23rd March 2023
Having enough food to eat is a necessity for life, and a human right.
The right to adequate food is realised when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. – General Comment 12 (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, CESCR, 1999).
Yet looking around the world this is not the case. For many people food security is not a reality. Why?
1. Food insecurity can arise because a person cannot afford to buy sufficient food – this might be in absolute terms of calories or in the equally important terms of sufficiently healthy food needed to avoid malnutrition. The issue is not a lack of food, but the lack of money to buy it.
Sadly this scenario is true even in countries such as the UK. “The UK’s food poverty rate is among the highest in Europe. In 2020-21 Government statistics record that 4.2 million people (6 per cent) were living in food poverty. (https://www.bigissue.com/news/social-justice/food-poverty-in-the-uk-the-causes-figures-and-solutions/)
The pay and/ or benefits that people receive is insufficient to pay for a healthy diet. This is compounded by the fact that food inflation is running higher than the average rate of inflation. That people with less money are affected more significantly has been highlighted by Jack Monroe (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jan/26/cost-of-living-crisis-ons-inflation-jack-monroe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other)
It is an even more widespread problem across the world where 40% of people cannot afford a healthy diet.
Pay-related food insecurity can be a particular problem in urban areas. In rural areas it is possible that people will have access to land such that they can grow their own food. This is often referred to as subsistence farming as it does not necessarily produce additional income to spend on other things.
“The world’s smallholder farmers produce about a third of the world’s food according to detailed new research [June 2021] by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). Five of every six farms in the world consist of less than two hectares, operate only around 12 percent of all agricultural land, and produce roughly 35 percent of the world’s food” – https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1395127/icode/
Whilst for many people, subsistence farming does ensure they have food to eat, it can be a precarious existence. In Kenya smallholder farmers are being forced to buy commercial seed which then needs both fertilisers and pesticides to ensure a good harvest. Previously these farmers would collect and swop seeds from their own crops, but this has been made illegal as the Kenyan Government tries to ensure that all seeds are certified.
2. Food insecurity can arise because of a failure of one or more harvests. This particularly affects poor countries who struggle to pay the cost of importing food to make up local losses, and subsistence farmers who may not have the capacity to grow and store food to cover more than one year’s needs.
Food security is particularly sensitive to climate change. Climate change is increasing the frequency of both droughts and heavy – destructive – rainfall, raising temperatures and increasing the frequency and intensity of winds, all of which are potentially damaging for crops and for livestock.
Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are now facing the sixth consecutive year of drought conditions. Hunger is widespread: an estimated 43,000 people died last year in Somalia as a consequence of an inadequate diet. The affects of failed harvests has been accentuated by the rising cost of food that could potentially be imported.
On a far smaller scale, shoppers in the UK have been faced with shortages of cauliflowers, tomatoes and salad ingredients. In part this has been because farmers in the UK and the Netherlands have cut back on the amount of crops grown under glass because of rising energy costs, plus sharp frosts which damaged brassica crops, and in part because of unseasonal cold weather in southern Europe and North Africa damaging crops grown there. Last summer’s drought across Europe led to many harvests being reduced by 30% and which has been felt by consumers in the form of higher prices for risotto rice, olive oil durum wheat pasta.
3. Food insecurity may arise because the farmers cannot afford to grow the usual amounts of food. Whilst consumers need enough money to buy food, producers need to earn enough to cover there expenses. The last 18 months have seen soaring costs for energy (baby chicks for example need to be kept at a temperature of 30C), fertilisers, and for basic labour. Many farmers in the UK are tied into contracts with supermarkets with fixed prices, making it hard for them to over their costs. Equally as rising costs are not always reflected in rising prices because of supermarket competition, many farmers are reducing the amount of crops their will grow for the coming season. It is better financially not to grow the crop than to grow it and then sell at a loss.
4. Distribution systems can also affect food security. We have seen this recently with exports from Ukraine. Without access to the Black Sea ports, there was no effective way of shipping grain from the Ukraine to countries such as Egypt, where it was most needed. Delays in the distribution system may mean that food perished before it reaches its market. Partly due to distribution issues, but also mismatches in the supply chain between what the supermarkets order and what the consumers buy, as much as 17% of the world’s food production goes to waste.
“An average block of cheese or loaf of bread produces less than a penny for farmers, and fruit producers do not fare much better, making just 3p from each kilo of apples.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/dec/02/uk-farmers-making-tiny-profits-as-supermarkets-boast-record-takings?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
5. Global food security would be greatly enhanced if meat production was reduced.
“Livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land, yet produces less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories … This means that what we eat is more important than how much we eat in determining the amount of land required to produce our food.” https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets
Eating less meat and using the land instead to grow food for direct human consumption would provide the food needed for the world’s growing population (subject to affordability and distribution issues).
6. Food production is ultimately reliant on healthy soils. Yet it is reported that ‘more than a third of the world’s soil is already degraded, and the IPCC estimates that could rise to 90% by 2050 if nothing is done. Even moderately degraded soil produces 30% less food and stores around half the water of healthy soil.’ https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/12/a-tangible-plan-to-restore-soil-health-in-the-next-ten-years/
“The UK is 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility” in parts of the country, the environment secretary Michael Gove has warned.“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth …. If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/24/uk-30-40-years-away-eradication-soil-fertility-warns-michael-gove?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
7. Food security can be potentially threatened by diseases – whether diseases that affect crops or diseases that affect livestock. Recently in the UK we have seen the impact of avian flu on supplies of chicken and egg. Whilst in the Mediterranean the Xylella pathogens is infecting olive trees across the region – it can also infect similar plants such as cherry, almond and plum trees. It was first discovered in olives trees in Puglia in 2013. The spread of the disease have been devastating, with an estimated 60% decline in crop yields in Italy since the first discovery in 2013. The world food supply is particularly vulnerable to the affects of disease because our food supply is dominated by a very limited number of species. Of the 6,000 different plant species used as food, only nine (sugarcane, wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, sugar beet, cassava, oil palm and soybean) contribute 66% of total crop production. Increasing the diversity of plants we grow and eat as food is essential. It is also equally essential that we safeguard our food security by improving biodiversity as a whole for the ecosystem is highly interconnected.
“Biodiversity for food and agriculture is all the plants and animals – wild and domesticated – that provide food, feed, fuel and fibre. It is also the myriad of organisms that support food production through ecosystem services – called “associated biodiversity”. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases…Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” added Graziano da Silva.” https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1180463/icode/
What can we do? See the next Eco Tips