Food Security & Food Access

What does “food security” mean?

Although there are several different working definitions of food security, all of which have evolved over time, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations currently uses the following description: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”   1 A similar definition has also been adopted by the US, though in a more limited form. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s definition of food security is, “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”   1   Food security comprises several different components, including food access, distribution of food, the stability of the food supply, and the use of food.   2  The opposite of food security - food insecurity - is defined by the USDA as, “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”   3

Food insecurity is part of a continuum that includes hunger (food deprivation), malnutrition (deficiencies, imbalances, or excesses of nutrients), and famine. Long-term lack of food security eventually becomes hunger, defined by the USDA as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” On a population level, extreme lack of food security becomes famine. The United Nations rarely declares famine status, even in cases of long-term food insecurity, since its definition of famine is quite specific – famine is declared only when “at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.”   4   Malnutrition can be caused by food insecurity, but can also be caused by poor health, poor care for children, or an unhealthy environment.   5

In the US, the term “food desert” is often used to describe a location that has limited access to healthful, nutritious food, especially in low-income neighborhoods.   6 For example, individuals in some neighborhoods may have easier access to fast food and junk food than to fruits and vegetables.   6 However, there is some disagreement on what constitutes a food desert (i.e., what is an acceptable distance from a source of healthful food, such as a supermarket), and it is unclear whether true food deserts are as common as postulated by policymakers.   7   8   Others see the term as being not inclusive of other issues related to health and obesity, including: poverty and other socio-demographic factors; ease of access to healthful food, rather than lack of access; increased access to unhealthful food choices; exercise/physical activity; and unhealthful food choices related to cultural or economic factors.   9   10   11

How many people are food-insecure? Who is food insecure?

The USDA reported that 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during 2010.   1 Of the 14.5 percent that were food insecure, 5.4 percent were classified as having very low food security (defined by the USDA as “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake”).   1 However, in households with children, the USDA reports that over 20 percent were food insecure in 2010.   1 Globally, food insecurity is more difficult to measure. In 1999, the FAO estimated that over 1.2 billion people were chronically food insecure (i.e., undernourished).   12 Asia, including the Indian sub-continent, was the most food insecure region, with 642 million undernourished people. Over 15 million of the undernourished were in developed countries.   12

Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, including women (especially low income pregnant and lactating women), victims of conflict, the ill, migrant workers, low-income urban dwellers, the elderly, and children under five.   13 As we can see in the United States, having food security as a nation does not necessarily mean that all individuals living in that nation will be food secure.   2

What are the reasons behind lack of food access & food insecurity?

There are many complex reasons an individual becomes food insecure. Poverty is unmistakably the driving factor in the lack of resources to purchase or otherwise procure food, but the root causes of poverty are multifaceted. Poverty, combined with other socioeconomic and political problems, creates the bulk of food insecurity around the globe.   12   Some of the auxiliary causes of food insecurity are outlined below:

Food Distribution

Although it is commonly thought that world population will outstrip food production capacity, current production of food exceeds global population requirements. Historically, famines and widespread hunger have been caused by problems of food distribution (political or logistical) rather than by insufficient food production. Although the global population is expected to rise in the next several decades, global hunger is predicted to decline.   2  

Reverend Thomas Malthus, writing in the late 18th Century, warned that global population would exceed the Earth’s capacity to grow food. Malthus suggested that population grows exponentially, while food production grows only arithmetically.   14   15    Despite having been largely debunked, this theory has remained prominent in the discourse regarding hunger, the world’s population carrying capacity, and the need for increased agricultural technology (e.g., genetically modified organisms). It is also worth noting that in an historical context, Malthus’s argument was a warning about population increase amongst the poor.   15   14   Malthus and his cohort described the poor as breeding too rapidly, thus depriving the rest of the population of food; famine was seen as a “natural” defense against overpopulation.   14 Several well-known famines in history, such as the Irish Potato Famine and several Indian famines in the late 19th century, were caused not by lack of food, but by lack of political will to distribute the food to the starving poor. During these famines, Ireland and parts of India were actually exporting food to various other English colonies.   15   14 Malthusian theories were used to support political choices to avoid helping the starving.   15 Food distribution, rather than total food production, continues to be a global problem in solving food insecurity.

