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 can be affected by many factors including climate, disasters, war, civil unrest, population size and growth, agricultural practices, 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 (male and female) can grow and develop normally, meet their energy needs and avoid disease.
What is the impact of food insecurity?
For the almost one billion people who do not get enough healthy food regularly, ill health and a shorter life expectancy are real risks. Children, and especially very young children, who suffer from food insecurity will most likely be smaller and be less able physically and intellectually.
Why is there food insecurity?
Poor people lack access to sufficient resources to produce or buy quality food. Farmers who lack sufficient equipment cannot grow enough produce and may be forced to farm less productive land. This could lead to further environmental deterioration and continue the cycle of poverty. Addressing poverty is critical to ensuring that all people have sufficient food.
A lack of sufficient calories and nutrients has huge effects on a person’s health. 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. A hungry community will struggle to work and produce enough food. 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 (1,000 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. 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.
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, 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 landcare.
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. Governments need to prioritise spending on food security in the aftermath of conflict.
Population and urbanisation
Population growth increases the demand for food, placing greater pressure on productive land. Poor harvests and higher costs lead many poor farmers to migrate to cities to look for work. Expanding cities also 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 that 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.