Food Security: updated March 2021


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.

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 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.”

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.

The Right to Food

“The fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” is established in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the branch of international law inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A rights-based approach to food security imposes obligations on national governments to establish non-discriminatory and non-political laws to ensure that their populations have access to adequate food. Strategies to assist governments to eradicate hunger and malnutrition are set out in the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition, formally approved by the Committee on Food Security in 2021.

Politicians are themselves aware that a citizen who is unable to feed the household may be provoked into direct action. This sensitivity was demonstrated when the FAO Cereal Price Index doubled in the year to April 2008. Food riots in 23 developing countries prompted a global crisis, culminating in the organisation of the 2009 World Summit on Food Security.

The FAO reports that over 100 countries include either a direct or implied reference to the right to food in their constitutions. Poverty reduction in many Latin American countries has been attributed to political commitment to the right to food. India’s Right to Food Act, passed into law in 2013, represents a significant milestone in the drive towards eradication of global hunger.

Further potential progress was embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, approved at the UN General Assembly in 2015. In the preamble, world leaders stated that: “we resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere.”

However, the latest global hunger count of 690 million demonstrates that the gap between such ideals and reality remains too wide. Campaigners continue to remind world leaders that food security is a right for which governments are accountable, rather than a gift of charity to the poor.

Sustainable Development Goal for Food

The Sustainable Development Goal for food, approved by the UN in 2015 as the second of 17 Goals, aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture (by 2030).” The targets linked to this SDG reiterate the intention to “end” hunger, with a separate target to “end all forms of malnutrition.”

These details are important because they address the shortcomings of the previous regime, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDG for hunger failed the concept of food security by seeking only to reduce by half the proportion of the world’s population experiencing hunger, to be assessed between 1990 and 2015. This Goal reneged on several decades of political promises to eliminate hunger.

Sadly, restoration of political ambition in 2015 has been followed by a period of disturbing annual increases in global hunger, now totalling 690 million, about 8.9% of the world’s population. In Africa, this percentage is over 19%, 250 million people.

Although this reversal of the trend of falling world hunger was unexpected, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had already warned that the SDG target of eliminating hunger is daunting. Its own research, based on current national and international commitments to reducing hunger, suggests that a large number of key developing countries are off course, including India, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Any analysis of the resources necessary to overcome this sluggish performance is unlikely to renew optimism. A recent study backed by the German government found that international donors would have to double existing commitments to food security of $14bn per annum over the full period to 2030. And this conclusion assumed that beneficiary countries would increase their own contribution through domestic taxation.

The principal indicators for monitoring the food goal are the prevalence of undernourishment and the prevalence of malnutrition. The former measure is largely based on the “minimum dietary energy requirement” declared for each country by the FAO. Depending on age and gender profile, the figure is typically around 2,000 kilocalories per day for light activity.

A shortcoming of this indicator is the over-emphasis on quantity rather than quality of food. Any absence of vital protein and micro-nutrients such as iron and iodine impairs the ability to learn and reduces resistance to disease, especially in young children. Over one third of child mortality is attributed to malnutrition. Hence the significance of the target to end malnutrition in the SDG for food.

Causes of Food Insecurity

Straightforward explanations for food shortages and hunger have a seductive simplicity. It is indeed intuitive to suggest that the demand of our rapidly rising world population for more food with less available land is doomed to fail.

The reality is far more complex. The science of global environmental change is uncovering important interactions between climate, biodiversity and soil quality. At the same time, health concerns have raised awareness that the nutritional value of food matters more than quantity. And, as so often, the political failings of international cooperation stand in the way of equal access to basic human needs.

Global Inequality
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. The international poverty threshold of $1.90 per day is insufficient to purchase healthy food. It is no coincidence that the official global statistic for extreme poverty (631 million) is very similar to that for global hunger (690 million).

Although headline economic performance in Africa has improved, over 19% of its population lacks consistent access to sufficient food. The farming sector and its infrastructure have been allowed to fall behind global standards by domestic and international political failure to invest. The 2003 Maputo Declaration signed by African Union leaders in 2003, and renewed a decade later, called for 10% of national budgets to be dedicated to agriculture. Only 7 out of 54 member countries have achieved this goal consistently.

The proportion of foreign aid to poorer countries (from OECD countries and multilateral institutions) allocated to agriculture fell from 9% in 1995 to 5% in 2018. 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 farm machinery, storage facilities and poor roads in many developing countries.

