Understanding Food Security

This article explores the definition, significance, measures, and factors that affect food security and what can be done to counter food insecurity.

food security

Published 28 Apr 2022

What is Food Security?

Food security refers to one’s ability to access safe, nutritious, and sufficient food at all times. It means having access to plenty of food sources for a well-balanced diet to achieve a healthy life. It covers all access points, from physical to social and economic access to food supplies.

To achieve food security, one must fulfill the following criteria:

  • produce enough food supplies;
  • maintain a steady flow of food; and
  • ensure those who are in need can access these supplies.

Importance of Food Security

Food security is a pressing global problem that affects billions around the globe. The most recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that nearly one in three people don’t have access to sufficient food supplies. Because of this, food security became a vital component of Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Moreover, food is a fundamental human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) includes food as one of the basic rights for “a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.” Needless to say, food is a basic need to sustain life.

Food security also results in better health outcomes. Good food strengthens the body, replenishes energy, and provides enough nutrients—contributing substantially to overall health and well-being. Healthy diets help reduce the risk of malnutrition, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other diseases.

Lastly, food security contributes to economic well-being. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) estimates that around 4.5 billion people rely on agriculture and food systems for their livelihood. This sector provides jobs for the community, enabling them to sustain themselves in the long run.

What is Food Insecurity?

The previous sections discussed the concept of food security. Given this, how should one define food insecurity?

FAO defines food insecurity as the “lack of regular access to safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development.” It arises mainly because of two reasons:

  • People lack the resources to produce or purchase enough food; or
  • Food is unavailable at their location.

According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition Report, over 900 million people have experienced severe food insecurity in 2020. Moreover, over 2.37 billion people have no access to adequate amounts of safe and healthy food.

4 Pillars of Food Security

Food security depends on these four pillars: availability, access, utilization, and stability. This section explores each of them and how they affect food security.

Access

The first pillar, access, covers the means to obtain enough food. Food security ensures that food sources are within reach and that people have the tools and resources to produce and purchase food.

It encompasses the following types of access to food resources:

  • Physical access: This type includes adequate supply, location, and resources.
  • Socio-economic access: Areas such as socioeconomic status, household finances, and price of goods fall under this category.

Availability

The second pillar, availability, pertains to the food supply. It specifically asks about the quantity, quality, and variety of food sources.

It involves several aspects, from production and storage to trade and food aid. A food-secure community has a steady and reliable source of food for everyone.

Utilization

The third pillar, utilization, is all about food intake. It seeks to understand how the body sustains itself through food. Thus, nutritional values and food preparation fall under this pillar.

FAO’s definition of food security emphasizes the need to meet their food preferences and nutritional needs through their food intake. Moreover, food must be nutritious and safely prepared to meet an individual’s physiological needs.

Stability

The final pillar, stability, refers to the length of time one can access enough food supply. Is the food resource regularly available? Or does it fluctuate during sudden shocks?

Food-secure communities must have a steady flow of food supplies enough to feed everyone. They must also prepare food stocks in case of emergencies. However, many factors can affect food supply, such as but not limited to:

  • extreme weather conditions;
  • bad seasons;
  • economic crises;
  • conflicts; and
  • food price hikes.

Factors Affecting Food Security

Food security continues to face several challenges through the years. While most of them are not new, these factors worsen the existing inequalities in the global food systems. This section discusses the major factors that impact food security.

Energy Security

Energy security is one of the essential factors for a functional food system. From production to processing, agriculture consumes a lot of energy from gas, electricity, and fuel to keep things running. Moreover, fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals needed for agriculture also require energy for production.

The recent international conflict has led to a sharp increase in energy prices. The sanctions imposed on Russia, a key player in the global energy market, have impacted the global food systems—from higher production costs, disrupted food supply chains, to rising food prices.

Climate Change

Climate change and food security have strong links with each other. Extreme weather events, drought, and seasonal changes reduce yield growth, productivity, and availability of food supplies. Thus, food production systems need measures in order to adapt to climate change.

