World Food Day, 16 October, highlights the need to ensure that all people have physical and economic access at all times to enough nutritious, safe food to lead healthy and active lives.
More than half the world’s population lives in low-income, food-deficit countries that are unable to produce or import enough food to feed their people.
More than one-third of all children are malnourished and 6 million children a year die of causes related to malnutrition.
Most of the world’s hungry people are found in the developing world, but 34 million live in the developed world.
Soil degradation, chronic water shortages, inappropriate agricultural policies and population growth threaten food production in many countries.
While growing export crops such as coffee, cocoa and sugar produces export income, it can lead to a decrease in basic food production, causing hardship for people who are poor.
Between 1960 and 1990 world cereal production more than doubled, food production increased by one-third per head, daily intake of calories increased by one-third, and real food prices fell by almost half.
There is enough food in the world for everyone to have enough to eat, but it is unevenly distributed.
What is food security?
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle. (World Food Summit 1996)
To be food secure means that:
Food is available – The amount and quality of food available globally, nationally and locally can be affected temporarily or for long periods by many factors including climate, disasters, war, civil unrest, population size and growth, agricultural practices, environment, social status and trade.
Food is affordable – When there is a shortage of food prices increase and while richer people will likely still be able to feed themselves, poorer people may have difficulty obtaining sufficient safe and nutritious food without assistance.
Food is utilised – At the household level, sufficient and varied food needs to be prepared safely so that people can grow and develop normally, meet their energy needs and avoid disease.
What happens when people do not have food security?
For the more than 800 million people who do not get enough regular, healthy food, ill health and a shorter life expectancy are real risks. Children, and especially very young children, who suffer from food insecurity will be less developed than children of the same age who have had sufficient food. They will most likely be shorter and weigh less, and be less able physically and intellectually, because of poor nutrition.
Why is there food insecurity?
Poor people lack access to sufficient resources to produce or buy quality food. Poor farmers may have very small farms, use less effective farming techniques, and/or be unable to afford fertilisers and labour-saving equipment, all of which limit food production. Often they cannot grow enough food for themselves, let alone generate income by selling excess to others. Without economic resources and a political voice, poor farmers may be forced on to less productive land possibly causing further environmental deterioration. Addressing poverty is critical to ensuring that all people have sufficient food.
Without sufficient calories and nutrients, the body slows down, making it difficult to undertake the work needed to produce food. Without good health, the body is also less able to make use of the food that is available. A hungry mother will give birth to an underweight baby, who then faces a future of stunted growth, frequent illness, learning disabilities and reduced resistance to disease. Contaminated food and water can cause illness, nutrient loss and often death in children.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has reduced food production in many affected countries as productive adults become ill or die. Lacking the labour, resources and know-how to grow staples and commercial crops, many households have shifted to cultivating survival foods or even leaving their fields, further reducing the food supply. Addressing health issues will improve utilisation and availability of food.
Water and the environment
Food production requires massive amounts of water. It takes one cubic metre (1000 litres) of water to produce one kilogram of wheat and 3,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice. Producing sufficient food is directly related to having sufficient water. Irrigation can ensure an adequate and reliable supply of water which increases yields of most crops by 100% to 400%. Although only 17% of global cropland is irrigated, that 17% produces 40% of the world’s food. Increasing irrigation efficiency and limiting environment damage through salinisation or reduced soil fertility are important for ongoing food availability.
Where water is scarce and the environment fragile, achieving food security may depend on what has been called ‘virtual water’, that is, importing food from countries with an abundance of water. This may be a more efficient use of a scarce resource.
Women play a vital role in providing food and nutrition for their families through their roles as food producers, processors, traders and income earners. Yet women’s lower social and economic status limits their access to education, training, land ownership, decision making and credit and consequently their ability to improve their access to and use of food. Food utilisation can be enhanced by improving women’s knowledge of nutrition and food safety and the prevention of illnesses. Increasing women’s involvement in decision making and their access to land and credit will in turn improve food security as women invest in fertilisers and better seeds, labour-saving tools, irrigation and land care.
