Food Security

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Sept 24, 2014, 11:01 pmUpdated: July 15, 2021, 11{04 pm dro
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A comprehensive definition of food security that is widely accepted today is that “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life"1. It follows from this definition that individuals and families who are not food-secure are likely to be hungry, undernourished or malnourished, poor, and living in places that are distant from well-stocked and functional food markets. These characteristics can often be observed directly or assessed through household survey methods.

While measures of nutritional status such as low height for age or low weight for height, average availability of food translated into calories available/day, per capita incomes, or distance from a market do not fully define food security, observations or assessments about these measures are often used as indicators of food security. Thus, for example, an increase in poverty is generally assumed to increase food insecurity, given that food purchases, on average, account for a significant share of an individual’s or household’s budget. The World Bank’s Food Price Watch in February 2011 reported that, because of rising global prices for food, “since June additional 44 million people may have fallen into poverty….higher poverty is associated with increased malnutrition as poorer people eat less and substitute away from more expensive, nutritious food and into cheaper staples.”2 Conversely, higher incomes are associated with greater food security as richer people can afford to consume more and more diverse kinds of food3.

Several global organizations, in addition to the World Bank, regularly assess levels of food insecurity in order to direct emergency food or income assistance to those whose survival is threatened. They all use specific sets of indicators to establish the probability of extremely high levels of food insecurity and hunger. The World Food Program, for example, uses a Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM) methodology4. This methodology draws upon the work of 120 analysts around the world. They answer the questions: “Who is hungry? How many of them are there? Where do they live? Why are they hungry? Who is vulnerable and could become hungry if there is a natural disaster or crisis?” The United States Government uses a methodology called FEWS NET, the Famine Early Warning System Network, to assess the same questions. The FEWS NET methodology combines analysis of rainfall, climate, and crop production data using remote-sensing tools with information on markets, prices, and vulnerable populations gathered by local teams of analysts5. A recent graphic summarizing the status of food security in 2011 is shown below.

Estimated Food Security Conditions, Second Quarter, April – June 2011

Global near mdi.png Source:

More complete and accurate assessments of food security require consideration of all components of the food security definition:

  • the physical availability of nutritious and safe food supplies that are culturally acceptable;
  • individuals’ capacity to access it (either because they have produced it themselves, have money to purchase it, or have some entitlement to resources through social or public networks);
  • individuals’ abilities to use the food for nutritional benefit (adequate health, access to clean water for preparation, etc.); and
  • stable, predictable supply and access over time.

Such comprehensive assessments are rarely conducted as they imply relatively expensive and labor-intensive survey processes and information goes out of date quickly. Rather, governments and humanitarian organizations have emphasized the development and use of appropriate indicators that can be cost-effectively monitored.

Where did the Concept of Food Security Come From?

Historically, more attention has been paid to some components of food security, e.g., food supply, than others6. First used in the 1970s, the term “food security” reflected perceptions that the crisis conditions associated with the global food shortages and high and volatile prices in 1973/74 threatened international political stability as well as individuals’ survival.

The changing definitions of food security in subsequent years reflected specific concerns of the changing times. Persistent poverty and chronic hunger in the developing world in the 1980s highlighted the fact that the ability to access food was as problematic as supply. Concern in the 1980s that hunger and ill-health would undermine abilities of people to participate in economic development efforts underscored the needs for sufficient food for an active and healthy life. “Transitory” food insecurity, which occurred as populations were displaced by civil conflict in the 1990s, was linked to physical insecurity and the potential for broader societal destabilization. Widespread market and supply fluctuations caused by drought in southern Africa in the early 2000s contributed to African leaders’ decisions to address food security as a national security issue and to their agreement, in the Maputo Declaration of 2003, to increase national investments in agriculture.

And sharply-rising global food prices in 2007/08 reduced the purchasing power of poor urban consumers around the world. This threatened their own food security and sparked civil unrest and political instability. Rising levels of hunger were associated with reduced access to food as a result of higher prices (see chart below).


