Food security: sufficient safe and healthy food for everyone

Food security means always having physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and healthy food. This food must also meet food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life. Ensuring food security poses major challenges as 9.3 billion people worldwide will need to be fed by 2050. Reducing food waste, enhancing infrastructure and promoting more efficient production techniques are key ways to improve food security.

Food security: sufficient safe and healthy food for everyone

According to the United Nations, food security means always having physical, social and economic access to sufficient healthy and safe food that meets our food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

Food insecurity will become an increasing problem over the coming decades. Food prices are likely to rise due to climate change and a growing world population. Nutritious food is therefore likely to become unattainable for more and more people.

Triple burden of malnutrition: almost 3 billion people are affected by food insecurity

There are three groups that are affected by malnutrition. All three groups are affected by a different form of malnutrition, which is why this is also called the 'triple burden' of malnutrition. In many cases, these three forms of food insecurity occur simultaneously in one country, sometimes even within a single household.

In total, there are almost 3 billion people worldwide affected by food insecurity.

1. Undernutrition

Too little food, insufficient variety and too little nutritious food causes hunger. This can lead to wasting (low weight for height), stunting (low height for age) and being underweight (low weight for age). It is estimated that 815 million people worldwide suffer from undernutrition and that 3 million children aged 0-5 years die every year as a result.

2. Micronutrient deficiencies

A large part of the world's population does have access to food, but this food is not nutritious as it lacks vitamins and minerals. The biggest problem is the lack of vitamin A, iron and iodine. About 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

3. Excess weight and obesity

A growing proportion of the world's population is overweight or obese due
to a combination of consuming the wrong kind of food containing excessive
calories with too little exercise. Being overweight can lead to higher blood
pressure, heart disease, different types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. Around
1.9 billion adults worldwide are overweight or obese. And 41 million children
under 5 years of age worldwide are also overweight or obese.

Feeding the world: sufficient food for 9.3 billion people in 2050

The world's population is growing rapidly. It is estimated that by 2050, 9.3 billion people will be living on this planet and they will all need access to sufficient nutritious food.

We cannot feed that many people using the methods used to grow food to date. We are depleting natural resources too much, says the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Production of food must be more efficient and sustainable without compromising the quality of the food.

Seven ways to improve food security

Food security can be improved in the following ways:

 1. Reducing food waste and food loss

It is estimated that one third of food production is lost. Food waste and food loss is worth about $750 billion a year.

The causes of food waste and food loss vary.

Food waste is caused, for example, by inefficient preparation methods and consumer preferences (e.g. slightly rotten fruit or oddly shaped vegetables).

We can reduce food waste by introducing improved methods of food preparation. One example is the use of vegetable trimmings in soups.

Food loss is caused, among other things, by crop failures and incorrect storage of food. We can reduce food loss by improving storage and packaging. Packaging that indicates whether or not food has gone off already exists, for example.

2. Improving infrastructure

Optimising the infrastructure also ensures that less food is lost and improves food security. Doing so involves looking at the entire food chain. Sufficient people or machines must be available for sowing and harvesting, the crops must be protected against weeds, diseases and pests, storage must be in order, and good
transport to markets or end users must be available.

3. Promoting fair trading practices

It is not just large commercial companies that need access to food markets; small farmers must also be paid a fair price for their products. Farmers working together in cooperatives have greater leverage to negotiate their purchase and sales prices, and thus make a better living from their produce.

4. Paying attention to diversification

Focusing on a single type of crop (monoculture) can exhaust the soil and
make the crop more vulnerable to diseases and pests. Farmers have a big problem
if their crop fails and they have no alternatives. Moreover, this can reduce
the nutritional value of products. Diversification is important to guarantee
food security.

5. Reducing the yield gap

Inefficient production methods mean that agricultural land yields are far less than should be possible in some places. Crop rotation and the use of sustainable production methods and new techniques increase production on these farmlands. This also results in more nutritious crops.

