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Demonstration and preparation of a dish based on vegetables harvested in the garden by beneficiary Hassana Mahamadou (30) in Village Toungaïlli. Photo: Ollivier Girard/Concern WorldwideFood SecurityFood Security

What is food security?

What is food security?
Story26 May 2021Austin Fahy

Food security is a basic human right. In fact, having access to at least an adequate amount of nutritious food could be seen as the most basic of all human rights.

However, for hundreds of millions of people, this right is not being met, usually for reasons entirely out of their control. In this article, we will discuss why this is happening, the impact that food insecurity has on those affected, and what we can do, both as individuals and collectively, to right these wrongs.

What is the definition of food security?

Food security is the measure of an individual’s ability to access food that is nutritious and sufficient in quantity. Some definitions of food security specify that food must also meet an individual’s food preferences and dietary needs for active and healthy lifestyles.

What are the different levels of food security?

The concept of food security can be broken down into four main components known as the ‘4 pillars of food security’.

Availability - Availability simply refers to the existence of food within a community. This is closely linked to the efficacy of food production. Availability can become an issue when there is a lack of necessary resources, such as water for irrigation or when land being used for food production is damaged or degraded.

Access - Simply having enough food in a community means very little if there is poor access to it. True food security means that individuals have the resources they need to obtain a sufficient quality of nutritious food. Access to food is affected by a myriad of physical, social and policy related factors. Factors such as pricing, household proximity to suppliers and infrastructure all affect our access to food.

Utilisation - Not all food is of equal or sufficient value. To be food secure, it is crucial that the food being accessed is of a good quality. It is paramount that food is nutritious and healthy enough to provide the energy people need for their daily activities. It is also crucial that individuals have the necessary knowledge and tools to properly ‘utilise’ the food available to them. This includes having the utilities to properly select, prepare, and store foods that are available and accessible.

Stability - Good food stability means that access, availability and utilisation of food remains relatively stable over time. It is important to try to minimise any threats to this stability. Threats to food stability include natural disasters, climate change, conflict and economic factors such as volatile price fluctuations.

How is food security measured?

As we have already discussed, food security is a multi-faceted concept which begs the question, how is food security assessed? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are several facets and methods used to assess food security.

1. Estimating calories per capita

2. Household income and expenditure surveys

3. Measuring individual’s dietary intake

4. Measuring individual’s height, weight and body composition

5. Reports of individual’s experience of food security

RAIN (Realigning Agriculture to Nutrition) programme in Niger builds on the learnings from the RAIN programme in Zambia, which was funded by Kerry Group between 2012 and 2015, and focuses on improving food and nutrition security and enhancing the livelihoods of the most vulnerable households in Tahoua. Photo: Ollivier Girard/Concern Worldwide
Jardin Potager and community group, Village Toungaïlli. Photo: Ollivier Girard/Concern Worldwide
RAIN (Realigning Agriculture to Nutrition) programme in Niger builds on the learnings from the RAIN programme in Zambia, which was funded by Kerry Group between 2012 and 2015, and focuses on improving food and nutrition security and enhancing the livelihoods of the most vulnerable households in Tahoua.
Demonstration and preparation of a dish based on vegetables harvested in the garden by beneficiary Hassana Mahamadou (30) in Village Toungaïlli. Photo: Ollivier Girard/Concern Worldwide

What are the major causes of food insecurity?

Understanding why some people face food insecurity and the effects this can have on them and their families is the first step in helping to mitigate the damage that food insecurity can cause.

Conflict: Conflict stands out as the single biggest factor driving global hunger today. Over 60% of those who are food insecure are living in conflict zones. Conflict forces people to flee from their homes, often leaving behind their only means to a livelihood. Conflict also divides communities and can cause farmers to abandon any long-term agricultural strategies for fear that they will never reap the benefits if they are forced to flee.

Climate change: After years of stagnation, the number of hungry people in the world rose between 2015 and 2018 by nearly 40 million people, with the greatest rise coming in drought-affected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. An increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters has devastated some regions, destroying crop yields and limiting the quantity and quality of food available to communities.

Population Growth: According to the UN, the global population will be nearly 10 billion people by 2050. As the population continues to grow, it is necessary that food production and food accessibility grow to match it. Unfortunately, we have already seen in countries that have experienced population booms that resources needed for food production (water supply, croplands) can become scarce when divided, causing food insecurity.

What are the main threats to food security?