Source: FAO, (cited here)

The 2008 situation led the leaders of eight major global economies (the so-called “G-8”) to declare at their 2009 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy, that “There is an urgent need to free humankind from hunger and poverty. Food security, nutrition, and agriculture must remain a priority issue on the political agenda.”7 The Joint Statement on Food Security that they issued then went on to link the challenge of food security with the long-term goals of the sustainable management of water, land, soil, and other natural resources, including the protection of biodiversity.” Continued monitoring of global food security issues has become a regular agenda item for the G-8 and the expanded group of government leaders, the G-20.8

In June, 2011, the Agriculture Ministers of the G-20 countries released a communiqué entitled “Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture.” This communiqué was both applauded for as having engaged Agriculture Ministers, for the first time ever, on an issue of global importance and faulted for not reaching agreements on many issues: biofuels, the causes of volatile food prices, export bans, climate change, and financial regulations affecting agricultural markets.9

The issues will be revisited when the G-20 Presidents meet in November, 2011, however. It is likely that agriculture and food security issues will become a regular part of this global agenda.

Assuring the Food Security of a Growing Global Population is Now Emerging as a Major Concern

With this expanded political attention to food security, policy analysts, development specialists, agricultural scientists, nutritionists, and the medical community have converged their thinking around the challenge of assuring food security for a world population of more than 9 billion people by 2050. This will require not only that the more than 900 million people that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated to be food-insecure in 2011 have their food needs met, but that the 2-billion plus additional people who will be alive in 2050 will need, “at all times, to have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Using the demand drivers of population growth and dietary change as drivers , FAO has projected that this may require more than a doubling of food availability by 2050 (see chart following).

Africa Central and
South America
Asia North
Developing Countries Developed Countries Globally
Population Increase 3.14 1.80 1.69 1.31 1.95 1.02 1.76
Changing Eating Habits 1.64 1.07 1.38 1.00 1.40 1.00 1.28
Total 5.14 1.92 2.34 1.31 2.74 1.02 2.25

Source: FAO Food requirements and population growth (FAO: 1996)

In 2009, the FAO gathered a high level panel of experts to guide the development of “How to Feed the World in 2050.” The bottom line in their analysis was that “The world has the technology and resources to eradicate hunger and ensure long-term food security for all, in spite of many challenges and risks. It needs to mobilize political will and build the necessary institutions to ensure that key decisions on investments and policies to eradicate hunger are taken and implemented effectively.”10

In 2010, the British government commissioned a major report on “The Future of Food and Farming” and, considering the same question – feeding the world in 2050, came to a somewhat different conclusion than the FAO group. “Much can be achieved immediately with current technologies and knowledge given sufficient will and investment. But coping with future challenges will require more radical changes to the food system and investment in new research to provide new solutions to novel problems.” The Report also noted that “Other studies have stated that policies in all areas of the food system should consider the implications for volatility, sustainability, climate change, and hunger. Here it is argued that policy in other sectors outside the food system also needs to be developed in much closer conjunction with that for food. These areas include energy, water supply, land use, the sea, ecosystem services and biodiversity. …These other areas will crucially affect the food system and therefore food security. …Food is such a critical necessity for human existence, with broad implications for poverty, physical and mental development, wellbeing, economic migration, and conflict that, if supply is threatened, it will come to dominate policy agendas and prevent progress in other areas.”11

Aspects of the Food Security Challenge

As these and many other analyses have indicated, the emerging global food security challenge has several aspects:

  • Productivity trends indicate that the rate of yield growth of major crops has weakened since 1990 in many agricultural economies.12 There is disagreement among scientists as to whether these rates can be increased as a result of breakthroughs in crop breeding or through the adoption of more efficient management techniques. A slowing of yield growth, however, implies that it will be more difficult to increase food supply more rapidly than the rate of population increase, especially given environmental constraints.
  • The environmental resources required to expand agricultural production at current levels of productivity, using current methods of production, are not available. Much of the additional volume of agricultural commodities produced between 1950 and 2000 resulted from new lands being brought into cultivation, often through the destruction of forests and grasslands. In many cases, crops were irrigated with freshwater extracted from surface and groundwater reservoirs at a rate faster than it could be renewed. There is now wide agreement that new, more environmentally-aware methods of production must be developed and introduced. Remaining forests and grasslands must be preserved to retain biodiversity and to protect the ability of the landscape to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. New approaches to sustainable management of natural resources adopted. The increased volume of food for nine billion people will need to be produced more efficiently, with higher yields per unit of available land, water, and energy. This is often referred to as the challenge of “sustainable intensification.”13
  • Climate projections could be important to food and agricultural production conditions that will be experienced in coming years14. Ironically, slightly higher temperatures are leading to an expansion of arable lands, particularly in Canada, Russia and northern Europe. Further, increasing agricultural production – especially of livestock – and expansion of agricultural production into forested areas may also contribute to climate change. Forested areas converted to annual crop production or pasture release enormous amounts of carbon. Production of greater numbers of animals for food may also increase greenhouse gas emissions through their production of gas and manure.
  • Global food grain prices have begun, since about 2005, to rise. Further, there is some evidence that volatility of prices may be increasing, although variation does not yet exceed levels attained in the 1970s. These pricing changes make it more difficult for poor people to reliably access food supplies through market purchases. The political ramifications of this are judged to be so severe that the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies, the G-20, issued a statement of their commitment to address this issue.15
  • Geography matters. Some areas of the world have populations of such a magnitude that food production resources (land, water) are already stressed while other countries have ample ability to produce surplus food supplies for export elsewhere. South Asia, North Africa, and the Near East, for example, are projected to have little or no arable land available for expansion while substantial uncultivated lands are found in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin and South America16. Analysts associated with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found, however, that in all regions, over the last 50 years, human intervention has altered natural systems more significantly than in all previous centuries. The Assessment also found that the poorest populations in the world are bearing a disproportionate burden of the harm caused by ecosystem degradation17. The uneven spatial distribution of populations and productive resources requires redistribution of the output from surplus to deficit areas (through trade), greater investment in sustainably increasing productivity of resources in stressed areas, or the movement of populations to areas with greater resource endowments. Trade becomes problematic for nations and populations who have incomes inadequate to finance such purchasing of food. While it is recognized that greater investments of capital and technology can increase the productivity of resources in poor countries, recent initiatives by investors to secure land for agricultural production in less densely-settled, low-income nations have also been viewed with alarm.18
  • There is a new appreciation of the importance of food intakes for pregnant mothers and children from conception to the age of two19. Under- or malnutrition of children under two leads to irreversible physiological and cognitive changes. Global initiatives focusing on the first “1000 days” of a child’s life and scaling up of nutrition programming (the SUN movement) reflect this aspect of food security20.
  • Populations in rapidly-growing developing countries with rising income levels are beginning to change centuries-old diets that emphasized consumption of staple food grains such as rice, wheat, and corn/maize. In particular, consumption of animal source foods (fish, meat, milk, eggs) is rising with income21. Expansion of supplies of these foods has already led to rapid depletion of wild-caught fish and to greater diversion of world corn/maize supplies to animal feed. In addition, as urbanization rates are generally highly-correlated with national growth rates, urbanized populations are demanding more convenient, more processed foods as part of their diets.
  • The possibility of converting agricultural products into biofuels (ethanol, biodiesel) has also begun to be explored as a method for developing other sources of energy as substitutes for fossil fuels22. While the use of sugarcane waste as a source of fuel does not affect the global food supply-demand balance, diversion of corn/maize, palm oil, canola, and soy into biofuel production has a major impact. The “food-fuel trade-off” is a topic that garners substantial attention in both the academic literature and popular press23. It is projected that future generations of biofuel production will be less competitive with food uses, but the timeline for this innovation is not certain.
  • Many low-income countries are beginning to realize the need to provide food safety nets for those elements of their populations that are chronically poor and hungry, i.e., food-insecure. Such social protection programs, however, can be costly. Finding the right balance in public expenditures between allocations for immediate food needs and investments in long-term economic and agricultural growth is a political challenge that is broadly faced by governments everywhere24.