Political-Agricultural Practices

Various political-agricultural practices contribute to food insecurity worldwide. These include substituting commodity crops for food crops (e.g., growing corn instead of vegetables) and heavy exportation of food crops at the expense of food security of the exporting country.   15   16  In addition, the recent demand for biofuels, currently produced primarily from corn and soy, has further decreased the amount of viable arable land being used for food production.   17   18

The United States overproduces commodity crops (particularly corn, wheat, and soy) in part due to government subsidization; healthful food and sustainable agriculture has not been historically promoted in US food and farming policy.   19   The FAO’s definition of food security includes a provision describing access to “nutritious” food; however, in many low-income areas, it is easier to access cheap, unhealthful food (such as fast food), often produced primarily from commodity crops.   8 In addition, the US exports a high proportion of its commodity crops to the rest of the world. For example, in 2010, over 53 percent of all corn exports in the world were from the US.   20 The exportation of these commodity crops affects farmers in the rest of the world – especially small farmers with limited resources. A large influx of commodity crops from the US can affect local food security, as small farmers cannot compete with less expensive (subsidized) US-produced agricultural products.   16

Read more about industrial crop production

Environmental Factors

Globally, natural disasters, such as drought, have been frequently implicated in food insecurity; however, natural disaster-related food insecurity and famines are exacerbated by food distribution problems (see above) and lack of food surpluses due to exportation or other political factors.   12 It is predicted that climate change may negatively affect food supply and food access due to loss of farmland, fluctuating food prices, increases in foodborne illnesses, and other food utilization issues.   2 Other environmental factors, such as soil degradation (including salinization due to heavy irrigation, desertification, erosion, and soil pollution related to industrial agricultural practices) may negatively affect global food security as well.   21   22   

Other Economic and Political Reasons

The global rise in food prices in the last several years has been precipitated by a number of factors, including natural disasters such as drought; increased demand for biofuels; the US dollar’s decline; and an increase in the middle and upper class in countries like China (this has created increased demand for meat and dairy, and thus increased demand for grain).   18 Increases in food costs generally mean increases in the food insecure. Other factors contributing to food insecurity include loss of farmland or pastureland due to development; conflict and war; water access issues; and disease.   12   22   

What are the results of food insecurity?

On an individual level, food insecurity, especially over time, causes physical, social, and psychological problems in both children and adults.   23   24   In the US, chronic food insecurity has been documented to lead to, paradoxically, obesity, especially in women and girls.   24 One theory as to why food insecurity leads to obesity is that episodic periods of food insecurity cause the sufferer to overeat in an attempt by the body to recoup missing calories.   24   25 The type of food consumed in food insecure households may be another factor: high calorie food made from commodity crops (e.g., fast food and “junk” food) is often cheaper and easier to access than healthful food with high nutritional value.   25

In infants and toddlers in the US, food insecurity is correlated with higher hospitalization rates and generally poor health.   26 In older US children, food insecurity negatively affects academic performance and social skills, and causes increases in Body Mass Index (BMI), an indicator of overweight and obesity.   23 Globally, chronic food insecurity (undernourishment and malnutrition) causes underweight, wasting, and stunted growth in children.   12

Food insecurity can also lead to political instability and conflict. In recent years, there has been a number of “food riots” in which the population of a country (sometimes violently) protests its lack of food or, as was the case with the Mexican “tortilla riots” in 2007, rising food costs.   18

Are there solutions to food insecurity?

Solutions to food insecurity must include elimination of poverty; however, other aspects of food insecurity may be more immediately solvable. Some solutions proposed to end food insecurity include the following:

Sustainable Agriculture

Although the first Green Revolution (GR) (in the 1960s and 70s) increased global yields, the Revolution came at a price: per capita hunger also increased, as small farmers were forced out of subsistence agriculture and into urban slums, often due to the high cost of GR seeds and the inputs required to grow them (fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery).   27   The second wave of the Green Revolution focuses on genetically modified organisms (GMOs   ) as the central way in to feed the world’s growing population; however, this second wave of the GR may be worse for small farmers, as large corporations own the patents to seed.   27 In addition, in this second wave of the Green Revolution, the focus is not on sustainable agriculture, as high amounts of inputs (i.e., fertilizers, pesticides, intensive irrigation) are required. Because industrial agricultural inputs and infrastructure are expensive, rely on fossil fuels, and degrade the environment in numerous ways, many experts agree that relying upon unsustainable agriculture will, in the long term, increase global food insecurity.   27 Studies involving small farms have indicated that sustainable agricultural practices can actually increase yield.   29

