Food Insecurity

Food Insecurity

Issues of food insecurity is one of the most pressing issues in international development and in the international relations field of human rights. In this article, we shall address food security (or food insecurity) in international affairs, namely examining statistics, factors causing food insecurity, as well as tactics that states, activists, academics, and practitioners are taking to eliminate food insecurity for individuals.

What is Food Insecurity?

According to the World Food Summit of 1996, food security is understood as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” (WHO, 2014). Thus, food insecurity is the idea that individuals do not have consistent access to safe food. The World Health Organization (2014) explains that there are three factors to food security, which are quoted below: 

Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis

Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet

Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.

Food insecurity can also have a number of effects on the individual. For example, malnutrition, which is “poor nutrition resulting from insufficient or unbalanced diet” has detrimental effects on a person; it “causes impaired vision, an ability to concentrate and to learn, greater vulnerability to disease and poor health, and a shorter life expectancy” (Payne, 2013: 198). In terms of statistics, it is said that “undernourishment still affects at least 842 million people worldwide” (FAO, 2014).

What are the Factors Related to World Hunger and Food Insecurity?

There are a number of reasons as to why billions are living each day with food insecurity. 

Distribution: One of the most pressing reasons for the high levels of world hunger and food insecurity in the world has to do with the inefficient distribution of food. As the World Health Organization (2014) explains,     “[t]here is enough food in the world to feed everyone adequately.” Thus, we have to ask why, if there is so much food, is it not being distributed effectively to help those who are in poverty, suffering from food insecurity, and/or are malnourished. Often this may be logistical challenges, as well as political problems, where donating states have preferences on how to best deliver aid, which at times could circumvent international organizations, or could be driven by political interests, whether it was concerns about domestic prices, or conditions with regards to food aid (Hastedt, Lybecker, & Shannon, 2014: 155).

Coordination: Related to the issue of distribution is that of effective coordination efforts between actors to fight food inequality. There have been calls for international organization organs such as the Food and Agriculture Organization that ” Coordinated actions should be encouraged through multidisciplinary approaches and partnerships, with all of this underpinned by international standards and agreements, policy dialogue, global governance mechanisms, advocacy and communication.” They go on to say that                         “[a]ppropriate governance mechanisms need to be established at regional and country levels. At global level, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) provides a unique platform for food security governance. At regional, national and sub-national levels, various sectoral policies and programmes need to be designed and coordinated in ways that ensure relevance and purposeful action towards the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition” (FAO, 2014).

Food Production: Another factor with regards to hunger and food insecurity has to do with low domestic food production in a number of economically impoverished countries. There are many cases where states-or individuals within a state-simply cannot produce enough food to feed their citizens or people. When this is not possible, poverty within the country tends to rise quickly. For example, given the levels of food that exist in the world, and knowing the continued food insecurity, poverty, and malnutrition levels that exist in the world today and throughout decades past, “it strikes many as surprising that relatively little progress has been made in setting up a system of global governance to more effectively manage world food supplies and establish safety nets for those in need” (Jachertz & Nutzenadel, 2011, Clapp, 2012, in Hastedt, Lybecker and Shannon, 2014: 148). Now this issue of food production is usually seen as a domestic issue, since internationally, as mentioned, enough food exists in the world.

Lack of Resources: Some have argued that a reason that food insecurity exists is because of the lack of resources or money available to grow food, or to buy food in the domestic and international markets (Hastedt, Lybecker, & Shannon, 2014). For example, in some countries, families either don’t have enough money for food, or the majority of their income goes towards food (“[i]n places like Rwanda and Tajikistan, close to three-quartersof each family’s income went toward food expenses…” (Millstone & Lang, 2008: 18, in Smallman & Brown, 2011: 194).

State Action: States often have a role in food insecurity and domestic poverty. For example, often inefficient policies have lead to malnutrition, or policies have done little to remedy food insecurity issues. In many cases, leaders often have great control over state resources. Many of them do not provide necessary support to their population to get out of food poverty, or other forms of poverty. In addition, state leaders have spent (and many of which continue to spend) great percentages of the entire wealth on building their militaries, which is often at the expense of providing food, education, and other human rights (Hastedt, Lybecker & Shannon, 2014). 

