Food security: Facts and figures

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Courtesy of SciDev.Net

Food security is deeply connected to other development challenges and poor health. Michael Hoevel traces the links.

Food security addresses one of humankind’s most fundamental needs — access to a nutritious and adequate diet. It is also seen as a fundamental right, as stated by the UN in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet a staggering 842 million people around the world still suffer from undernourishment, 98 per cent of whom live in developing countries. [1] Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest concentration of food insecurity of any region, while South Asia has the highest overall number of hungry people, currently an estimated 295 million (See figures 1 and 2).

What is food security?

Food security actually describes a number of related yet distinct phenomena, for instance, the availability of food but also the ability to access and use it reliably. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as a state whereby “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. [2]

Food insecurity, the flip side of food security, is broader in scope than hunger (or undernourishment) because it also includes malnutrition — not having enough micronutrients (or excessive or imbalanced amounts) in your diet.


Food security is also interlinked with poverty and health. The World Bank has calculated that agricultural investments have at least twice the potential to reduce poverty as investments in any other sector. [3] In addition, people with low energy levels or poor health are often not able to be productive, and those without adequate work are less able to purchase food. This relationship is often referred to as the food-nutrition-livelihoods nexus.

In practice, measuring food security and trends over time can be challenging. Since 1950 the global population has more than doubled to 7.2 billion people, yet the total number of hungry or undernourished people has remained largely the same (see Figure 3). [4] In percentage terms, this represents a monumental drop in the prevalence of hunger from around one-third to around one-eighth of the population, driven at least in part by increases in agricultural productivity and increased trade (which lower food prices).

However, the UN’s calculation of undernourishment is based on a minimum daily intake of calories for men, women and children by country and assumes a sedentary lifestyle. This is despite the fact that the majority of the world’s hungry (80 per cent, in fact) are employed in labour-intensive food production and may require additional calories to sustain themselves. [6]

Because of this, some argue that current calculations of hunger may be too conservative, underestimating the true extent of the problem. [7] Others argue for a more complex definition of the problem, including the development of more explicit nutrition-sensitive agricultural practices to factor in provision of micronutrients in addition to productivity measures such as yield. [8] And yet others are exploring information and communication technologies as a way of collecting data on hunger and malnutrition more reliably and effectively. [9]

Paradoxically, the majority of the food insecure population lives in rural areas and works as farmers or farm labourers. They suffer food insecurity because they may not produce enough food or may not make adequate income to purchase it. Or the food they have harvested may get spoilt or attacked by pests in storage.

Adding to these problems, resource constraints and climate change will likely have stronger impacts on food insecure people in coming years. Estimates suggest that by 2050, agricultural water use will exceed what can be replenished. [10] Similarly, climate change impacts — such as rising temperatures, floods and droughts — are expected to be worst in food insecure regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with the World Bank predicting decreases in crop yields of 15 and 18 per cent respectively for the two regions over the same period. [11]

So food insecurity and malnutrition do not happen in a vacuum; they are deeply connected to other development and environmental challenges such as rural poverty, resource management and inadequate climate change adaptation. And because of its complexity, reducing global food insecurity is no easy task. Nonetheless, supporting science and innovation across the value chain can help.

Increased production and nutrition

The FAO estimates that crop production will need to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed the world’s population. [12] If this is achieved, this four-decade period will see more food produced than in the last 10,000 years combined.

How this additional food gets produced is a hotly debated topic. The Montpellier Panel, a group of 12 experts in the fields of agriculture, trade and rural development, support a model called ‘sustainable intensification’ as a solution. They argue that this can be achieved in three ways: agroecologically, genetically and socio-economically.

Science is helping to address this challenge in several ways. Table 1 compiles a number of promising solutions, all of which have delivered good results in specific locations.

Table 1. Science-based efforts to boost food security and agricultural productivity (drawn primarily from the Montpellier Panel report [13])


  • Microdosing — farmers use a small bottle cap-worth of fertiliser in each hole before planting, to improve nutrients delivered to plants as affordably as possible
  • Faidherbia trees — planting leguminous trees which conveniently shed leaves during the rainy season, providing nutrients to crops below
  • Zai systems — planting systems that promote water efficiency. Manure is gathered into medium-sized holes in the ground within which seeds are planted
  • Solar-panel drip irrigation kits — deliver water to crops efficiently and affordably


  • Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and golden rice — developed through a breeding process called biofortification, both provide higher levels of essential pro-vitamin A than conventional varieties
  • New rice for Africa —cross bred Asian and African species are maximising yield and resilience
  • Drought-tolerant maize — designed to produce higher yields in water-stress conditions
  • Taurine-zebu cattle cross-breeds — designed to maximise milk production yet withstand heat and drought conditions


  • Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE) — provides smallholder farmers with market prices and trends via mobile phone short message service (SMS) system
  • Faso Jigi — a Malian marketing association for smallholder farmers that helps farmers access technologies and fair market prices
  • Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) — a programme to mobilise women smallholder farmers to advocate for access to training, seeds, fertilisers and support on other farming issues

Increased production can also come from expanding the types of food we consume — everything from forest foods to lab-grown meat and even insects (see box 1). [14-16]

Box 1: Food insects

Around the world, two billion people already supplement their diets by eating insects, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Mealworms, beetles, caterpillars, bees, grasshoppers, ants, crickets, spiders, scorpions and termites of various kinds are eaten, mostly harvested from the wild. [17] They provide cheap, high-quality protein and nutrients while being much less resource-intensive than other animal products.

Improving the diversity and nutritional value of food farmers grow for their own subsistence is another way to ensure adequate and stable nutrition. Biotechnology research is helping to breed crops to better withstand heat, drought and floods, and which are fortified with key micronutrients that might otherwise be lacking in the staple foods of a particular region.

Targeted investment in agricultural research and development is essential in driving this agenda forward, yet more needs to be done. For instance, Africa invests little in science, technology and innovation for agriculture. As a result, solutions must often be imported, are more expensive and are not necessarily tailored to regional conditions and needs.

Not just production

But not everyone agrees that raising production is the best way to tackle food insecurity, arguing that the world already produces enough food to feed the population — it just needs to be distributed more efficiently, equitably, and with less waste.

Consumption habits play a significant role in food insecurity because of their influence on the types of foods which are produced and the resources required to grow them. Take global meat consumption.

It has already risen almost four-fold in the past 50 years to meet demand from a growing middle income population. Meat-based diets are much more energy- and water-intensive than diets based predominantly on carbohydrates — for instance one kilogram of wheat requires 1,500 litres of water whereas the same amount of beef requires ten times that amount. [19] Similarly, around a third of cereal production goes to feed animals rather than humans. [20] And an increasing amount of food each year is being grown for conversion into biofuels — around 25 per cent of US grain crops now go to produce ethanol. [21]

Changes in consumption patterns will become more pronounced with more middle income people in the world by the middle of the twenty first century — the result of expected demographic shifts fuelled first by richer populations in China and then in India. With more disposable incomes, diets will evolve towards more varied, ‘Western-style’ foods that are more resource-intensive.

The risk of crop damage or loss is another reason to think beyond increasing production. Vulnerable farmers can benefit from protection against the threat of failed crops, and ICTs can help make insurance protection for smallholders more affordable. An example is the Kilimo Salama microinsurance programme in East Africa, which is organised by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, various insurance companies, NGOs and government ministries. Meaning ‘safe farming’ in Swahili, Kilimo Salama uses satellite meteorological information to automatically trigger payments to farmers who have purchased the low-cost insurance against weather-related losses. Because there are no costly field visits, insurance can be offered at an affordable price, making farmers more resilient to climate-related disasters affecting production.

Waste and post-harvest losses

Around a third of all the food produced globally ends up wasted. According to the FAO, this amounts each year to 1.3 billion tonnes of food, or the equivalent economic loss of US$750 billion and 3.3 billion tonnes of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. [22]

In the developed world, much of this waste comes from supermarkets and consumers throwing away food. In the developing world, it occurs mostly when food crops spoil after harvest. Such post-harvest losses are caused by inadequate storage, transportation or market access.

Better understanding of storage systems, and political commitment, can help to address this issue. But science and technology are also stepping in. One promising example is the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) bags, a triple-bagging technique that hermetically seals harvests to avoid pest contamination. Other processing tools, such as those created by the Pan-African Agribusiness & Agroindustry Consortium and Compatible Technology International, help to grind grains and otherwise process and dry crops such as pepper, groundnuts and breadfruits.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) also help farmers protect their harvests and livelihoods. For instance, the Grameen Foundation has created its Community Knowledge Workers (CKW) programme, which provides farmer representatives in the community with a mobile phone. Each phone is equipped with an application that representatives can use to help fellow farmers diagnose and address common problems (for example pest identification, growth anomalies, animal diseases) or connect directly to an expert hotline for further advice.

