06 November ▷ Food Security and Insecurity: 10 aspects that will surprise you
Food Safety is a very broad and apparently simple concept that encompasses different ideas. If you move in the food field or if you are a curious person 🤓, stay to know the nuances behind it!
What is Food Safety?
The description that best represents it is that of FAO, during the World Food Summit in Rome, in 1996. Food Security exists at the individual, family, community level, in a region, a city, a country or in the entire world when :
"all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".
Let us better understand the concept by investigating its 4 dimensions:
- Availability. Food available, production in sufficient quantity.
- Log in. Absence of economic impediments, distance or mobility obstacles, etc. to get food.
- Utilization. Available foods that meet cultural needs and preferences and are properly used due to the existence of a healthy environment and the absence of diseases, diarrhoea, etc.
- Stability. Food available and accessible at all times, regardless of external circumstances, such as economic crises, natural disasters, conflicts, etc.
In other words, there may be availability of food in a region, but there can be people who do not have access to it due to physical disability, economic shortages, unaffordable distances, among other reasons. There may be availability and access but the environment can be unhealthy, without tap water, without utensils and without medical care, so that food hygiene and proper utilization of nutrients are not guaranteed. And finally, there may be adequate availability, access and utilization but the external conditions are compromised and unstable, which leads to cyclical moments of scarcity.
We see that it is more complicated than it apparently seemed. Initially, the concept only encompasses one dimension, having or not having food. Then, we move on to consider other influential factors such as individual access. Today, it is known that for it to exist Food and Nutritional Security (SAN), it requires an adequate environment, appropriate knowledge and care, timely and quality health care, convenient water and sanitation facilities, among many other issues that make up the sustainability of the whole.
We live in a world where, unfortunately and unfairly, there is no Food Security for everyone and this leads us to the opposite concept, Food Insecurity.
What is Food Insecurity?
It is the insufficient intake of food due to instability or lack of availability and access to them.
Food Insecurity (IA) is classified as marginal, moderate or severe. People who are in a situation of Severe Food Insecurity (IAS) are normally malnourished, that is, they suffer continuous hunger. And those who are in a situation of Moderate Food Insecurity (AMI) or Marginal (IAL), incur in cyclical periods of scarcity, incorrect feeding and great uncertainty (the problem is not hunger itself, but poor eating due to a lack of means).
Currently, the prevalence of Food Insecurity is determined through the FIES (Food Insecurity Experience Scale). It is a survey with 8 questions about food consumption:
With the data obtained Food Insecurity is measured directly.
We see below that there is another method to measure the Food Insecurity when is severe, but it is done indirectly:
- This is the PoU (Prevalence of Undernourishment). It quantifies the percentage of people who suffer from undernourishment in the world, that is, people who cannot meet their energy requirements and suffer from hunger. We will see below how FIES and PoU are related.
What is the prevalence of Food Insecurity worldwide?
Despite great progress in previous decades, the reality is that, since 2014, a slow increase in the number of undernourished people in the world has been observed.
Let's say that the basic situation was not good and we must openly declare that COVID did not help at all. In the graph, we see that, during the year 2020, an increase in the number of people suffering from hunger was expected from 650 million to 768 million approximately, or what is the same from 8,4 to 9,9% (average values).
In the following table, you can see the prevalence of Food Insecurity in the world and on each continent in the year 2019 BC (before Covid):
Source: Own elaboration based on FAO data
Breaking down the table briefly, 25,4% of the world population had discontinuous access to food. Likewise, 9,3% of the world population suffered from a situation of Severe Food Insecurity, that is, he was literally hungry.
Focusing on the right column and breaking down by continent, we see that in Africa, 20,2% of its population suffered from hunger, due to its Severe Food Insecurity; in Latin America and the Caribbean, 9,9% of its population; in Asia, 8,2%; etc.
Alarming data, right?
The numbers for each continent come from making the average between the different countries that make it up. We take Africa as an example. 20,2% results from the average between: Gambia 24,9%, Egypt 7,8%, Mozambique 40,7% and so on. Therefore, we observe that, despite the average data for each continent, inequality dominates between the different countries.
