While the world burns and people go hungry the message is business as usual: Lessons for food insecurity

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Written by: Martin Caraher

The food insecurity crisis is characterised by the triple burdens of malnutrition, of which undernourishment is just one aspect, it also includes micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition. Globally, over 821 million people suffer from undernutrition, 2 billion people with micronutrient deficiencies and over 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. In some economies obesity can be seen as a proxy indicator of the new food insecurity, as populations consume more processed foods and less fruit and vegetables. The overall burden is one that impacts more on low and emerging economies. Malnutrition during pregnancy and the early years development leads to stunted physical and cognitive development, increased susceptibility to diseases, and reduced productivity and economic opportunities. Women and children bear the brunt of food insecurity, with women being more likely to be affected by hunger than men and 144 million children under the age of five being stunted (too short for their age) due to chronic undernutrition.

While one in nine people in the world are undernourished there are regional disparities, Africa has the highest prevalence of undernourishment, with over 250 million people (19% of the population) suffering from hunger, within Africa emerging economies such as South Africa are experiencing rising levels of obesity alongside hunger. Asia follows closely with over 500 million people (11.4% of the population) facing food insecurity. In contrast, Latin America and the Caribbean have the lowest prevalence of undernourishment, with 9.5% of the population affected. High-income economies such as the UK and the US -have seen increased levels of food insecurity driving by changing economic circumstances. The nature of food insecurity in high-income countries is different from that in low and middle-income income but nonetheless damaging in its impact. It is more likely to be characterised by the consumption of highly processed foods high in calories, fat, salt and sugar interspersed with periods of hunger.

The UN estimates that by 2050, climate change will push an additional 100 million people into poverty and increase the number of undernourished by 20%. Conflict and political instability play a large part in food insecurity. The World Food Programme reports that 60% of the world’s hungry live in countries affected by conflict. This is a major challenge in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria, where ongoing conflicts have contributed to food insecurity and malnutrition. Such conflicts and lack of global food governance can be further impacted by natural disasters and global events outside the control of national governments. The recent floods in Libya acerbated an already precarious situation, with only 1% of the land suitable for growing of grains resulting in a heavy reliance on imports. Adding to all of this was the war in Ukraine which resulted in less grain being available for export to Libya either directly or through the World Food Programme. Libya, since 2011, has had periodic wheat and cereals supply disruptions, shortages driven by speculative trading on global markets and higher local prices due to currency devaluation. Seventy-five per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, with many facing increasing challenges such as limited access to land, water, and other resources. They may live next to where food is grown but not have physical access to land and lack sufficient income to buy food.

Despite these alarming statistics, there have been some improvements in global food security, the prevalence of undernourishment decreased from 23.3% in 1990-1992 to 8.9% in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic saw some of these advances being reversed, demonstrating the fragility of the global food system and the need for continued efforts to address food insecurity and malnutrition. The pandemic provided us with lots of initiatives by governments, civil society and the food industry to tackle the issue of supply, examples of these are included in our edited handbook (Caraher, Coveney & Chopra, 2023). Despite this the contribution of both governments and the private sector to the SDGs is not encouraging. WHO, FAO and other United Nations agencies are predicting an increase in food insecurity in 2024. Among the reasons for this are a lack of actions to meet the targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Global Nutrition Targets (GNTs). Only 15% of the SDG targets are on track to be met by 2030 and the GNTs date for achievement, previously 2025, have been extended to 2030. Figure 1, shows that ranked by their contribution to each of the 17 SDG goals, global companies fell mostly in the middle with 38% aligned and 55% misaligned or neutral in their commitment and only 0.2% of companies strongly aligned to meeting the SDGs. The most strongly aligned goal was ‘Responsible Production and Consumption’, indicating a commitment, often under a CSR banner(Neufeld, 2021).

Figure 1 Source Neufeld (2021)

A key issue highlighted by many studies, including those in our edited volume, is the importance of cash transfers to families to address food insecurity, in the post pandemic era these are gradually being abandoned by governments using the excuse of austerity.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns were not about always about food per se in terms of its amount and production but the pandemic had impacts on the food chain and the ability and resources to source food. This raises the need to plan for disruptions in the food supply chain as a fallout from other crises such as floods, conflict or trade wars. Amartya Sen noted, famines are not conditional on a lack of food or its not being available, but on how the entitlement to access is conceived (Sen, 1981). Food security at the household level can be influenced by skills, resources and lack of money or physical access to food; however, it is often not about an overall shortage of food within a community or society but about access. Within late-capitalist societies, access is often defined by consumerist models of access rather than a right to food.

There is a lack of action by the corporate sector in relation to addressing the SDGs and the GNTs, the global food and health agencies have little power to ensure compliance or to regulate the situation. These gaps need to be addressed as matters of urgency. The issues of global governance and regulation need to be revisited by food policy and food insecurity researchers. For example there has been little research on how to regulate global speculation around food and concentrations in the food chain this despite the issues being (Clapp, 2021).


Caraher, M., Coveney, J. & Chopra, M. (eds) 2023,  Handbook of Food Security and Society, Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.

Clapp 2021, “The problem with growing corporate concentration and power in the global food system”, Nature food, vol. 2, no. 6, pp. 404-408.

Neufeld, D. 2021, March 16th-last update, UN Sustainable Development Goals: How Companies Stack Up,.

Sen, A. 1981, Poverty and Famines, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Handbook of Food Security and Society
Edited by Martin Caraher, John Coveney and Mickey Chopra is available now.

Read the introduction and other free chapters on Elgaronline.

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