Solutions to Food Insecurity

updated April 2017

Solutions to food insecurity are often framed within a narrow analysis of future global supply and demand for food. For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global production of food crop calories must rise by 50% by 2050 (from 2012 baseline) to cater for a projected world population of 9.7 billion. With little new arable land available, most of this increase will have to be achieved through higher yields.

Whilst such projections of global supply and demand offer insight into the challenge of food insecurity, they encourage solutions which presume that higher food production reduces hunger. The necessary note of caution lies in the fact that current global per capita food production already comfortably exceeds the FAO hunger threshold. Yet 795 million people continue to experience hunger.

Macro-analysis loses sight of the right to food at household level, the looming collision between agriculture and environmental limits and the political power structures which impede the equitable distribution of food resources.

Hunger is one consequence of a troubled global society unbalanced by extreme inequality and the proximity of environmental limits. Solutions to food insecurity can therefore succeed only if they reinforce broader strategies for sustainable development.

This perspective sees a positive and crucial role for the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers who are responsible for 70% of global food production. The World Bank estimates that growth of rural economies accelerates poverty reduction four times faster than other sectors. Small farmers have modest footprints on the environment.

Although the optimum model for modernising small farms in poor countries remains the subject of much debate, their potential to be part of the solution to sustainable development is increasingly accepted.

One direction pioneered with success in Malawi involved subsidies to buy improved seeds and fertiliser. However, this has been criticised on environmental grounds and for committing the government to a long term spiral of expenditure linked to oil prices.

An alternative view seeks to build on the existing model of low input farming, developing cultivation skills in soil regeneration, nitrogen fixation, natural pest control and agro-forestry. Described as “agro-ecology” or “eco-farming”, this approach has the potential to raise yields substantially, according to UN research.

The cause of agro-ecology is greatly reinforced by its affinity with the low cost mitigation and adaptation measures urgently sought in response to climate change. Agro-ecological methods, making the most of local natural resources, may offer a more promising platform for “climate-smart agriculture” than the intensive industrial model.

Industrial Agriculture
Interpreting food security solely in terms of global aggregate grain production prompts solutions which superimpose industrial agriculture and its bio-technologies on the low-yielding “peasant” farms of Africa and South Asia.

Many donor governments and agencies seek to facilitate this vision through encouragement of powerful alliances, typically engaging agribusiness corporations and research agencies in  “public-private partnerships.” Beneficiary countries are expected to enact legislation that meets western expectations on land tenure, intellectual property rights and tax.

The most significant of these groupings is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations in 2006. AGRA aims to enable 30 million African farmers to double their yields by 2020. Another important grouping with  similar objectives is the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition announced by President Obama at the 2012 G20 summit in Mexico.

Whilst technology will have a key role to play in global food security, there are two broad reservations about this approach.

The first is the risk of importing an environmentally unsustainable model. Industrial farming is associated with land degradation, depletion of freshwater resources and loss of biodiversity. It is also a significant contributor to climate change, accounting directly for 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The second issue of concern is the tendency for control of industrial agriculture to be concentrated in a small number of global corporations whose interests are aligned with shareholder value rather than the elimination of hunger. Just three companies – Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta – enjoy a dominant share of the global market for crop seeds and the chemicals to grow them. They have also acquired a near-monopoly of patents on crop genomes. Further consolidation in the agribusiness sector is alarming campaigners.

The potential control of agribusiness is illustrated by its attempts to introduce genetically-modified (GM) crops to developing countries. Claiming higher yields and lower chemical inputs, GM crops feature prominently in macro-solutions to the global food crisis.

However, farmers have to purchase “climate smart” and other improved seeds for every planting, having been accustomed to saving their own seeds. Although several countries in Africa are conducting tests, only four have adopted GM crops for commercial purposes.

Infrastructure and Risk Management
Whatever development model emerges for small-scale farming, integration with external markets remains a formidable obstacle in poorer countries. The favoured option is to encourage farmers to form cooperatives as a recognised means of pooling resources to access urban and export markets. This approach has transformed the viability of dairy farming in Indian villages.

For the same reason, there is general agreement that political commitment to invest in rural infrastructure in developing countries is a critical condition for food security. Roads and storage facilities are necessary to link produce to local markets and to urban consumers. Access to electricity and efficient irrigation potentially transforms all aspects of farm management.

The risk of variable weather conditions can be addressed by methods which are commonplace in modern farming. For example, a critical mass of meteorological stations is rarely found in the poorest countries. Innovative products of micro-finance are being developed to improve the availability of credit and crop insurance to small farmers.

Social Protection
Risk management tools cannot eliminate extreme misfortune that strikes at local communities and individual households. Whilst embryonic in most of the poorest countries, the provision of a social safety net fulfils the obligations implicit in the right to food and is likely to feature in national food security plans for ending hunger.


Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
on food insecurity in Africa and possible solutions.

What is agroecological farming?
Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on Food Security, from Transnational Institute

Scaling up indigenous peoples’ land rights – lessons from 3rd International Conference on Community Land and Resource Rights
from Rights and Resources Initiative

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

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