Food Insecurity

Food is a fundamental part of life. We need it for our basic nutrition and cannot thrive without it. For the luckiest among us, food is an afterthought. For hundreds of millions of people around the world, however, something called food insecurity is an ever-present concern. Read on to learn in-depth about food insecurity, its causes, effects, and what can be done to combat it.

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Table of contents

    Food Insecurity Definition

    Human beings need food to provide energy and nutrients our bodies use to thrive. When a person can meet those needs, they are considered food secure. Without enough calories and the right mix of vitamins and minerals, a whole host of health problems occur. When someone is unable to reliably get enough food and the right kind, they are considered food insecure. Food insecurity can take many different forms, from receiving little to no food at all, to being well-fed but missing a few nutrients in your diet. Food security also includes whether or not a person or community is resilient to shocks to the food supply from phenomena like natural disasters or economic recessions.

    Food Insecurity: A situation where someone cannot reliably get the food and/or nutritional requirements they need to survive and thrive.

    Causes of Food Insecurity

    Next, let’s go over some common causes of food insecurity, both acute and chronic.

    Poverty

    In almost every place in the world, some form of money or trade is required to get the food one needs. Being impoverished can mean you have little money to spare for food. Poverty can mean a person or community is unable to buy all the food they need at all, or not enough variety to provide nutritional needs. Even if someone can pay for all the food they need now, if food prices rise, they might find themselves suddenly unable to pay for the same amount of food. In this sense, a person is also food insecure since their poor financial situation leaves them teetering between meeting their nutritional needs or not.

    Environmental Degradation and Climate Change

    Environmental damage such as desertification, water contamination, and air pollution may reduce ho much food a region can produce. Human activities that harm the environment disrupt the natural conditions that make agriculture productive. This then leads to less food supply for the local population, exacerbating food insecurity. Climate change is another process causing increased stress on our food supply.

    Food Insecurity Malawi field preparation StudySmarterFig. 1 - Preparation of a field in Malawi for the planting season

    Rising temperatures are increasing the likelihood of extreme events like floods and droughts, all of which devastate agricultural production. Heat itself is damaging to plants and some regions may no longer be able to grow some staple crops they need to feed the populace.

    Conflict

    Few human activities compare to the devastation caused by armed conflict, but even diplomatic conflicts and trade wars can lead to mass food insecurity. In terms of armed conflict, people uprooted from their land trying to flee fighting can end up in food insecure situations; away from being able to tend to their lands and work, and usually reliant on food from aid organizations.

    Access to food is sometimes used as a weapon itself, with warring parties purposefully attacking food supplies or trying to starve out civilians.

    Trade wars occur when two nations engage in creating barriers to trade between one another, which can drive up the price of everything, including food. Trade wars are especially harmful if a country already relies on importing food to meet its needs.

    Politics

    In some circumstances, access to food is used as a political tool or for personal gain. Governments can choose to provide food in exchange for political support or to punish populations by restricting food access. Certain systems of government, particularly ones with strong central control over agricultural production, lend themselves to inefficiency and corruption which creates food insecurity.

    Effects of Food Insecurity

    Next, let's review what the effects of food insecurity are.

    Poor Health

    Humans need a minimum caloric intake and nutritional supply to function and food insecurity degrades the ability to reach that minimum. Not getting enough calories leads to slow growth in children and degrades the body’s overall ability to function properly. Ultimately, severe famine can lead to death. In cases of not receiving the right amount of nutrients, a plethora of deficiency disorders is possible.

    The most common nutrient deficiency in the world is iron deficiency which can result in anemia, leading to fatigue and confusion. Nutrient deficiencies all vary in severity, but overall lead to low quality of life, poor educational outcomes, and reduced ability to function in general.

    Cycle of Poverty

    Poverty causes food insecurity which in turn creates more poverty. Having to dedicate more resources to buying food means less money is left over for things that could lift someone out of poverty, like paying for education or improving their living conditions. The negative health impacts of food insecurity also mean a person is less able to function in their job. For children, the financial burden of feeding a family can mean they must forgo schooling to instead work and make money. These factors compound to make poverty and food insecurity a cycle.

    Solutions to Food Insecurity

    The challenges to food security across the world are rooted in many institutional and deeply ingrained social issues that can seem near impossible to fully eliminate. However, there are solutions governments and the international community can take to help combat food insecurity.

    Increasing Agricultural Productivity

    There is enough food grown and produced around the world to feed everyone. The problem is its geographical distribution; not enough food is grown and delivered to the places that need it most. By investing in technologies that help to increase agricultural yields and productivity, more food can be produced. Throughout human history, there have been big leaps in agricultural technology, most recently the Green Revolution of the 1960s which brought about the widespread adoption of agrochemicals and more productive breeds of crops.

    Food Insecurity Nairobi ag lab StudySmarterFig. 2 - Agricultural research laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya

    Today there are even more technologies that boost the productivity of farming, but some of the poorest areas of the world lack the means to buy newer technologies. As such they are missing out on the benefits newer tech can bring to agriculture. Increasing subsidies for farmers and educating them on more productive farming methods can go a long way to providing food security.

