In 2015, the United Nations estimated the world's population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Sustainable food systems are imperative to feed the growing population and minimize the effects of climate change. How food is grown and produced, what types of foods are consumed and how much food is wasted have major impacts on the sustainability of the world's food system. This list highlights resources and organizations that are working in the intersection of agriculture, nutrition and health.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
In addition to eradicating hunger and eliminating poverty, one of FAO's main goals includes sustainably managing and utilizing natural resources. FAO develops methods and standards for food and agriculture statistics and FAO's website houses FAOSTAT, a data hub where users can browse and download data related to natural resources use, food production and food security. The FAO's website also offers publications covering topics such as soil resources, marine ecosystems and agriculture sustainability.
Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition
GAIN is a United Nations organization with a vision of a world without malnutrition. GAIN's focus areas include large-scale food fortification, nutrition for women and children, agriculture and nutrition and business partnerships for nutrition. GAIN's website has a knowledge center containing blogs, case studies, news, reports and publications.
World Food Programme
WFP has a variety of reports, publications and maps highlighting the significant impacts of climate change and food insecurity. This organization helps to illustrate the connection between changing weather and the negative impacts on growing food to feed the growing population.
Scaling Up Nutrition
Bringing together governments, civilians, the United Nations, researchers and the private sector, the SUN movement strives to improve nutrition around the world. SUN's website offers a framework for effective nutrition plan systems and information on analyzing and tracking budgets and investments.
Formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, CGIAR is a global agricultural research partnership. Its website features "Big Facts on Climate Change" which highlight issues surrounding food security, food emissions, climate impact on production and people and success stories.
International Food Policy Research Institute
IFPRI is a research center of the CGIAR Consortium and provides policy solutions for sustainable reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition in developing nations. One of IFPRI's strategic research areas is ensuring sustainable food production, and its website offers datasets, fact sheets and tools including a technical platform on the measurement and reduction of food waste and loss. IFPRI's 2015 Global Nutrition Report is available for download.
Environmental Working Group
EWG's mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Its website houses consumer guides including EWG food scores, latest news and policy information related to food and farming.
USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion’s Let's Talk Trash
This website helps align consumers and businesses to reduce wasted food through education and a nationwide challenge. Users can sign up a business and publicly commit to reducing wasted food.
With a mission of creating lasting solutions for poverty, hunger and social injustice, Oxfam America's website houses publications including annual reports, impact updates and fact sheets. The site's blog contains a section on food, agriculture and livelihoods.
Feed the Future
Feed the Future is the U.S. Government's Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative and include improved nutrition and climate-smart development in its focus areas. Feed the Future's website includes a food security innovation center, annual progress reports and AgriLinks, where professionals share knowledge on food security and agriculture.
More than 30 public and private sector leaders collaborated to form ReFED, which is committed to reducing food waste in the United States. The website serves as a data-driven guide for multiple stakeholders, including consumers, businesses, government, farmers and nonprofits to collectively reduce food waste at scale.
Health Care Without Harm
Health Care Without Harm is an international group of health care systems, communities and organizations working toward environmentally friendly health care. Its website provides resources such as balanced menus, webinars, a green guide for health care food service and purchasing guides for hospitals.
Menus of Change
Menus of Change is a combined effort of The Culinary Institutes of America and Harvard School of Public Health. They have compiled principles and guidelines for creating menus that are tasty, healthy and sustainable. All resources are free to use and encourage foodservice operations to become more transparent and plant-based.
Love Food Hate Waste
A United Kingdom-based registered charity, Love Food Hate Waste aims to help reduce wasted food in the consumer world via education. This website provides recipes, easy tips and smart tactics to kick the wasted food habit.
What does “food security” mean?
Although there are several different working definitions of food security, all of which have evolved over time, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations currently uses the following description: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” A similar definition has also been adopted by the US, though in a more limited form. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s definition of food security is, “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Food security comprises several different components, including food access, distribution of food, the stability of the food supply, and the use of food. The opposite of food security - food insecurity - is defined by the USDA as, “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
Food insecurity is part of a continuum that includes hunger (food deprivation), malnutrition (deficiencies, imbalances, or excesses of nutrients), and famine. Long-term lack of food security eventually becomes hunger, defined by the USDA as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” On a population level, extreme lack of food security becomes famine. The United Nations rarely declares famine status, even in cases of long-term food insecurity, since its definition of famine is quite specific – famine is declared only when “at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.” Malnutrition can be caused by food insecurity, but can also be caused by poor health, poor care for children, or an unhealthy environment.