Agriculture contributes just over 15% of the GDP of Africa, despite engaging over 60% of the population to some extent. Whilst small farms in Africa have many advantages in striving to improve yields, the division of plots through shared inheritance sooner or later becomes unsustainable. A further 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 young 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.

The disappointing increase in global hunger since 2014 has been attributed to the persistence of conflict in several of the world’s poorest countries and regions. It is generally impossible even to measure undernourishment and malnutrition in the most serious conflict zones. The current best estimate is that 77 million people suffer from acute hunger in these zones, many cut off from humanitarian aid.

The four countries at severe risk of famine in early 2021, South Sudan, North Eastern Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Yemen, are all undermined by significant insurgent conflict. Food production in Syria has also 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.

Environmental Change
Rising public anxiety over the threat of species extinction has drawn attention to the sensitive relationship between biodiversity and food security. The productivity of modern industrial farming has been phenomenal. Global grain production tripled between 1961 and 2010, a period in which the area under cultivation expanded by only 25%. But the achievements of this “green revolution” have been at the expense of the natural environment on which agriculture ultimately depends.

Climate change and global warming accentuate the reality that biodiversity loss is both a direct cause of food insecurity and a risk to be managed for the future. One explicit example of this dynamic is the problem of land degradation.

The fragile topsoil of sub-Saharan Africa, a non-renewable resource, is losing vital nutrients through unbroken cycles of planting and overgrazing, often on unsuitable arid or semi-arid land. Desertification in West Africa may be advancing at the rate of 5km per annum.

The estimated global loss of 12 million hectares a year through soil degradation runs directly counter to the demands of a rising world population aspiring to richer diets. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, one third of the planet’s land is severely degraded.

Climate change also has a complex interaction with food security and food inequality. Climate models predict that richer countries in temperate zones may 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 inland 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 therefore to exacerbate all the underlying social and political dysfunctions that cause food insecurity. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World published in 2020 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that: “(climate change) will lead to a general decline in agricultural production over the next two to three decades, turning into a major cost driver for food in the near future.”

Recent reports submitted to policy makers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast a similar picture of falling yields and rising prices, potentially adding nearly 200 million people to the global hunger assessment.

Governance of Food Security

Committee on Food Security

The 2007/08 food crisis inspired global governance reforms. These aimed to achieve greater consistency between national food action plans and to eliminate duplication between aid agencies. For this purpose the Committee on Food Security (CFS) was modernised to ensure that the views of governments and civil society would combine with those of the three major UN food agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The CFS is supported by a High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), a scientific body providing independent analysis for policy makers. Over the last decade this combination has published a sequence of guidelines and non-binding policy frameworks on controversial issues relating to food security. These include the volatility of commodity prices, the use of land for biofuels rather than food, and institutional investment in agriculture, otherwise described as land grabbing. Whilst these topics have subsided in the headlines, they remain as very real risk factors for the governance of global food security.

More recently, in preparation for the UN Food Systems Summit, convened by the UN Secretary-General in July 2021, the CFS has produced the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. These Guidelines aim to assist governments with strategies to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.

A dedicated summit of this importance will expose tensions between policy makers, implementing organisations, and major donors from public and private sectors. The role of the CFS itself is under the microscope.

UN Food Agencies

Monitoring food security throughout the world is the core mandate of the FAO. It coordinates a flagship annual publication currently titled The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. For more logistical purposes, the FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System is a vital alert of serious hunger situations

This System is the primary source informing the WFP for its most important role, the distribution of food aid. In 2019 the agency supported 97 million people in 88 countries, requiring contributions of $8 billion. The World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.

The US provides approximately 50% of all food aid but insists that most of its aid should be disbursed as surplus grain from US national stocks – and that the chain of delivery must be tied to US shippers and contractors. These conditions add time and expense to the delivery of food aid.

Most humanitarian experts advise that food should be purchased from surplus areas within the beneficiary country, not just on grounds of cost and delivery time but also to inject activity into the domestic economy.

World Trade Organization

In a less unequal world, poorer countries should be working more closely with the World Trade Organization (WTO) than the UN food agencies. A rules-based  international trade regime for agriculture should deliver fair access to global food markets for all countries but history has erected barriers to this ideal.

Determined to support the dominant profile of small family farms in the aftermath of the Second World War, the European Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill both provided generous subsidies and protective tariffs. These policies proved successful, generating colossal internal food surpluses.

Ambitions of the poorer countries of the modern world to copy this approach remain unfulfilled. In controlling  the WTO’s supposedly open market rules, the richer countries refused to unravel their own protectionist model.