Given these challenges, it is likely that the upcoming reviews of the 2015 Millennium Development Goal 1 (MDG 1: to reduce by half global levels of poverty and hunger) will stimulate further global, national, and local debate as to the appropriate courses of action to increase food security: what is feasible, what is efficient, what it will cost, and who will pay for it.

Where do the Food-Insecure Live?

Ghi2010 severity map.jpg Source: International Food Policy Research Institute

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the world which is currently the most food-insecure, as the proportion of the population which is poor and malnourished is the highest and agricultural production performance has been the weakest over the last forty years. Conflict, normal recurrent drought, and periodic flooding contribute to persistent food security. Few countries are likely to achieve MDG 1 by 2015. However, sub-Saharan Africa has unexploited land and water resources, substantial mineral resources, a great potential for solar and other renewable energy production, and a new-found momentum toward agricultural growth.

The numbers of poor and undernourished individuals in South Asia are greater in absolute numbers than those in sub-Saharan Africa and agricultural productivity increases are not as robust as they should be to support agricultural and economic growth. Economic growth rates have been relatively robust, however, and the capacities of governments to boost agricultural productivity while providing a safety net for those who are presently food-insecure are generally estimated to be sufficient to achieve significant progress toward MDG 1. Some countries, especially Bangladesh, are, however, believed to be highly-vulnerable to the effects of global cooling, which would diminish arable land.

Every country today, however, includes populations that experience some level of food insecurity. Even in the United States, major food assistance programs have been put in place to place a safety net under specific populations: poor women and infants; poor children attending school; and poor families25.

Food-20security-global-20food-20markets.jpg Global food markets (such as super markets, road side food vendors and local food markets) across the globe are important reflectors of food security. A cross section of global food markets demonstrating the diversity of food products are presented here with markets representing countries from different food security zones of the world. A. Vancouver, Canada (Soumyadeep Basu); B. Hohhat; China (Xiuhua Wu); C. Kolkata, India (Sheuli Das Gupta); D. Istanbul, Turkey (Peiman Zandi); E. Merida, Mexico (William Cetzal-Ix); F. Kuala lumpur, Malaysia (Peiman Zandi); G. Rasht, Iran (Peiman Zandi); H. Syria, Damascus (Peiman Zandi); I. Numazu, Japan (Sukrishna Ishii) and J. Bangkok, Thailand (Chittiwat Silapat). Source: Saikat Basu, own work

Assessment: Greater Innovation and Investment are Needed for Sustainable Food Security

Recent assessments of global responsibilities for greater food security in 2050, such as that undertaken by the Government of the United Kingdom in its Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming, have been complex undertakings, considering issues in many fields: science and technology, natural resource utilization and management, demographic shifts, trade and investment, international relations, and governance. Food security is fundamental to every person’s physical and psychological well-being, but it requires the collective efforts of many people to assure its realization. Current methods of providing food security to the global population of 7 billion will not be sufficient to feed the population of more than 9 billion in 2050. Innovation and investment in global food and agricultural systems is required.

Issues that could hamper progress include:

  • Lack of political will to commit public financing, especially for research and education relevant to food and agricultural futures in developed countries and for a whole range of public goods needed to develop efficient and productive food and agriculture systems in low-income developing countries: research, infrastructure, strong institutions, education, risk mitigation supports
  • Inability to address and resolve issues regarding transgenics in food and agriculture
  • Unpredicted impacts of climate change and/or failure of science to develop approaches adequate to permit producers to adapt
  • Failure to develop economic innovations that allow for environmental costs to be integrated into pricing of commodities, payments for environmental services essential for food production to be implemented, and/or risks associated with agricultural productivity to be unmanaged and more broadly-shared among consumers