We have discussed the main threats to food security in the section exploring the causes of food insecurity however this list is not exhaustive. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has threatened the food security of millions of people worldwide. Reduced incomes, increased unemployment and higher food prices in many regions have greatly reduced access to food for those effected. Furthermore, necessary boarder restrictions and lockdowns brought in to stop the spread of Covid-19 have caused disruptions to the transportation and production of food.

According to the United Nations, the number of food-insecure people categorised as crisis level or worse has potentially nearly doubled in 2020. The economic fallout of Covid-19 affects food production at all levels. We have seen disruptions to the financial liquidity of food producers, inflation of basic food items and consumers with reduced incomes unable to meet these rise in prices. It is essential at this time that we work to protect those most at risk while laying the groundwork for a more stable and sustainable future.

One-year-old Cecelia being tested for malnutrition.
One-year-old Cecelia being tested for malnutrition. Photo: Nora Lorek/Panos Pictures

What happens when there is food insecurity?

Malnutrition: Malnutrition can be a devastating reality for those who are food insecure. This is not only because of the associated suffering but also because it can lead to those affected becoming increasingly food insecure. Weakened muscles and cognitive issues associated with malnutrition can make it near impossible for the individuals who are suffering to improve their situation or even to maintain their livelihoods.

Stunting: When a child does not receive the proper nutrition, particularly during their first 1,000 days from conception to their second birthday, they will likely suffer stunting. This means they will not mentally or physically develop to where they otherwise would, irreversibly damaging their well-being and future prospects. This issue is all too common in countries affected by food insecurity. For example, over one-third of children are affected by stunting in Liberia – a country ranked the six hungriest in the world by our Global Hunger Index.

Mental Health Issues: A recent study on food insecurity in Ethiopia found that those facing food insecurity were more likely to suffer from both depression and anxiety.

The combined effects on mental and physical health paint a devastating picture of the quality of life for those who are food insecure.

What is the most food insecure country?

There are people in every country who experience food insecurity. However, the magnitude of these issues is far greater in some countries than others.

According to our 2020 Global Hunger Index, these are the current top 10 hungriest countries.

10. Nigeria - Inequality plays a huge role in food insecurity in Nigeria. In regions such as Lagos, child mortality is around 3%. However, in the Kebbi state, 66% of children are stunted due to malnutrition and the mortality rate jumps to 25%.

9. Afghanistan - Afghanistan has been devastated by drought in recent years. However, the countries plentiful natural resources, as well as its engaged government, gives hope that food security will greatly improve. This will be achieved through interventions targeting gender equality and the effects of climate change.

8. Lesotho - 70% of the population of Lesotho rely on subsistence farming for their food and livelihood. After devastating droughts in recent years, crop failures led to a surge in acute levels of food insecurity as a huge portion of the population was affected. 

7. Sierra Leone - Sierra Leone has made huge strides in improving food stability since the turn of the century. Despite these strides, 26% of the population of Sierra Leone still faces chronic hunger.

6. Liberia - Much of the food insecurity in Liberia stems from difficulties relating to the country’s 13-year civil war, which ended in 2001. Today, 16% of families in Liberia are food insecure.

5. Mozambique - Mozambique had made great improvements in food security at points in the last decade. Unfortunately, Mozambique re-entered the list of the ten hungriest countries in 2020, with nearly one-third of Mozambicans facing chronic hunger.

4. Haiti - Haiti remains the hungriest country in the Western hemisphere, making very limited progress over the last 20 years. Political instability and a devastating string of natural disasters has made this progress difficult to advance.

3. Madagascar – This is the first of three countries to be classified as having ‘alarming’ food insecurity. A large increase in undernourishment rates in the last 10 years, coupled with the challenges now being faced due to COVID-19, has led the UN to warn that there may soon be unprecedented levels of hunger in Madagascar and neighbouring nations.

2. Timor-leste- One-third of the people in Timor-leste suffer from food insecurity. A combination of issues relating to access, availability and quality of food available has meant that more than half of the children in Timor-leste are stunted.

1. Chad - Climate change and the need for emergency food assistance in Chad have contributed to widespread food insecurity. Ranking in the top three hungriest countries for the last three years, Chad’s levels of undernourishment, stunting and child mortality paint a sombre picture of the world’s hungriest nation.