Smarter use of (artificial) fertiliser, water and better seeds can also lead to higher production.

6. Combating climate change

Droughts and floods are major causes of crop failure and in many cases are consequences of global climate change. Combating climate change will reduce crop failures. At the same time, it is also wise to introduce production methods that use less water.

Agriculture can make a positive contribution to a better climate. Crops absorb CO², reducing the amount of greenhouse gases. Working crop residues into the soil later on makes a double contribution to a better climate.

On the other hand, poor farming practices are a major cause of climate problems. Examples include the felling of forests to create farmland. More sustainable agriculture offers the best of both worlds, helping combat climate change and better absorbing its consequences.

7. Addressing the indirect causes of food insecurity

Food insecurity is also caused by an imbalance between imports and exports. As not every country will be able to grow all the food it needs there must be sufficient capital available to import food. Healthy food must also be financially available to all population groups.

Wars and social insecurity can also lead to food insecurity. When inhabitants are mainly concerned with survival and it is too dangerous to work the land, there is less time to devote to food production.

By also working on these indirect issues, food security can be improved. Food security can also be under pressure because agricultural land is being used for other purposes, such as growing crops for biofuels.

Pillars of food security

Four pillars of food security were defined at the World Summit on Food Security in 2009: availability, access, utilisation and stability.

Strengthening all of these pillars can lead to an improvement in food security.

1. Availability

The availability of food depends on its production and distribution. To ensure food security, there must be enough places to grow food. Agriculture and livestock farming also compete with other land uses such as housing. In addition, land may be unsuitable for cultivation because of its composition or due to erosion.

The availability of food also depends on successful production. For instance, too much or too little water can endanger food security.

After production, food must be stored and processed. The food then has to be transported and distributed. In all of these processes, the challenge is to ensure that food waste is kept to a minimum.

Finally, the health and nutritional value of food also depends on its freshness. This is particularly true of fruit and vegetables. The longer the availability of this food is delayed, the faster its quality deteriorates.

2. Access

Access to food consists of two different aspects. Direct access refers to the ability to grow and harvest food for yourself. Economic access refers to the ability to buy food.

Food being available does not guarantee that people have access to it. Poverty prevents many households from buying enough food.

Income and education levels play a role in access to food, and therefore in food security. These two factors impact a) how much food can be bought, b) what type of food is bought (nutritious or less nutritious) and c) how food is shared within a household. Gender can also play a role here.

 3. Utilisation

The fact that food is available does not provide a complete picture of the quantity and quality involved. The food must also be safe. How food is stored and prepared plays a role in this, with health and hygiene being important. Food quality is not adversely affected by observing hygiene. Poor quality food can have a negative impact on a person's health.  

4. Stability

Finally, the stability of access to healthy food also plays an important role in food security. This stability can be jeopardised by natural phenomena. However, wars, unemployment and inequality can also lead to food insecurity if they result in young men not being available as labourers or women not being allowed to work in the fields.

The Food Systems Approach of Wageningen University & Research

Wageningen University & Research opts for tackling the problem of food insecurity in an integrated way. In striving to improve food security we should not blindly focus on one part of the problem. Any increase in the amount of food that comes at the expense of the climate, for instance, simply creates a new problem.

Wageningen University & Research has therefore developed the Food Systems Approach, which has four domains. When seeking solutions, the Food Systems Approach takes into account all the elements in the system that are interrelated and influence each other.

The Food Systems Approach looks at four domains: 1) food security (sufficient food for everyone), 2) a healthy diet, 3) fair division of costs and revenues, and 4) climate change, sustainability and maintaining biodiversity.

Food insecurity leads to poorer health and restricted development

Rising food prices lead to a larger proportion of income being spent on food. Households then have less money to spend on other things such as health and education.

This makes people reluctant to seek medical help for the vulnerable in a household like sick children and pregnant women, which in turn leads to higher mortality rates among children and mothers.

Having no money available for education affects children's capacity to learn and their ability to escape poverty through education.