  1. Food Security, Policy Brief, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, June 2006, Issue 2
  2. Food Price Watch, The World Bank
  3. This relationship has been observed since 1857, when Ernst Engel, a German statistician, first noted it. Engel’s Law (that, as incomes increase, the proportion of income spent on food falls) is generally accepted as a basic principle of income and consumption. Observations of children’s health, though, show that, in low-income developing countries, even children in relatively higher-income families experience malnutrition. See, for example,
  4. Food Security Analysis, World Food Program
  5. Famine Early Warning Systems Network, United States Agency for International Development
  6. Food Security: Concepts and Measurements, Chapter 2 of Trade and Food Security: Conceptualizing the Linkages, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003
  7. L’Aquila” Joint Statement on Global Food Security L’Aquila Food Security Initiative (AFSI), 2009
  8. Food Security, Priorities of the Frency Presidency of the G20, 2011
  9. See, for example, the range of views expressed in several articles. A Missed Opportunity, The G20 Action Plan on Food Price Volitility and Agriculture, John Thompson, Future Agricultures (June 28, 2011) ;G20 to sidestep agriculture controversy by Javier Blas, Financial Times (June 21, 2011); and Verdict on G20 food summit? Dismal, please try harder, Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power.
  10. How to Feed the World in 2050, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009
  11. Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming (2011) Final Project Report., The Government Office for Science, London.
  12. The Shifting Patterns of Agricultural Production and Productivity Worldwide, Edited by Julian M. Alston, Bruce A. Babcock, and Philip G. Pardey, The Midwest Agribusiness Trade Research and Information Center, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa (2010)
  13. Pretty, Jules, Toulmin, Camilla, and Stella Williams (eds) Sustainable Intensification: Increasing Productivity in African Food and Agricultural Systems. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, February 2011
  14. Agriculture and Food Supply, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Implications of climate change for agricultural productivity in the early twenty-first century, Gornall J, Betts R, Burke E, Clark R, Camp J, Willett K, Wiltshire A., Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2010 Sep 27;365(1554):2973-89; Climate change risks for African agriculture,Christoph Müller,Wolfgang Cramer,William L. Hare and Hermann Lotze-Campen, PNAS (2011) and Climate Change Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation, International Food Policy Research Institute, (October 2009) are just a small sampling of materials relating agriculture and climate change.
  15. G20 Declaration on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture, June 2011, Council on Foreign Relations (June 23, 2011)
  16. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis, A Report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Island Press (2005)
  17. Nellemann, C., MacDevette, M., Manders, T., Eickhout, B., Svihus, B., Prins, A. G., Kaltenborn, B. P. (Eds). February 2009. The environmental food crisis – The environment’s role in averting future food crises. A UNEP rapid response assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal, ISBN: 978-82-7701-054-0,
  18. See Klaus Deininger and Derek Byerlee “Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?” World Bank: January, 2011. An IFAD publication did not avoid the “land grab” term. See “Responding to ‘land grabbing’ and promoting responsible investment in agriculture.”
  19. The Lancet’s Series onMaternal and Child Undernutrition: Executive Summary.
  20. Scaling Up Nutrition: A Framework For Action,
  21. Feeding the Future’s Changing Diets: Implications for Agriculture Markets, Nutrition, and Policy, Siwa Msangi and Mark W. Rosegrant, 2020 Conference Paper 3 (2011);Is urbanization contributing to higher food prices? Jesper Stage, Jørn Stage and Gordon McGranahan, IIED and UNFPA (2009); and How much fish is consumed worldwide? Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (from The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2008)
  22. Biofuel production technologies: status, prospects and implications for trade and development,United Nations Conference on Trade and Development(2008) provides a general overview of the situation in 2008.
  23. The Global Bioenergy Expansion: How Large Are the Food-Fuel Trade-offs? Jacinto F. Fabiosa, John C. Beghin, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Simla Tokgoz, and Tun-Hsiang Yu (2009) Paper draft prepared for The Handbook of Bioenergy Economics and Policy Madhu Khanna, Jurgen Scheffran, and David Zilberman, editors and Avoiding more biofuel surprises: The fuel, food and forest trade-offs, Clayton W. Ogg, Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics Vol. 1(1), pp. 012-017, (April, 2009) are but two relevant examples.
  24. Social Safety Nets, Frank Mischler and Bernd Schubert, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005)
  25. Food Assistance Programs, Nutrition.Gov


Emmy Simmons (2014, updated 2021). Food Security. eds. Peter Saundry and C. Michael Hogan. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and Environment. Washington DC. Retrieved from