Improving agricultural biodiversity

Improving agricultural biodiversity  through sustainable agricultural practices may also alleviate food insecurity.   31 Industrial agriculture relies upon monocropping, in which one genetic type of crop is planted on large tracts of land, while sustainable farms frequently plant a genetically diverse array of both crop type and species. Monocropping increases crop susceptibility to both pests and diseases; several historical famines and crop decimations were due to a pest or disease devastating monocropped agricultural plantings.   31 With monocropping also comes an increased need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can erode soil biodiversity and in turn negatively affect yields over time.   31   32    Enhancing biodiversity through the use of sustainable agricultural practices can protect communities from food insecurity associated with both crop loss and decreased yield.

Policy Changes

In the US, policy change that champions sustainable, locally produced food, including increased incentives for local farmers and for markets where fresh, healthful food is available, can increase community food security.   33 This, along with the increasing acceptance of food stamp (SNAP) benefits at local food outlets such as farmers' markets, may improve access to healthful food and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.   33   Community gardening, home gardening, and urban farming are other ways in which sustainably grown, local food can be used to improve community food security and to increase participant intake of fruits and vegetables.   34 SNAP benefits have expanded to allow participants to buy seeds and edible plants, further increasing the potential for urban agriculture and home gardening to help alleviate food insecurity.   35

Read more about sustainable agriculture and local food systems

Food Justice & Food Sovereignty

Food justice, broadly defined, is the idea that food is a basic human right; food, and the risks and benefits of the way it is grown and produced, should be distributed fairly.   36 Food sovereignty, defined by the agricultural activist group Via Campesina, is:

The right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; [and] to restrict the dumping of products in their markets.   37

Both the food justice and food sovereignty movements are concerned with the ways in which food is produced (i.e., sustainably) and distributed.   37 The food sovereignty movement argues that the focus solely on food security, without addressing the production of food, has caused poor, food-insecure countries to import cheap, subsidized food to the detriment of their local farmers, economies, and cultures, thus adversely affecting longer-term and sustainable food security.   38 They advocate local production andconsumption of food whenever possible as a means to avoid the cycle of poverty, reliance upon foreign imports, and long-term food security problems.   38