    A lot of attention and controversy surrounds the use of genetically modified (GM) crops as a way to combat food insecurity. In response to high rates of vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, a genetically modified crop called Golden Rice was invented in 2000 which contains significantly more vitamin A compared to regular rice. As a part of larger skepticism around GM food, some environmental groups have objected to its use. However, the overwhelming consensus from government organizations and researchers is that golden rice is both safe to eat and an important source of vitamin A in otherwise deficient diets.

    Charity and International Aid

    Organizations like the World Food Programme and the US Agency for International Development provide nutritional assistance to some of the most food insecure places in the world. Aid organizations help give food both in times of crisis and as part of routine assistance to chronically insecure areas. Even in areas with relatively high levels of food security, natural disaster and war can result in an acute need for food. While emergency interventions will likely always be needed, by and large aid does not help resolve the underlying issues causing food insecurity.

    Poverty Reduction

    As one of the leading causes of food insecurity, eliminating poverty worldwide would make a massive dent in alleviating the issue. Of all the ways of reducing food insecurity, poverty reduction is perhaps the trickiest to resolve because of the countless factors that contribute to poverty. A concerted effort is needed amongst all nations and international organizations to lift up the worst off in society and fully eliminate poverty worldwide.

    Combating Climate Change

    The current period of global warming and climate change is caused by human activities through the emission of greenhouse gases. Because climate change is worsening food insecurity, action needs to be taken to combat climate change. It’s worth noting that this solution is more of a long-term one since the impacts of climate change are already being felt now. But if nothing is done, there is a very bleak future with rampant food insecurity in every nation.

    Food Insecurity in the US

    The United States is one of the great breadbaskets of the world. This is to say, its agricultural production and amount of food produced are nearly unparalleled. Despite this huge supply of food, a significant portion of the US population suffers from food insecurity.

    Poverty and food deserts are leading causes of food insecurity in the US. Food deserts are places where access to nutritious food is not conveniently available. Food deserts also tend to be in very poor areas, where people cannot afford the additional transportation costs to travel to a well-stocked grocery store for example. Some solutions to food deserts have been subsidizing grocery stores and building urban farms where people have access to fresh produce.

    Food Insecurity Urban farm Cincinnati StudySmarterFig. 3 - Urban farm in Cincinnati, Ohio

    The Covid-19 pandemic exasperated problems with food insecurity in the US, with more people becoming unemployed and the current period of inflating food prices also stands to make conditions worse. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 10.5% of Americans were food insecure as of 2020.

    Food Insecurity - Key takeaways

    • Food insecurity occurs when someone is not able to reliably acquire nutritious food, and/or adequate amounts of food.
    • The main causes and drivers of food insecurity are poverty, environmental degradation, conflict, and climate change.
    • Food insecurity leads to worse health outcomes and worsens poverty.
    • Some solutions to reducing food insecurity include international aid, alleviating poverty, increasing access to agricultural innovations, and fighting climate change.

    References

    1. Fig. 1: Preparation of a field in Malawi (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_Food_Security_15_(10665294293).jpg) by Stephen Morrison/AusAID (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfataustralianaid/) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2: Agricultural research lab Nairobi (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_Food_Security_Research_5_(10665167166).jpg) by Kate Holt/AusAID (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfataustralianaid/) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3: Urban farm in Cincinnati (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daniel_Oerther_posing_with_students_faculty_and_volunteers_at_the_site_of_the_University_of_Cincinnati_Urban_Farm.jpg) by Daniel Oerther (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Oertherdb&action=edit&redlink=1) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Food Insecurity

    What is food insecurity?

    Food insecurity is a situation in which someone cannot reliably acquire the amount of food they need to meet caloric and nutritional requirements. Food insecurity can vary in severity, from minor nutritional deficiencies to receiving barely any caloric intake at all.

    What causes food insecurity?

    A leading cause of food insecurity is poverty. Not being able to afford the food one needs results in food insecurity. Another cause is conflict, whereby people are displaced and food supply chains break down. Environmental conditions can also cause food insecurity, like droughts resulting in crop failure.

    How does food insecurity affect health?

    Every person needs a minimum amount of calories and nutrients from food. In the worst-case scenarios, food insecurity leads to death. Not receiving the right kind of nutrients can also lead to deficiencies. Things like iron deficiency lead to fatigue, confusion, and an overall lack of ability to thrive. Food insecurity is particularly harmful to children, limiting their ability to grow and leaving them more vulnerable to disease.

    How long has food insecurity been a problem?

    Food insecurity has been a problem since the beginning of humankind. Much of human history has been involved in trying to reliably get food sources, and civilizations being beset by famine. The advent of agriculture marked a huge step forward in solving food insecurity, but as we know the problem persists today.

    How to solve food insecurity?

    Food insecurity can be solved by tackling the acute insecurity issues as well as underlying problems. Acutely, aid organizations can respond to wars and natural disasters by giving food directly to those who need it. To solve food insecurity structurally, poverty needs to be reduced and agricultural technology needs to be more widespread to bring increased yields to food insecure communities. 

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