In the US, the term “food desert” is often used to describe a location that has limited access to healthful, nutritious food, especially in low-income neighborhoods. For example, individuals in some neighborhoods may have easier access to fast food and junk food than to fruits and vegetables. However, there is some disagreement on what constitutes a food desert (i.e., what is an acceptable distance from a source of healthful food, such as a supermarket), and it is unclear whether true food deserts are as common as postulated by policymakers. Others see the term as being not inclusive of other issues related to health and obesity, including: poverty and other socio-demographic factors; ease of access to healthful food, rather than lack of access; increased access to unhealthful food choices; exercise/physical activity; and unhealthful food choices related to cultural or economic factors.
How many people are food-insecure? Who is food insecure?
The USDA reported that 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during 2010. Of the 14.5 percent that were food insecure, 5.4 percent were classified as having very low food security (defined by the USDA as “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake”). However, in households with children, the USDA reports that over 20 percent were food insecure in 2010. Globally, food insecurity is more difficult to measure. In 1999, the FAO estimated that over 1.2 billion people were chronically food insecure (i.e., undernourished). Asia, including the Indian sub-continent, was the most food insecure region, with 642 million undernourished people. Over 15 million of the undernourished were in developed countries.
Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, including women (especially low income pregnant and lactating women), victims of conflict, the ill, migrant workers, low-income urban dwellers, the elderly, and children under five. As we can see in the United States, having food security as a nation does not necessarily mean that all individuals living in that nation will be food secure.
What are the reasons behind lack of food access & food insecurity?
There are many complex reasons an individual becomes food insecure. Poverty is unmistakably the driving factor in the lack of resources to purchase or otherwise procure food, but the root causes of poverty are multifaceted. Poverty, combined with other socioeconomic and political problems, creates the bulk of food insecurity around the globe. Some of the auxiliary causes of food insecurity are outlined below:
Although it is commonly thought that world population will outstrip food production capacity, current production of food exceeds global population requirements. Historically, famines and widespread hunger have been caused by problems of food distribution (political or logistical) rather than by insufficient food production. Although the global population is expected to rise in the next several decades, global hunger is predicted to decline.
Reverend Thomas Malthus, writing in the late 18th Century, warned that global population would exceed the Earth’s capacity to grow food. Malthus suggested that population grows exponentially, while food production grows only arithmetically. Despite having been largely debunked, this theory has remained prominent in the discourse regarding hunger, the world’s population carrying capacity, and the need for increased agricultural technology (e.g., genetically modified organisms). It is also worth noting that in an historical context, Malthus’s argument was a warning about population increase amongst the poor. Malthus and his cohort described the poor as breeding too rapidly, thus depriving the rest of the population of food; famine was seen as a “natural” defense against overpopulation. Several well-known famines in history, such as the Irish Potato Famine and several Indian famines in the late 19th century, were caused not by lack of food, but by lack of political will to distribute the food to the starving poor. During these famines, Ireland and parts of India were actually exporting food to various other English colonies. Malthusian theories were used to support political choices to avoid helping the starving. Food distribution, rather than total food production, continues to be a global problem in solving food insecurity.
Various political-agricultural practices contribute to food insecurity worldwide. These include substituting commodity crops for food crops (e.g., growing corn instead of vegetables) and heavy exportation of food crops at the expense of food security of the exporting country. In addition, the recent demand for biofuels, currently produced primarily from corn and soy, has further decreased the amount of viable arable land being used for food production.
The United States overproduces commodity crops (particularly corn, wheat, and soy) in part due to government subsidization; healthful food and sustainable agriculture has not been historically promoted in US food and farming policy. The FAO’s definition of food security includes a provision describing access to “nutritious” food; however, in many low-income areas, it is easier to access cheap, unhealthful food (such as fast food), often produced primarily from commodity crops. In addition, the US exports a high proportion of its commodity crops to the rest of the world. For example, in 2010, over 53 percent of all corn exports in the world were from the US. The exportation of these commodity crops affects farmers in the rest of the world – especially small farmers with limited resources. A large influx of commodity crops from the US can affect local food security, as small farmers cannot compete with less expensive (subsidized) US-produced agricultural products.
Read more about industrial crop production
Globally, natural disasters, such as drought, have been frequently implicated in food insecurity; however, natural disaster-related food insecurity and famines are exacerbated by food distribution problems (see above) and lack of food surpluses due to exportation or other political factors. It is predicted that climate change may negatively affect food supply and food access due to loss of farmland, fluctuating food prices, increases in foodborne illnesses, and other food utilization issues. Other environmental factors, such as soil degradation (including salinization due to heavy irrigation, desertification, erosion, and soil pollution related to industrial agricultural practices) may negatively affect global food security as well.
