Agriculture and natural resources, Governance and public sector management, Health, Poverty, Social development and protection

Rebooting food systems to achieve the unfinished agenda of global food security

Rebooting food systems to achieve the unfinished agenda of global food security

Food insecurity continues to be a pressing issue worldwide, despite scientific innovation and technological advancements in agriculture. Therefore, food security continues to be at the center of the global development agenda. The burgeoning demand for food due to exponential growth in the world’s population and the mismatch between demand and supply due to factors such as climate change, loss of soil fertility, land degradation, water scarcity, food loss and waste, and inefficient distribution systems, have exacerbated the problem of food insecurity.

The threat posed by food insecurity is particularly palpable in developing countries, which lack the resources, infrastructure, technology, and institutions to bolster the agricultural industry. Figure 1 illustrates the prevalence of food insecurity in regions across the globe. The situation is especially worrisome as food insecurity appears to have been rising in most parts of the world in the initial few years after the setting up of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.

Figure 1: Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Insecurity across World Regions, 2014–2019

Figure 1: Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Insecurity across World Regions, 2014–2019

Source: FAOSTAT (

With the aim to end poverty-induced hunger and malnutrition, the United Nations, in its SDG of achieving “zero hunger,” has emphasized the need to steer public spending toward attaining food security, especially in developing economies. The zero hunger SDG emphasizes not only eliminating hunger and improving nutrition but also achieving this by fostering sustainable agriculture as an indispensable way of augmenting affordability to encompass nutritious food through increased levels of food production with a minimal environmental footprint.

Today, 8.9% of the world’s population, or 690 million people, suffers from hunger, and if this trend continues, it will surpass 840 million by 2030 (FAO et al. 2020). Alarmingly, about 2 billion people globally did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food in 2019 (UN 2021). The nutritional situation in Asia and Africa is a serious concern, with more than 381 million people being undernourished in Asia and 250 million in Africa (UN 2021).

This necessitates building a sustainable model that simultaneously caters to the nutritional needs of the growing world population, offers resilience to external shocks, such as the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, and reduces the environmental footprint of agriculture.

Challenges to food security

Numerous impediments, such as population growth, climate change, food wastage, and global shocks, are pushing the goal of zero hunger farther away.

Rising global population, climate change, and food wastage

According to the UN, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 (UN 2015). Accelerated population growth will not only increase the demand for food but will also increase pressure on the already scarce natural resources that are fundamental to food production (Fitton et al. 2019). In addition, global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been continuously increasing, leading to climate change and its associated rising temperatures, erratic precipitation, rising sea levels, glacial lake outbursts, flooding, and pest and disease infestations, which in turn have major repercussions on agriculture, thereby affecting the food supply. The adverse effects of climate change often translate into grave economic consequences. It is estimated that the world would avert an average annual loss of $17,489 billion in the long run (2100) by complying with the 2° global warming target, and if the target is not met, sub‐Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia will suffer severe damage (Kompas, Pham, and Che 2018).

Notwithstanding the threat posed by population growth and climate change on the food supply, enormous amounts of food are wasted every year. The global food supply chain loses almost 1.3 billion tons of food per year (equivalent to one-third of total food production), which may rise to about 2 billion tons per year by 2030 because of inefficiencies in agriculture practices, post-harvest handling, processing, distribution, and food preparation (FAO 2011). The total food loss is more than 50% of the world’s annual cereal production of 2.3 billion tons in 2009–2010 (FAO 2011). While the post-harvest loss of food is common due to a lack of proper storage facilities, a lack of proper management and supply chain interruptions are significant causes of food loss and waste.

Gender, poverty, conflicts, and inequality

Pre-existing economic, social, and ethnic inequalities further aggravate food insecurity and poverty. Food insecurity, malnutrition, and poverty perpetuate each other in a vicious cycle by depleting human capital and diminishing labour productivity and can confine households to poverty for generations.

Research has shown that female-headed households, particularly de jure FHHs (those with single/widowed female household heads) suffer more from food insecurity (Aryal, Mottaleb, and Rahut 2019), which is mostly explained by differences in endowment and access to extension and infrastructure (Gebre et al. 2021). Between 2012 and 2014, as many as 805 million people across the world experienced extreme and chronic malnourishment, of which, a little less than two-thirds were women and girls (WHO 2019). Further, the literature shows that food insecurity is higher in war-torn countries. This is mainly due to the disruption of agricultural production and the supply of food and larger government spending on defense budgets, leaving inadequate amounts for the agricultural and health sectors.

Global shocks and the food distribution system

The food system, which is dependent on agriculture, is extremely vulnerable to external shocks (both biotic and abiotic). The most recent evidence of this is the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. In 2020, it was projected that an additional 140 million people fell into extreme poverty (income below $1.9 purchasing power parity per day), which was 20% higher than the poverty level in 2019, leading to a surge in food insecurity and undernourishment (Laborde, Martin, and Vos 2020). The restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 adversely affected the global food supply chain, leading to a rise in prices juxtaposed with massive job losses, thus making food inaccessible and unaffordable. Many developing countries suffer from inefficient distribution systems, resulting in food loss, high costs, and the inability to reach destinations in a timely manner.

Sustainable food systems from farm to table: A means to improve food security

Sustainable food systems are at the core of achieving the “zero hunger” goal, which demands the replacement of exploitative methods of producing food with more efficient, resilient, and eco-friendly systems. In the agriculture sector, it is crucial to adopt climate-smart agriculture to achieve agricultural sustainability in the context of climate change and natural resource degradation (Lipper et al. 2014; Aryal et al. 2020; Marenya et al. 2020). Improving rural resilience through investment in technology, infrastructure, and food system diversification is equally imperative. Urbanization, markets, and access to information can also influence food security. Another important aspect of the food system is the reduction of food loss and waste through improvements in value chains and responsible consumption and production.

All in all, from a policy perspective, the need of the hour is to find pragmatic and inclusive solutions to enhance sustainable agricultural productivity and bolster the global food supply chain. When formulating policies to tackle food insecurity, policy makers have to ensure that their policies are holistic, ranging from increasing yield, producing nutrition-enriched food, reducing food loss and waste, and improving the efficiency of the public distribution system. Although the number of hungry and malnourished people has declined in recent decades, humanity has a long way to go to achieve zero hunger.


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Dil Rahut

About the Author

Dil Rahut is vice-chair of research and a senior research fellow at ADBI.
Jeetendra Prakash Aryal

About the Author

Jeetendra Prakash Aryal is an economist at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Tetsushi Sonobe

About the Author

Tetsushi Sonobe is Dean and CEO of the Asian Development Bank Institute.
Navneet Manchanda

About the Author

Navneet Manchanda is a consultant (economist) at the World Bank, New Delhi.

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