Annie Porkah who benefited from a Concern Home Garden programme. Annie has limited mobility and the programme is helping ensure she has healthy food to eat all year round. She sells some of the vegetables and is using the funding to pay her grandsons tuition fees. A bit of a hero! The home gardening training is part of the EU funded PARTNERS program, and photos were taken in Swaniwein town in District 3 of Grand Bassa County. Photo: Concern Worldwide
Annie Porkah who benefited from a Concern Home Garden programme. Photo: Concern Worldwide
Concern team working to get food to those affected by the fire in Rohingya camp, March 2021.  Photo: Heather Macey/Concern Worldwide
Concern team working to get food to those in the Rohingya camp Photo: Heather Macey/Concern Worldwide

Who is most at risk of food insecurity?

Food insecurity can impact all sections of society but there are certain groups who are more likely to be impacted.

Women: Higher food prices hurt mostly the poorest of the poor, especially the landless poor and female-headed households in both urban and rural areas. Unaffordable food prices force families to choose which family member (mother, child or key labourer) should pay the price in terms of reduced health care, education or food consumption. Unfortunately, all too often it is women who are chosen.

Small-scale farmers: Small-scale farmers are often most prone to the damaging effect that climate change can have on food security. These farmers are reliant on predictable climate patterns to provide them the yields they need to eat and support themselves financially. Fluctuations in these patterns and increasingly frequent climate disasters can leave farmers, who often lack significant capital or an alternative means to a livelihood, facing acute food insecurity.

Urban poor: According to the FAO, when economic crises strike it is the urban poor who can be most affected. This is due, in part, to the fact that they are most likely to suffer unemployment, which can be a major barrier to accessing the food they need.

How can we prevent food insecurity?

Food insecurity is a terrible reality that is facing millions of people but there are steps that we can take, both as individuals and as a collective, to reduce food insecurity and improve the quality of life of those currently affected.

Building climate change resilience

Climate change and climate disasters are becoming increasingly devastating for those affected. Small farmers across our countries of work have experienced an increasing number of such events, including floods and droughts, which put their food supply and livelihoods at risk. By helping farmers develop more sustainable and resilient agricultural practices, we can fight back against climate change. Diversifying crop production, improving irrigation and promoting sustainability can lessen the impact of climate disasters, while helping overall food production to increase.

Address inequalities of hunger

The impacts of conflict and hunger are fundamentally gendered. Women in food-insecure regions frequently report experiencing gender-based violence as a direct or indirect result of conflict. These experiences are closely tied to their responsibilities for the production, collection and preparation of food. The unequal allocation of food is just an example of the discrimination women and girls face in crises. By addressing this discrimination in both food and educational programmes, we can help create a safer, more food secure world for women and girls.

Conflict-sensitive relief

Conflict is the primary driver of food insecurity in the world, and the greatest threat to a more stable, prosperous and food-secure future. By creating conflict-sensitive approaches, and ensuring that programmes do not further exacerbate conflict, we can effectively prevent food insecurity from affecting those most in need. This requires a deep understanding of conflict dynamics at national and local levels, how they interact and shape one another, and how they can change. Crucially, it also requires an awareness of how programmes can influence a conflict environment, and a willingness to act on this and adapt approaches where necessary.

What is the role of the government in food security?

Governments can play a key role in improving the food security of its citizens. A great example of this can be seen in Kenya. Concern are working in partnership with the Kenyan government, who have adopted a CMAM (Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition) Surge approach and implemented its ideals into government-run health systems.

Through this approach, seasonal spikes in malnutrition are anticipated so that relief can be provided quickly and effectively where needed. This pro-active approach leads to the improvement of food security for those most vulnerable.

Food Basket distribution in  Syria. Photo: Concern Worldwide
Food Basket distribution in Northern Syria. Photo: Concern Worldwide

What is the role of private organisations in food security?

Private organisations can have an enormous impact on food insecurity. A great example of this is Concern’s partnership with Kerry Group, who are helping to support our RAIN (Realigning Agriculture to Improve Nutrition) programme.

The RAIN programme is making lasting improvements to food security in Tahoua Region of Niger, West Africa. Currently in the final year of the four-year programme, the work being done in Niger builds on the success that Concern and Kerry Group had achieved with the same programme in Zambia.

The programme can help diversify and improve the nutritional quality of available diets, while also increasing food production. Crucially, the programme also targets the inequalities of food security with a focus on those who are most vulnerable, particularly women and girls. In addition, the programme is based on the use of sustainable agriculture, which can help to reduce the climate impact of farming and ultimately, to protect the means of food production for future generations.

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Find out more about our health and nutrition programmes as we work to end extreme poverty, whatever it takes.

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