Other Economic and Political Reasons
The global rise in food prices in the last several years has been precipitated by a number of factors, including natural disasters such as drought; increased demand for biofuels; the US dollar’s decline; and an increase in the middle and upper class in countries like China (this has created increased demand for meat and dairy, and thus increased demand for grain). Increases in food costs generally mean increases in the food insecure. Other factors contributing to food insecurity include loss of farmland or pastureland due to development; conflict and war; water access issues; and disease.
What are the results of food insecurity?
On an individual level, food insecurity, especially over time, causes physical, social, and psychological problems in both children and adults. In the US, chronic food insecurity has been documented to lead to, paradoxically, obesity, especially in women and girls. One theory as to why food insecurity leads to obesity is that episodic periods of food insecurity cause the sufferer to overeat in an attempt by the body to recoup missing calories. The type of food consumed in food insecure households may be another factor: high calorie food made from commodity crops (e.g., fast food and “junk” food) is often cheaper and easier to access than healthful food with high nutritional value.
In infants and toddlers in the US, food insecurity is correlated with higher hospitalization rates and generally poor health. In older US children, food insecurity negatively affects academic performance and social skills, and causes increases in Body Mass Index (BMI), an indicator of overweight and obesity. Globally, chronic food insecurity (undernourishment and malnutrition) causes underweight, wasting, and stunted growth in children.
Food insecurity can also lead to political instability and conflict. In recent years, there has been a number of “food riots” in which the population of a country (sometimes violently) protests its lack of food or, as was the case with the Mexican “tortilla riots” in 2007, rising food costs.
Are there solutions to food insecurity?
Solutions to food insecurity must include elimination of poverty; however, other aspects of food insecurity may be more immediately solvable. Some solutions proposed to end food insecurity include the following:
Although the first Green Revolution (GR) (in the 1960s and 70s) increased global yields, the Revolution came at a price: per capita hunger also increased, as small farmers were forced out of subsistence agriculture and into urban slums, often due to the high cost of GR seeds and the inputs required to grow them (fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery). The second wave of the Green Revolution focuses on genetically modified organisms (GMOs G) as the central way in to feed the world’s growing population; however, this second wave of the GR may be worse for small farmers, as large corporations own the patents to seed. In addition, in this second wave of the Green Revolution, the focus is not on sustainable agriculture, as high amounts of inputs (i.e., fertilizers, pesticides, intensive irrigation) are required. Because industrial agricultural inputs and infrastructure are expensive, rely on fossil fuels, and degrade the environment in numerous ways, many experts agree that relying upon unsustainable agriculture will, in the long term, increase global food insecurity. Studies involving small farms have indicated that sustainable agricultural practices can actually increase yield.
Improving agricultural biodiversity
Improving agricultural biodiversity G through sustainable agricultural practices may also alleviate food insecurity. Industrial agriculture relies upon monocropping, in which one genetic type of crop is planted on large tracts of land, while sustainable farms frequently plant a genetically diverse array of both crop type and species. Monocropping increases crop susceptibility to both pests and diseases; several historical famines and crop decimations were due to a pest or disease devastating monocropped agricultural plantings. With monocropping also comes an increased need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can erode soil biodiversity and in turn negatively affect yields over time. Enhancing biodiversity through the use of sustainable agricultural practices can protect communities from food insecurity associated with both crop loss and decreased yield.
In the US, policy change that champions sustainable, locally produced food, including increased incentives for local farmers and for markets where fresh, healthful food is available, can increase community food security. This, along with the increasing acceptance of food stamp (SNAP) benefits at local food outlets such as farmers' markets, may improve access to healthful food and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Community gardening, home gardening, and urban farming are other ways in which sustainably grown, local food can be used to improve community food security and to increase participant intake of fruits and vegetables. SNAP benefits have expanded to allow participants to buy seeds and edible plants, further increasing the potential for urban agriculture and home gardening to help alleviate food insecurity.
Read more about sustainable agriculture and local food systems
Food Justice & Food Sovereignty
Food justice, broadly defined, is the idea that food is a basic human right; food, and the risks and benefits of the way it is grown and produced, should be distributed fairly. Food sovereignty, defined by the agricultural activist group Via Campesina, is:
The right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; [and] to restrict the dumping of products in their markets.
Both the food justice and food sovereignty movements are concerned with the ways in which food is produced (i.e., sustainably) and distributed. The food sovereignty movement argues that the focus solely on food security, without addressing the production of food, has caused poor, food-insecure countries to import cheap, subsidized food to the detriment of their local farmers, economies, and cultures, thus adversely affecting longer-term and sustainable food security. They advocate local production andconsumption of food whenever possible as a means to avoid the cycle of poverty, reliance upon foreign imports, and long-term food security problems.