footnotes

  1. Holt-Gimenez, E. (2009). From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty. Monthly Review, 61.
    http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2505
  2. Rosett, Peter. (2003). Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements. Food First Backgrounder, 9.
    http://www.foodfirst.org/fr/node/47
  3. Gottlieb, R. & Joshi, A. (2010). Food Justice. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  4. United States Department of Agriculture. (2011). Using SNAP Benefits to Grow Your Own Food.
    http://blogs.usda.gov/2011/07/06/using-snap-benefits-to-grow-your-own-food/
  5. Carney, P., Hamada, J., Rdesinski, R, Sprager, L., Nichols, K., Liu, B., Pelayo, J., Sanchez, M., & Shannon, J. (2012). Impact of a Community Gardening Project on Vegetable Intake, Food Security and Family Relationships: A Community-based Participatory Research Study. J Community Health, 37, 874–881.
  6. Martinez, S., Hand, M., Da Pra, M., Pollack, S., Ralston, K., Smith, T., Vogel, S. Clark, S., Lohr, L., Low, S., & Newman, C. (2010). Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Retreived Sept. 20, 2012.
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err97/
  7. Bennett, A., Bending, G., Chandler, D., Hilton, S., & Mills, P. (2012). Meeting the demand for crop production: the challenge of yield decline in crops grown in short rotations. Biological Reviews, 87: 52–71.
  8. Thrupp, L. A. (2000). Linking Agricultural Biodiversity and Food Security: The Valuable Role of Sustainable Agriculture.  Royal Institute of International Affairs, 76, 265-281.
  9. Biodiversity
  10. Pretty, J.N., Noble, A.D., Bossio, D., Dixon, J., Hine, R.E., Penning de Vries, F.W.T., & Morison, J.I.L. (2006). Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries. Environ. Sci. Technol., 40, 1114–1119.
    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es051670d
  11. GMO
  12. Shattuck, A., & Holt-Gimenez, E. (2009). Why the Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act will Fail to Curb Hunger.
    http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2412
  13. Cook, J., Frank, D., Berkowitz, C., Black, M., Casey, P., Cutts, D., Meyers, A….Nord, M. (2004). Food Insecurity Is Associated with Adverse Health Outcomes among Human Infants and Toddlers. J. Nutr., 134, 1432–1438.
  14. Olson, Christine. (1999). Nutrition and Health Outcomes Associated with Food Insecurity and Hunger. J. Nutr., 129, 521S–524S.
  15. Townsend, M., Peerson, J., Love, B., Achterberg, C., & Murphy, S. (2000). Food Insecurity Is Positively Related to Overweight in Women. J. Nutr., 131, 1738–1745.
  16. Jyoti, D., Frongillo, E. & Jones, S. (2005). Food Insecurity Affects School Children’s Academic Performance, Weight Gain, and Social Skills. J. Nutr., 135, 2831–2839.
  17. Godfray, C., Beddington, J.R., Crute, I., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J., Pretty, J….Toulmin, C. (2010). Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science, 327, 812-818.
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/327/5967/812.full
  18. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2010). Soil for Food Security and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation. 
    http://www.fao.org/documents/pub_dett.asp?lang=en&pub_id=275949
  19. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. Selected Farm Products: US and  and World Production and Exports.
    http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0852.pdf
  20. Fields, Scott. (2004). The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Subsidies Foster Poor Health? Environmental Health Perspectives, 112, A820-A823.
  21. Tenenbaum, David J. (2008). Food vs. Fuel: Diversion of Crops Could Cause More Hunger. Environmental Health Perspectives, 16, A254-A257.
  22. Childs, B. & Bradley, R. (2007). Plants at the Pump: Biofuels, Climate Change, and Sustainability. World Resources Institute.
    http://www.wri.org/publication/plants-at-the-pump
  23. Halweil, B. (2002). Home Grown: The case for local food. Worldwatch Paper 163. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2012.
    http://www.worldwatch.org/node/827
  24. Davis, M. (2002). Origins of the Third World: Markets, States and Climate. The Corner House.
    http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/origins-third-world
  25. Handy, J. (2009).'Almost idiotic wretchedness': a long history of blaming peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 36, 325-344.
  26. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2011). The State of Food Insecurity in the World: How does international price volatility affect domestic economies and food security?
    http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/
  27. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (1999). Food Insecurity: When People Must Live with Hunger and Fear Starvation.
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/x3114e/x3114e00.htm
  28. Lee, H. (2012). The role of local food availability in explaining obesity risk among young school-aged children. Social Science & Medicine, 74: 1193-1203.
  29. An, R. & Sturm, R. (2012) School and Residential Neighborhood Food Environment and Dietary Intake among California Children and Adolescents. Am J Prev Med., 42, 129–135.
  30. United States Department of Agriculture. (2009). Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ap-administrative-publication/ap-036.aspx
  31. Lee, H. (2012). The role of local food availability in explaining obesity risk among young school-aged children. Social Science & Medicine, 74: 1193-1203.
  32. An, R. & Sturm, R. (2012) School and Residential Neighborhood Food Environment and Dietary Intake among California Children and Adolescents. Am J Prev Med., 42, 129–135.
  33. United States Department of Agriculture. (2009). Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ap-administrative-publication/ap-036.aspx
  34. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2008). An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Insecurity.
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/al936e/al936e00.pdf
  35. United Nations News Centre. (2011). When a Food Security Crisis Becomes a Famine.
    http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=39113
  36. United States Department of Agriculture. (2012). Definitions of Food Security.
    http://162.79.45.209/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx
  37. Schmidhuber, J. & Tubiello, F.N. (2007). Global Food Security under Climate Change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 19703-19708.t
  38. Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., Carlson, S. (2011). United States Department of Agriculture: Household Food Security in the United States in 2010.
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR125/err125.pdf