Food production is also a major contributor to global warming. For one, this sector generates a quarter of the total Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs). Moreover, food production occupies 50 percent of the habitable lands.

The sheer number of resources consumed in producing food calls for a more sustainable and climate-resilient approach to food production.

Population Growth

The United Nations projects the world population to reach 8.5 billion by 2030. This projected growth requires an increase in food production by 70 percent, according to UN DESA. Given this, food systems must keep up with the demands of the growing population.

Food security is essential in sustaining a healthy future for everyone. It means healthy food choices, sustainable farming practices, and equitable access for people of all incomes.

COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic devastatingly impacted multiple sectors, including food systems. For example, it led to one of the biggest annual increases in global hunger in decades.

Efforts to contain the pandemic have restricted physical access to food sources. For example, travel restrictions, quarantines, and lockdowns made it difficult for people to buy food. Moreover, border closures disrupted food supply chains and turned economies upside-down.

Low-income households dealt with the worst blow. For one, the pandemic narrowed down their already limited food choices. There are also those who lost their jobs, eliminating their means of livelihood and funds for purchasing meals and food ingredients.

Rising Food Prices

Food prices have been volatile since 2019. Multiple factors—climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, for example—have landed a tremendous blow on food production. In turn, they push up the costs of nutritious food sources.

In 2019, around three billion people cannot afford nutritious meals. When 2020 came, the cost of a healthy diet rose to almost five times as much as meals with minimal nutrition.

The underprivileged suffer the brunt of the rising prices, making it more challenging to afford the costs of healthy meals. Because they cannot afford healthy meals, low-income households sometimes (unknowingly) resort to cheap but unhealthy food that happens to be readily available. At worst, they would skip meals for an entire day or two. This practice puts them at risk of malnutrition and several diseases.

Water Security

Water, just like energy, is essential to food security. After all, it’s a necessary element in growing crops and raising livestock for food. For example, irrigation boosts the volume and variety of harvested fruits and vegetables all year round.

Recent data show that agriculture is the largest water user on the globe. This sector consumes almost 70 percent of the freshwater reserves for human use. Moreover, by 2050, its water consumption is expected to increase by 19 percent.

However, the world is running out of freshwater supplies. Contamination, extreme weather, and droughts plague the already limited water reserves. If this continues, it could further affect the global food production system, especially the fisheries sector.

Conflicts

From the Second World War to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, wars continue to harshly impact food production systems around the world.

For one, these two countries produce a quarter of the global wheat supply, making them the largest suppliers of grains around the world. Ukraine, for example, delivers 40 percent of wheat and corn to Africa and the Middle East. But because of the halt in grain supply, those regions face food shortages and food price hikes.

Aside from this, Russia is also a major producer of fertilizer. They contribute around 15 percent of the global nitrogenous fertilizer exports and 17 percent of the global potash fertilizer trades. As the fertilizer prices continue to spike, so will the food prices by about 30 percent.

Safety

Lastly, food safety has close links with food security. After all, quality food is a must to sustain life. Safe food preparation, handling, and storage are key to ensuring good health for everyone.

If food is contaminated, it could negatively impact people’s health. Unsafe food can put people at risk of more than 200 diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that each year, around 600 million people become sick after eating contaminated food.

Access to and availability of safe food are also other factors to consider. For example, poverty-stricken regions have limited access to safe, nutritious food sources. Areas experiencing food deserts and famines are also deprived of nourishment due to a lack of safe food supply.

Measures for Global Food Security

Various organizations have devised methods for gauging food security on a global scale. This section provides an overview of two global standards for measuring food security and food insecurity.

Global Food Security Index

global food security index

Global Food Security Index

The Global Food Security Index (GFSI) evaluates and ranks countries based on their food security status. This model developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) measures the drivers of food security using 58 indicators across 113 countries.

The GFSI model consists of four core pillars: Affordability, Availability, Quality and Safety, and Natural Resources and Resilience. The latter was a recent addition to the index to acknowledge the devastating impacts of climate change on food security in recent years.