The most recent data according to the latest SOFI report of 2022 show the following data that corroborate that malnourished people have been increasing after the Covid pandemic:
Source: SOFI, 2022
It is confirmed in the 2022 report that in 2020 there were ≃ 9,3% of undernourished people. It is expected (dashed dotted line) that the percentage of undernourished in 2021 will have reached approximately 10%.
With the current data, and knowing that, until 2014, the downward trend was adequate, we must reverse the current situation. How? Redoubling efforts that must come from all areas and estates. Otherwise, it will be impossible to reach the Sustainable Development Goal number 2, Zero Hunger, by 2030, and that so many people stop suffering.
Where is there a greater number of people in a situation of Severe Food Insecurity?
You would think that it is in Africa, but no. It is a trick question to differentiate between proportions and absolute numbers. Let's reformulate the question in a proper way to understand the answer.
- Where does it exist a higher proportion of people in circumstances of Severe Food Insecurity?
The answer is in Africa, since of its total inhabitants (≃ 1300 billion), 23,4% (≃ 304,2 million) live in Severe Food Insecurity.
Now, back to the question of the statement:
- Where does it exist a greater number of people in circumstances of Severe Food Insecurity?
The answer is in Asia, since, as there is a much higher volume of population (≃ 4600 billion), that is where there is a greater absolute number of people living in Severe Food Insecurity. However, as a proportion of its total population, “only” 10,5% (≃ 483 million out of 4600 billion) suffer from hunger (compared to 23,4% in Africa).
In other words, it is correct to state that, proportionally, there is a higher degree of IAS in Africa. And it would also be correct to say that, in absolute numbers, the majority of people who experience IAS live in Asia.
These are statistical concepts that can be complex, but when understood, allow for easier interpretation of the data.
In conclusion, Africa is the continent in the worst situation.
To clarify, an example with COVID. The answer to the following questions is very different:
- Where has there been a higher proportion of deaths during the pandemic? (in relation to the number of inhabitants)
- Where have the highest number of COVID deaths occurred? (greater number of deaths in absolute numbers)
The answer to the first is Peru and Bulgaria and the answer to the second is the United States and Brazil.
[AI data used in this section is from 2021, the latest provided by FAO in its document “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI)», 2022].
What is the contrast between FIES and PoU?
We explained that the FIES measured the prevalence of Food Insecurity (moderate or severe) and the PoU measured the number of undernourished people.
Going back to the table that was previously explained, we add some current data on both AI and PoU to see the evolution over time. It is observed that Severe Food Insecurity y PoU They presented very approximate data:
Source: Own elaboration based on FAO data
In the 2020 SOFI document from FAO, it is explained how both, FIES and PoU, are related. They are complementary ways of understanding the situation of hunger and Food Insecurity worldwide.
The PoU as a measurement tool dates back to 1961; It is older, but it has some limitations. It is obtained by contrasting the food available in a country and the food necessary to meet the energy needs of the inhabitants of that country. Given that it does not take into account other factors, it does not allow us to know exactly who or where the undernourished people are.
The FIES scale was introduced in 2013 through the project Voices of the Hungry. Consider food at the individual and household level. People are asked directly about their food situation and, therefore, it is a more reliable, close and concrete tool. It is a globally valid measurement system.
If you want to know more about FIES, here is the following video:
PoU and FIES are indicators to verify compliance with goal 2.1 (sdg 2: Zero Hunger) of the Sustainable Development Goals, which proposes "to put an end to hunger and ensure access for all people [...] to healthy, nutritious and sufficient food throughout the year, by 2023".
Is Food Insecurity a problem of low-income countries?
It is undeniable that in less developed countries the proportion of Food Insecurity is much higher. However, we cannot forget that in almost every corner of the world there are people experiencing situations of food insecurity and povertyregardless of the wealth of the country.
Since ancient times, inequality between countries has caused them to be classified as high, medium or low income, developed or developing, impoverished or rich, among endless denominations. Today, although inequality between countries continues to exist, we observe that inequality within them has increased enormously. Therefore, we find people in a situation of Food Insecurity and at risk of social exclusion in supposedly high-income countries and very rich people in countries historically considered low-income. The imbalance is obvious...
