Food Security

Global Food Divide
In 2019 almost 700 million people experienced the hardship that chronic hunger imposes. This figure has risen every year since 2014, an indefensible trend amidst the riches of the 21st century and in the context of a global goal to eliminate hunger by 2030.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 from UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Engulfed within a vortex of population growth, conflict and climate change, food security presented a formidable challenge for national and global governance, even before the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation in the world’s poorest countries remains uncertain but leading UN agencies have suggested that Covid-19 may have added 121 million to the statistic for chronic hunger at the end of 2020.

The pandemic exacerbates world hunger – executive directors of the World Food Programme and UNICEF interviewed by PBS NewsHour

The global divide between rich and poor countries is most apparent in the content and affordability of family diets. Richer countries enjoy 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.

This profile of inequality underpins some painful truths. According to a 2017 study published in New England Journal of Medicine, as many as 2.2 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. Research published in the journal Science estimates that 83% of the world’s farmland accommodates or feeds livestock, including aquaculture.

The divide is even more apparent in the contrasting profile of agriculture. In the poorest developing countries, much farming resembles the primitive rural economy of 19th century Europe. There are 475 million small farms of less than two hectares, attempting to feed about 2.5 billion people, one 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. Unfortunately, strategies to narrow the global food divide remain bogged down in ideological divisions, a frustrating constraint, as the imminent threat of climate change compels coordinated action.

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.”

What is food insecurity? – an explanation from Thomson Reuters Foundation

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 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.

The degree of acute food insecurity is assessed by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system. The five Phases range from 1 (minimal) to 5 (famine likely). Famine is formally declared  when a series of indicators, including mortality, cross critical thresholds set by this system. Although very rare, famine was declared for a region of South Sudan for a period of months in 2017. The previous famine, in Somalia in 2011/12, killed over a quarter of a million people. South Sudan remains at high risk of famine, as do North Eastern Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Yemen.


more Food Security briefings (updated March 2021)
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