Analytical Reports

FOOD SECURITY: Tackling the Current Crisis and Building Future Resilience

Hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition are not new concepts; they have been with us through history, and have often presaged remarkable social, economic, and political upheaval — from the drought-driven famines that brought about the demise of the first kingdom in Egypt in the 22nd century BC; through the food riots that inspired Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; to the Irish potato famine; and the more recent Arab Spring, for which food prices were also a catalyst.

The overwhelming issue is of course the appalling human suffering that results, which is often borne by the poorest in society, not gender-balanced, and most damaging to society’s most vulnerable, namely children and the elderly. Having enough food to eat is a basic human right, and trumps almost every other concern or aspect of poverty in its significance. John Steinbeck sums up this primacy well in the novel Grapes of Wrath: “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach, but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him — he has known a fear beyond every other.”

Sadly though, food security, hunger, and malnutrition are not issues that are confined to the pages of history or literature. First and foremost, it is important to define these three terms, as they are separate but related. For this report, we follow the classification provided by the FAO:

Food Security: When all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
Hunger: An uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy; hunger may be referred to as undernourishment. When a person is severely food insecure, they have likely experienced hunger.
Malnutrition: An abnormal physiological condition caused by inadequate, unbalanced, or excessive intake of macronutrients and/or micronutrients. It includes undernutrition, overweight, and obesity.

As we shall see in this report, even in this day and age food insecurity is still a problem that affects far too many people around the world — in fact, close to a third of all of us on this planet. Around the world, 2.3 billion people are experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity, where food quality or quantity is reduced. Within that figure close to a billion people — some 12% of the population — are suffering from severe food insecurity, where people have “run out of food, and have gone an entire day without eating at times in the last year.” Food insecurity also has an impact on malnutrition as when individuals do eat, they might choose what is most readily available or cheapest, instead of the most nutritious option. Globally, 21
million infants come into this world with low birthweight, 150 million children under the age of five experience stunting (failing to reach their growth potential), and 50 million suffer from wasting (being too thin for their height). Around the world, 770 million people — one in ten of us — suffers from some form of malnutrition.

So, this is a widespread phenomenon that does not just affect a few people. It is, however, concentrated and focused among the poorest in society; in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, 70%-80% of the population cannot afford a healthy diet.

While the number of people experiencing hunger fell for many years in the early 2000s, it has been on the increase since 2018, and has accelerated in recent years, reaching 768 million people in 2021. Moreover, there is little room for complacency as we contemplate how we will feed an extra 1.8 billion people by 2050, with the bulk of growth coming from regions that are already experiencing the worst effects of food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition.

So how, in 2022, can we still live in world where close to a third of us are worried where our next meal is coming from? Food insecurity is typically caused by three main factors: environmental disasters; conflict; and social, political, or economic shifts. In 2022 we find ourselves in a perfect storm as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, with poor harvests from some regions, export bans, food stockpiling, surging energy costs, rising global inflation, and high debt levels in a rising rate cycle — all exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the loss of those critical breadbaskets, as well as impacts on fertilizer production and availability.

While some of these factors may be alleviated going into 2023, their effects will take time to work through, and it is easy to envisage a scenario (as we examine in this report) where food prices remain elevated for some time, even if further inflation looks less likely.

The implications of the current situation are profound, beyond the obvious human suffering. Agriculture represents more than a quarter of GDP and employs close to 60% of the workforce in low-income countries. Hence the economic repercussions of agricultural disruptions are profound, especially as these are likely to get worse with the increasing frequency and severity of climate-related disruptions.

In terms of economic implications, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) estimates the costs of malnutrition could be as high as $3.5 trillion per year. While “fixing” this will not be cheap, with some estimates of between $39 billion and $50 billion per year, this pales into insignificance compared with the avoided costs. Ending malnutrition would also bring economic benefits to society of
up to $10.5 trillion per year, the obvious human benefits aside.
Food insecurity also has important social and geopolitical ramifications; it has been a key driver of civil unrest and migration throughout history and remains so today. Governments are reacting with a variety of measures, from export bans to price caps and stockpiling, many of which are exacerbating an already serious situation.
Add to this the effects of general inflation, rising rates, and currency devaluation on highly indebted emerging markets, and we have a veritable powder keg for geopolitical instability.
While the situation is undoubtedly serious, it is not all doom and gloom. In this report, we examine potential solutions to alleviate current food insecurity and to try to prevent or lessen the severity of future occurrences.

We split these solutions into four categories: social, technological, governmental, and financial/economic.

Social solutions, such as reducing food waste, are obvious and can have a dramatic impact — we waste up to a third of food produced every year, with an estimated cost of $1.25 trillion annually, while a third of us go hungry. Dietary changes can also have a material impact; we currently use 77% of agricultural land for livestock, yet this only provides 17% of food calorific supply for consumption.

In technology, the rise of agriculture technology (“AgTech”) offers enormous potential, from vertical and indoor farming to digital agriculture, alternative proteins, precision fermentation, robotics and automation, animal AgTech, and agri-biotech.

At a public sector level, governments can play their part through diplomacy; policies to enhance food self-sufficiency; and taxation and incentives to promote healthier diets and to maximize efficiency of available agricultural resources such as land, water, and fertilizer.

Financial/economic solutions such as aid; investment in agriculture, food systems, and infrastructure; and innovative forms of financing such as debt relief, blended finance, and hedging offer further reasons for hope.

Having examined these solutions, we focus on who is best placed to tackle what, from the public sector through the financial industry, to the private sector and civil society itself.

We face many challenges in today’s world, but as Steinbeck noted, few signify as much as having access to food. It is no accident that “Zero Hunger” is the second of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — behind only SDG 1 — No. Poverty, of which hunger is itself a key factor. We are faced with a challenge of the most fundamental nature to us as human beings — a third of us are worried about where the next meal is coming from, and one in ten of us is suffering from hunger or malnutrition. John F. Kennedy said in 1963, “For the first time in the history of the world we do know how to produce enough food now to feed every man, woman, and child in the world. We have the ability, we have the means, and we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We only need the will.” With all the resources at our disposal, let us not find we are still saying the same things in another 60 years.