What are the causes of Food Insecurity?
Some of the main causes of Food Insecurity are:
- The conflicts. In countries where there are wars and armed conflicts, famine scenarios are sometimes reached.
- Extreme weather conditions. In areas where adverse weather events were already frequent, the situation has been worsening due to climate change and other factors. Its influence at a general level is already undeniable.
- The slowdowns and weakening of the economy. Issues at the market level, the existence of outbreaks and epidemics, pandemics (such as Covid), the political ups and downs, the unhealthy ambition of many people, corruption, etc. lead to food insecurity.
- The economic impossibility of accessing healthy diets. The price of a healthy diet is not affordable for everyone. Getting a diet that includes a variety of foods, that covers not only energy but each of the nutrients and plays a preventive role against diseases, is not so easy.
- And, as underlying structural causes we have, always at the forefront, poverty and inequality.
What are the consequences of Food Insecurity?
The consequences of suffering Food Insecurity are multiple:
- Malnutrition, in any of its forms; from chronic or acute malnutrition, nutrient deficiency due to lack or dietary imbalance, low birth weight, overweight and obesity (the latter in Moderate or Marginal Food Insecurity).
- Vulnerability to diseases and higher probability of premature death.
- Perpetuation of poverty.
- Low academic and intellectual performance.
- Lower productivity at work.
- Lower economic growth and development of the country (result of low intellectual performance and low labor productivity).
- Among others.
Not eating correctly, in quantity and quality, can have very negative repercussions throughout a lifetime and at different levels. Future blog posts will cover this topic more deeply.
How are Food Safety and Nutritional Education related?
It is curious how in societies where malnutrition has decreased and the state of Food Security is beginning to improve slightly, it is gradually moving towards the opposite problem: overweight and obesity. This transition is due to different factors, among them, the transition from a state of Severe Food Insecurity to another of Moderate or Mild Food Insecurity (resulting from a higher level of income in the country). However, other factors intervene such as a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, alcohol, stress and lack of nutritional education.
The coexistence of undernourishment and overweight/obesity in the same society is called double burden of malnutrition and we will delve into it in future articles.
So, we clearly see that in Moderate or Marginal Food Insecurity, although they may not go hungry on a regular basis, the quality of the diet decreases and families tend to make worse food choices, based on what they can afford. Frequently, they will end up buying ultra-processed foods and taking advantage of the fast food, all cheaper. These choices are also due to lack of awareness in food matters. Therefore, if the food security of a country improves, but does not do so hand in hand with the Nutritional education, we will be getting out of a problem to get into another. Because the importance is not only in what you have, but in how you use it.
Nutrition education helps make better food choices, despite existing resources.
Food Safety: a concept that hides different connotations
Going back to the beginning of the article, Food Security is a complex concept that encompasses different ideas depending on the context and the situation. Let's unravel the mess.
In English it is better understood, since in that language each idea of Food Security has its own name:
- Food security. Food Security as a global concept (we have been talking about throughout the article; this concept includes safety, among others).
- Food safety. Food Security in the sense of maintaining hygienic conditions and control and safety in food production. The objective is to avoid the presence of biological, physical and chemical hazards and meet quality standards. The Food quality, in turn, refers to the characteristics of excellence of a food or product that make it acceptable to consumers.
Therefore, in places where, at a general level, there are no problems of availability, access, use and stability of food, we proceed to think of Food Security as a concept of innocuousness and quality of food. However, in countries where the 4 dimensions of Food Security are not guaranteed, how could anybody think of meeting specific quality standards if the priority, unfortunately, is to have something to eat?
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If you wish to cite this article in your academic works:
Martín-Rubio L. Food Safety and Insecurity: 10 aspects that will surprise you [Internet]. Nutrition and Zero Hunger; 2022 [consulted day/month/year].Available on: https://nutricionyhambrecero.com/en/seguridad-inseguridad-alimentaria/
Teacher, Specialist in International Health, Cooperation and Communication in Health, Dietician-Nutritionist and Consultant/Auditor of Food Quality.