”


Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the US Food System
US academics and government officials stress the complexity of the impact of climate change on food security and that all countries will be affected

produced by US Department of Agriculture

Why food security is a problem in the Philippines – this ABS-CBN news feature identifies problems common to many developing countries – lack of government investment in agriculture and the exodus of young people from the sector

Trade-offs between food and biofuels
a summary of the basic biofuels dilemma from Professor Rosaland Naylor, Department of Environmental Earth System Sciences, Stanford University.

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

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