Other innovative partnerships are also looking to link waste prevention measures with help getting farmers better access markets for their produce (See box 2).

Box 2: Fighting aflatoxins to prevent waste

Aflatoxins are the by-product of naturally occurring fungi that contaminate food through the soil — either during growth or when processing food on the ground (e.g. sorting, drying or threshing it). Around 4.5 billion people are exposed to aflatoxins in their diets each year. They raise the risk for around 80 per cent of all liver cancers and contribute to a higher risk of hepatitis and other liver diseases. [23]

In Malawi, the Afri-Nut programme, which is co-run by the National Association of Smallholder Farmers in Malawi and the marketing group Twin Trading, is addressing this problem. The programme combines extension services and improved basic processing, providing training and tools to farmers. Tools range from things as simple as ground covers that stop food being exposed to the soil, all the way to a new factory that processes contaminated groundnuts into oil — a process which destroys the aflatoxin and also creates a higher value product for farmers.

Market access

Many smallholder farmers sell their surplus crops immediately after the harvest — exactly when prices are lowest because of oversupply. Often this happens either out of fear of losing the crops later to pests and diseases, or because of the immediate need for money for necessities like school or healthcare fees.

This also means that if farmers need to buy food later in the year, once their reserves run out, prices are much higher, making it difficult for them to afford. As such, the last few months before a harvest are often referred to as the ‘hunger season’ — when food is either unavailable or too expensive. [24]

The urban poor are also quite vulnerable to changes in food prices as they already spend 60–80 per cent of their incomes on food (by comparison, the average American spends around 9 per cent). [25,26]

Rising food prices are often not as problematic as volatile food prices. Whereas rising food prices are often offset by parallel increases in wages, volatile food prices are caused by short-term shocks and make prices fluctuate dramatically and unpredictably. Food price spikes in both 2007/8 and in 2012 caused short-term hunger for millions and brought to light the need for greater transparency and trade in global food stocks.

An Ethiopian public-private initiative that aims to reduce the risk of volatility, set up in 2008, is now attracting interest from other African countries. [27] The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange provides traders with real-time pricing information, and acts as an organised marketplace where buyers and sellers come together to trade with assurances on quality, quantity, payment, and delivery that help smooth out spikes in supply and demand.

Another initiative in India, called e-Choupal, uses a series of village internet kiosks run by an agricultural conglomerate (ITC Limited) to provide more than four million farmers with real-time and customised market information while offering a platform for them to negotiate sales of their produce to ITC. This helps ensure they receive fairer prices for their crops.

Gender gap

Technology can make a difference — but it is important to look at who is able to receive it. Rural women are perhaps the most important group for addressing food insecurity and malnutrition — both because they are the people most involved in food preparation in the home and because they typically produce 60–80 per cent of the food across much of the developing world. [28]

Yet individual women farmers’ yields are, on average, 20–30 per cent lower than yields of their male counterparts, mostly due to differences in their ability to access resources like education and training, water and land, and high-quality seeds and fertilisers. [29] Reasons for these differences include cultural norms, unequal land rights and women’s domestic labour often going unpaid.

Bridging this gender gap in access to resources could reduce the number of undernourished in the world by 100–150 million (12–17 per cent of the current total) and improve food security not only among women but for everyone. [30] Part of this is because women provide their families with food, and also invest surplus income in them. A 1995 study in Cote D’Ivoire showed that improving a woman’s income by just US$10 had the same impact on her children’s health and nutrition as US$100 extra dollars for a man. [31] Another study measured a fall in child malnutrition over time and attributed nearly half that decrease to better women’s education, compared with only about a quarter being attributable to better food availability. [32]

A way forward

In some ways, the world has made good progress in reducing food insecurity, but this progress has not been distributed evenly across every region and has sometimes come at a cost. While China, for instance, has decreased its undernourished population by more than 100 million over the past 20 years (from 272 million to 158 million people), its agricultural activity has also caused widespread pollution and a decline in water quality. [1,33]

By 2050, the global population will add more than two billion people to the planet, the lion’s share of whom will live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The challenge of securing food supplies for the world’s growing population may partially be met by efforts to increase agricultural productivity, but issues of distribution and waste must also be addressed in tandem. Equally, science and innovation are playing important roles in the future of food security, but ensuring everyone’s equal ability to access and use them will also be key.

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