This is how food insecurity leads to increased poverty and reduced opportunities for a better future.

Food insecurity can lead to poorer diet, less sleep, diabetes and depression

There are other physical and mental consequences of food insecurity. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity can also lead to poorer diet, worse sleep, less physical activity, a higher risk of diabetes, a greater likelihood of smoking, obesity and depression. It can also lead to behavioural problems among children who have difficulty concentrating and are at increased risk of addiction and anxiety.

Asthma and dental problems in children are also more common because of food insecurity.

These problems are mainly caused in developed countries by a lack of vitamins and minerals in the food available, often due to limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables. In other countries, the causes of these physical and mental problems lie mainly in the lack of food itself.

Why is food security such a major global challenge?

Food insecurity will become an increasing problem over the coming decades
due to the following main causes.

1. Growing world population

While there were 3 billion people on earth in 1960, by 2020 this number had increased to 7.8 billion. What’s more, it is estimated that the world population will grow to about 9.3 billion people in 2050. All of these people have a right to healthy and nutritious food.

Africa’s population, in particular, will grow significantly in the coming decades, expected to double between 2012 and 2050 to over 2 billion. Worldwide, urban areas in particular will expand. The number of people living in African and Asian cities is expected to grow by 2.5 billion.

2. Changing diet

When the income of a population increases, food preferences also change. As a larger part of the world becomes wealthier in the coming decades, the demand for processed food, meat and dairy products will rise. To meet this demand, more animals will have to be kept and fed, which will increase the demand for grain.

The World Resources Institute expects global demand for beef and mutton/lamb to increase by 30% between 2006 and 2050, with demand greatest in China (+116%) and India (+138%).

This trend requires more land that can no longer be used to grow other food.

3. Climate change

As the earth warms, the area in which agriculture is viable will become smaller. Some farmland will be in areas that are too hot or too dry to grow crops, and some will be unsuitable for farming due to flooding or other natural disasters. It is vital therefore to combat climate change as much as possible and to learn to deal with the consequences we are already experiencing.

At the same time, global food production in 2050 will require twice as much water as we use today. The search for production methods that require less water is also therefore very important.

Improving food security leads to economic stability, better health and fewer climate problems

By improving food security, households can eat healthy and safe food and avoid hunger or malnutrition. When it is possible to produce more than is needed to feed a household and family members, the proceeds from selling this extra food can further improve living standards.

Hunger, on the other hand, leads to poverty and a higher risk of disease. Food insecurity can also lead to depression and sleeping problems. Food security leads to greater economic stability, better health, the empowerment of women and a reduction in climate problems.

UN (FAO), WFP, Wageningen University & Research: global projects to strengthen food security

‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture’ is the second Sustainable Development Goal. The Sustainable Development Goals were formulated by the United Nations in 2015 and should be achieved by 2030. The United Nations member states are themselves responsible for translating the goals into national policy. Various international organisations and institutes have initiated projects to improve food security worldwide.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is investing in infrastructure in rural areas, for example. Agriculture is also being stimulated by making seeds and fertilisers available. To combat hunger and malnutrition, the FAO is also promoting school food programmes.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is also trying to improve food security. The WFP distributes food in places threatened by shortages and also helps supply refugees with nutritious food. The WFP operates the ‘Food for Assets’ programme where, in exchange for food, participants learn a new skill or help to renovate infrastructure to improve food security.

Wageningen University & Research has also initiated several projects to improve food security. One example is the Nutrition and Income Generation Intervention (NIGI) for Ugandan Refugees & Host Communities. This project trains refugees in how to manage their own food supply.

The FAO and Wageningen University & Research’s Food and Nutrition Security Resilience Programme (FNS-REPRO) focuses on food insecurity in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. The programme aims to improve food systems so that food security is less affected by wars, pests and droughts. Together with the FAO, WUR is also working in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on integrated solutions to meet the city's current and future food needs.