Globalization: Scholars have also raised questions about the role of globalization, and the effect that this has on food insecurity. For example, “Agriculture remains the largest employment sector in most developing countries and international agriculture agreements are crucial to a country’s food security. Some critics argue that trade liberalization may reduce a country’s food security by reducing agricultural employment levels” (WHO, 2014). And in fact, “[c]oncern about this has led a group of World Trade Organization (WTO) member states to recommend that current negotiations on agricultural agreements allow developing countries to re-evaluate and raise tariffs on key products to protect national food security and employment. They argue that WTO agreements, by pushing for the liberalization of crucial markets, are threatening the food security of whole communities” (WHO, 2014). There have been criticisms towards the World Trade Organization regarding the effects of neo-liberal economics policies. In fact, one of the problems is that certain economically rich states, through “agricultural dimensions of the GATT/TRIPS provisions allow for heavy subsidizing of foodstuffs. World Bank and IMF conditionality provisions do not permit countries receiving assistance to provide these same subsidies to their own farmers” (Smallman & Brown, 2011: 195).

Approaches to Alleviating Food Insecurity

States and non-state actors have taken a number of approaches towards working to improve food security within and throughout countries. For example, there are a number of entities within international organizations that are committed to fighting food insecurity. For example, the United Nations World Food Programme is committed to bringing food to individuals in need, along with helping individuals and families and their quality of life. This organization, created in 1961, ” pursues a vision of the world in which every man, woman and child has access at all times to the food needed for an active and healthy life. We work towards that vision with our sister UN agencies in Rome — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) — as well as other government, UN and NGO partners (WFP, 2014). Furthermore, the organization explains that it “reaches more than 80 million people with food assistance in 75 countries each year.”

In fact, the United Nations has tried to make food security and other human rights a center point of their attention in recent decades. For example, in 2000, the United Nations put forward World Millennium Development Goals, one of which was the ending of extreme poverty, as well as hunger. Within the Millennium Development Goals are a number of targets set by 2015, they hoped to “[reduce] extreme poverty rates by half…[which] was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline” (UN, 2014). In addition, they also aimed to “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people[,]” as well as reduce “the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day” (UN, 2014).

And within the objectives and actions of organizations working on ending poverty,  “[o]ver 140 international conferences have been called to address problems related to global hunger” (Hastedt, Lybecker, & Shannon, 2014: 148).  This is important, as it has helped to build cooperation between states and non-state actors on ending food insecurity and world poverty. 

However, despite the intentions behind such conferences, these approaches have not been without criticism. Scholars explain that “[t]hey have often been marked by the existence of wide disparities in power among those who attend, with those countries receiving food aid having little say, and by ideological positions that range from the endorsing of free markets to the embracing of a rights-oriented approach that stresses access to food as a fundamental right” (Hastedt, Lybecker, & Shannon, 2014: 148).

But despite the issues within these different approaches to reducing food insecurity, there have been positive results with regards to the reduction of world hunger and food insecurity. For example, those without sufficient food is 17 percent lower than it was over two decades ago (FAO, 2014). Thus, whether through food aid, domestic and international coordination, or attempts at introducing new resources that can help for the growth of food, the international community continues to work to eliminate food insecurity.




Clapp, J. (2012). Hunger in the Balance: The New Politics of International Food Aid, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United nations (FAO, 2014). The Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals. Available Online:

Hastedt, G., Lybecker, D., & Shannon, V. (2014). Chapter 9, Food Aid as a Solution to World Hunger, pages 148-169, in Cases in International Relations: Pathways to Conflict and Cooperation, Hastedt, G., Lybecker, D., & Shannon, V. (eds). Washington, D.C., CQ Press.

Jachertz, R. & Nutzenadel, A. (2011). Coping With Hunger? Visions of a Global Food System, 1930-1960, Journal of Global History 6, No 1, page 99-119.

Millstone, E. & Lang, T. (2008). The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where, and Why. Los Angeles, California. University of California Press.

Smallman, S. & Brown, K. (2011). Introduction to International and Global Studies. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press. 

United Nations (2014). United Nations Millennium Development Goals, Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger. Available Online: 

World Food Programme (2014). About WFP: Fighting Hunger Worldwide. Available Online: 

World Health Organization (WHO) (2014). Food Security. Available Online:

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