This hypocrisy remains a fundamental barrier to effective food security strategies in developing countries. Domestic markets continue to be undercut by cheap food imports dumped by rich countries. As a result, almost all the 48 Least Developed Countries are dependent on food imports, vulnerable to unpredictable world prices. Sub-Saharan Africa paid $43 billion for its food imports in 2019, a sum sufficient to deliver universal coverage of electricity in that region.

World Bank and OECD estimates suggest that leading economies provide their agriculture producers over $600 billion of annual support. A further $150 billion each year is believed to be subsidising the unsustainable activities of fishing fleets of wealthy countries, denying vital protein resource for local coastal communities. Although these subsidies are expected to fall, the total is likely to remain astronomic compared with the UN’s estimate of the annual cost of eradicating hunger by 2030.

Solutions to Food Insecurity

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 60% by 2050 to cater for a projected world population of 9.8 billion. With little new arable land available, most of this increase will have to be achieved through higher yields.

In the absence of a fuller context, such projections 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 690 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, the constraints within conflict zones, and the political power structures which impede the equitable distribution of food resources. Clearly, the solutions to food insecurity are complex.

The title of the UN Food Systems Summit, convened by the UN Secretary-General in September 2021, conveys how this complexity can be approached. A “food systems” approach envisages policies that combine objectives for food, agriculture and nutrition, while protecting social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

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.

It remains to be seen whether systems theory can overcome the entrenched divergence of opinion about solutions to food insecurity. This exists between those parties who insist that global food security depends on the advanced technologies of agri-business and those that view such technologies and their corporate owners as drivers of environmental breakdown and social injustice.

Small-scale Farming

Although the optimum model for modernising the world’s 475 million 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. For those who fear the consequences of globalising industrial agriculture, this potential builds on qualities of husbandry that have declined in richer countries.

This perspective seeks to develop cultivation skills typical of low input farming, in soil regeneration, nitrogen fixation, natural pest control and agro-forestry. Described as “agro-ecology” or “eco-farming”, this approach reaches out to the very poorest farmers, whilst retaining the potential to raise yields substantially, according to UN research. Small farmers have modest footprints on the environment.

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. They are also more attuned to protecting the seed diversity of vital crops and plants.

Whatever development model emerges for small-scale farming, improvements in land tenure and integration with external markets remains a formidable obstacle in poorer countries. 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 African Development Bank is a strong advocate for the agriculture sector, committed to invest $24 billion over 10 years. It aims to move farming up the value chain through food processing capacity, so that agriculture is perceived as a business opportunity by the younger generation.

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 should feature in national food security plans for ending hunger.

Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme is one model that attracts praise, releasing prompt cash payments to farmers and pastoralists, triggered when predetermined thresholds of drought are crossed.

International food aid is not a sustainable solution to hunger but it has a vital humanitarian role to play in countries which cannot sustain their own social protection arrangements.

Industrial Agriculture
Advances in the technologies of every element of the “farm-to-fork” food supply chain are so fundamental that it is inconceivable that they have no role to play in improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in poorer countries. These technologies are owned by very large international corporations, with whom governments must work in partnership.

Many donor governments and agencies promote this vision by facilitating alliances, introducing agribusiness corporations to government bodies in  “public-private partnerships.” Beneficiary countries are expected to enact legislation that meets private sector 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 aimed to enable 30 million African farmers to double their yields by 2020.

Formerly known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, CGIAR is a global network of 15 research centres dedicated to reducing poverty through a food secure future.

Whilst these corporations and partnerships are in a position to offer invaluable advice to developing countries, the track record of agri-business presents a serious obstacle. For example, it is all too obvious that the risks addressed by CGIAR centres are dominated by those created by the industry itself.

Three-quarters of the world’s food is derived from only twelve plants and five animal species. Agriculture is believed to contribute over 25% of  global greenhouse gas emissions. Shrinking biodiversity and the impact of climate change are disproportionate threats to food production in Africa and South Asia.

A further concern is the tendency for control of industrial agriculture to be concentrated in a small number of global corporations. Recent consolidation in the agribusiness sector has created just four companies that control 60% of commercial seeds. These businesses also possess a near-monopoly of patents on crop genomes. Similar consolidation is likely to occur in the farm machinery sector.

Such domination is relevant to global food security because corporate interests are ultimately aligned with shareholder value rather than the elimination of hunger. Public-private partnerships in related sectors such as water and energy have a poor track record in reaching the most disadvantaged households.