Food Insecurity Experience Scale

FAO developed the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) as an experience-based food insecurity metric. This scale investigates the constraints in obtaining food using people’s direct responses. This way, it can find which populations are severely food insecure and where they come from.

The FIES model, as shown below, measures food insecurity at three levels:

food insecurity

Food Insecurity Experience Scale

  • Food Security to Mild Food Insecurity: A person experiences little to no concerns about obtaining their food.
  • Moderate Food Insecurity: A person struggles to acquire food, making them skip meals or eat readily available but unhealthy food.
  • Severe Food Insecurity: A person has run out of food for a day or more, resulting in extreme hunger.

Food Security Solutions

The factors that affect food security are closely linked with one another. Thus, improving food security requires a multi-faceted approach to food systems. Combining several strategies into a holistic program ensures that each pillar of food security is addressed adequately.

Here are the major strategies to consider for strengthening food security efforts.

Data Collection Systems

The first step to food security starts with collecting food data. The insights gained from food data collection inform decision-makers of the current state of the food systems—from consumption and expenditure to risks and markets. This way, they can develop effective and evidence-based food security and nutrition programs.

However, collecting adequate food data remains a challenge for developing nations. To address this, FAO recommends digging deeper into food consumption patterns. For example, asking participants about the number of meals they consume daily provides a clearer picture of the accessibility and availability of food items in a specific area.

Policies and Legislation

After collecting data, it’s time to put those findings into action through legislation and policies. This means thinking into the future and finding sustainable farming practices to boost productivity. Designing cohesive food systems is a must in pushing this endeavor forward.

Several countries have enacted laws and programs to address food insecurity. Listed below are two of the most prominent legislations for this topic.

Global Food Security Act of 2016

The Global Food Security Act exhibits the United States’ commitment to a food-secure future for all. It strengthens the Feed the Future initiative through accountability measures in the food systems. It aims to work across various value chains in agriculture and increase the reach of small farmers to local and international markets.

National Food Security Act of 2013

Also known as the Right to Food Act, this law shows the Indian government’s efforts to guarantee that everyone can purchase high-quality food at reasonable prices. It provides subsidized food grains to approximately two-thirds of India’s population. That’s around 75 percent of their rural population and 50 percent of their urban population.

Risk Management

Food systems are constantly exposed to a multitude of risks, from natural hazards and weather disturbances to supply shortages and market volatility.

Integrating risk management plans, strategies, and tools is key in adapting to current and future risks. By strengthening resilience to markets, climate, and other factors, governments can improve their food security.

Capacity-Building Efforts

Investing across agricultural value chains helps build strong, resilient, and reliable food systems. This effort includes equipping farmers with the right tools to prepare for risks and increase productivity.

The following are some of the initiatives to introduce:

  • Sustainable cultivation and management practices;
  • Advisory services, especially for small farmers;
  • Irrigation techniques;
  • Harvest and management technologies; and
  • Pest resistance and control mechanisms.

Emerging Technologies

Technology is a powerful tool in improving the sustainability of food systems. For one, it enhances the capacity of food producers to maximize their yield. Online platforms such as iAuditor by SafetyCulture can help farmers in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Monitoring their crops;
  • Collecting data about their harvests and livestock;
  • Learning more about best farming practices; and
  • Improving the safety of their produce before reaching consumers.
leizel estrellas safetyculture content specialist

SafetyCulture Content Specialist

Leizel Estrellas

Leizel Estrellas is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture. Her academic and professional training as a researcher allows her to write meaningful articles that create a lasting impact. As a content specialist, she strives to promote a culture of safety in the workplace through accessible and reader-friendly content. With her high-quality work, she is keen on helping businesses across industries identify issues and opportunities to improve every day.

Leizel Estrellas is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture. Her academic and professional training as a researcher allows her to write meaningful articles that create a lasting impact. As a content specialist, she strives to promote a culture of safety in the workplace through accessible and reader-friendly content. With her high-quality work, she is keen on helping businesses across industries identify issues and opportunities to improve every day.