Disasters and conflicts
Droughts, floods, cyclones and pests can quickly wipe out large quantities of food as it grows or when it is in storage for later use. Likewise, seeds can be destroyed by such environmental dangers.
Conflict can also reduce or destroy food in production or storage as farmers flee to safety or become involved in the fighting. Previously productive land may be contaminated with explosive debris and need to be cleared before it can again be used for food production. Stored food, seeds and breeding livestock may be eaten or destroyed by soldiers, leading to long-term food shortages. Government spending needs to prioritise food security in the aftermath of conflict.
Population and urbanisation
Population growth increases the demand for food. With most productive land already in use, there is pressure for this land to become more productive. Poor harvests and higher costs lead many poor farmers to migrate to cities to look for work. Expanding cities spread out across productive land, pushing food production further and further away from consumers. This increases the cost of all the activities associated with producing and transporting food, and decreases the food security of the poor in cities.
Many poor countries can produce staples more cheaply than rich nations but barriers to trade, such as distance from markets, quarantine regulations and tariffs make it difficult for them to compete in export markets against highly subsidised farmers in rich countries. This deprives poor farmers of income and entire countries of the agricultural base they need to develop other sectors of the economy. In addition, trade imbalances prevent poor countries from importing agricultural products that could enhance their food security.
What is being done?
Improving food production
Increasing the amount of food available is necessary to feed the growing population. The Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s led to huge increases in output, largely due to the cultivation of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, the expansion of land under production and irrigation, greater use of fertilisers and pesticides and greater availability of credit. In many countries these gains have reached their limit, and social and environmental issues must now be addressed. Further increases in food production depend on better integration of traditional knowledge with research; improving farming practices through training and the use of technology to increase outputs from current land without further loss of productive land; land reform to provide secure access to land for more people; and the provision of low-cost finance to help farmers invest in higher quality seeds and fertilisers and small irrigation pumps.
While genetically modified seeds are being hailed as a means of improving crop outputs, there are also concerns about the ownership of seeds, adequate compensation for traditional knowledge and possible side effects.
Economic growth and trade liberalisation
Increasing food production leads to greater availability of food and economic growth in the domestic and/or overseas markets. Generating income can provide access to more and varied foods and provide cash for use in other areas of the economy, such as small enterprise and manufacturing, which in turn helps reduce poverty. Trade liberalisation is opening up markets slowly, but there are costly barriers to overcome. Work is underway through the Doha Round of multilateral trading negotiations in the World Trade Organisation to make trade rules fair, encourage trade liberalisation and assist developing countries to participate in the global trade environment.
While there are sufficient resources in the world to provide food security for all, policy and behavioural changes are necessary to guarantee a fair share for all people, especially the poor. Building on a series of global conferences, in particular the 1992 International Conference on Nutrition and the 1996 and 2002 World Food Summits, countries have developed national nutrition plans and policies in nine major strategic action areas that:
include mainstream nutrition goals in development policies and programmes
improve household food and nutrition security
protect consumers through improved food quality and safety
prevent and manage infectious diseases
care for the socioeconomically deprived and nutritionally vulnerable
prevent and control specific micronutrient deficiencies
promote appropriate diets and healthy lifestyles
assess, analyse and monitor nutrition situations.
The progress towards achieving these goals, however, has been much slower than intended.
Recognising the role of women
Gender equality is a prerequisite for the eradication of poverty and hunger. Many programs recognise the need for changes in access to food, land, credit, education, health and nutrition training and decision making in order to make effective use of women’s roles in agricultural production and food preparation.
The need for food during emergencies such as drought, disaster, population displacement and conflict is addressed by the distribution of basic food supplies and fuel. Early warning systems can predict problem areas, allowing action to be taken to keep people in their homes and help them back to food self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. Food sourced locally rather than internationally minimises the costs and disruption to local markets. In severe situations feeding may be necessary but often food aid is linked with work, health or education to avoid dependency and address the long-term causes of food insecurity.