Most modern humans in mature economies have more food, more shelter and more time to enjoy the wonders of life than at any other time in history. Social systems are robust and make education, security, and work opportunities readily available for the majority.
Obviously, it is not all Chelsea flower show perfume. Wealth creation is not afraid to extract a pound of flesh from workers and does not always provide a safety net for the less fortunate.
But overall, a billion or so people are in good shape.
The World Bank estimates that whilst extreme poverty has declined, at least until the ravages of the pandemic, nearly half the world’s population — over 3.5 billion people — still struggles to meet basic needs. They survive on less than $5.50 per day.
In medieval times, $5.50 was a king’s ransom, and even more recently, wages for workers in developed countries were modest.
There is a scene in the latest Downton Abbey movie when the one-time footman, now a local teacher, is offered 500 guineas to write a screenplay. His jaw drops to the floor.
No surprise as 500 guineas back in 1930s Britain (roughly £30,000 and the average UK salary in 2022) was at least ten years’ worth of a footman’s salary.
Money is not everything, of course. A medieval peasant or a footman to the landed gentry of the 1930s would be canny in how they fed, housed and watered themselves and their families. They didn’t use supermarket checkouts but would grow vegetables, keep chickens, barter with their neighbours and forage along the country lanes.
So what does it take to meet basic food needs?
Pillars of food security
Obviously, it is not enough to feed yourself and your family once at McDonalds. Food security is about maintaining sufficient calories and nutrients for all metabolic needs that fuel an active, healthy lifetime.
Food has to be present nearby and preferably in your pantry. It also has to be food that makes sense to your culture, culinary skills and your stomach. And there is no point in there being times of plenty if next week, month or year, food is in short supply.
These food needs are sometimes gathered into four pillars of food security
Availability is all about the supply of food.
Is there enough food to be had either from the garden, the fields, gleaned from the hedgerows or snared in the forest? There must be enough calories and nutrients to support the energetic needs of the people, or they starve. This means growing food consistently to meet the local demand even when disruptions. For example, epizootic pandemics such as avian flu or African swine fever directly reduced animal-sourced food output. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have disrupted global food supply chains.
Access is critical when there is food available.
No point in there being a great crop of wheat in the field if all of it goes to export or bread is available in the shops but is sold at prices not everyone can afford. Access is mostly about what people can grow themselves or afford to buy, barter or borrow. Food production is one thing, but this does not mean food security if people are denied access to it for economic or social reasons.
Utility is just as important.
If wheat is grown and accessible, then there are calories available and, for a while at least, there is enough food. But as the early sailors can attest, diet is more than calories. Nutrients are essential to survival, especially for the young.
Incomes affect dietary choices. Research covering 300,000 households in low- and middle-income countries revealed that poor people spend more than a quarter of their total income on staple foods such as wheat, rice, or maize, whereas nonpoor households spend only 14%. More significant than this proportional spending, is that when incomes decline poor households cut back on nutrient-rich nonstaples (fruits, vegetables, and animal-source products) and shift toward starchy staples that tend to be cheaper.
Stability in availability, access and nutrition is the fourth and perhaps the most significant pillar of food security.
Feeding everyone well cannot be a one-time thing, it has to persist for weeks, years, and even generations.
How do the pillars work for the poor?
Well, they don’t.
The poorest households spend around 70% of their incomes on food and have limited access to financial markets, making their food security particularly vulnerable to income shocks. When the food price goes up it can mean starvation.
When over half your income goes to buying food and the price of food doubles. Where do you find the money to buy fuel to cook the food, pay the rent, buy school uniforms or pay for Grandma’s funeral?
If the food price goes up many people have no choice but to switch to cheaper, often less nutritious foods to avoid hunger and undernourishment.
This is a problem for adults but can be catastrophic for children and infants, even if the food price rises are temporary. Inadequate nutrition can be long-lasting for young children, whose growth and cognitive development tend to be affected by undernutrition.
All this is especially true for the urban poor.
What sustainably FED suggests
The pillars of food security—availability, access, utility, stability—are helpful placeholders for the problem of feeding everyone well. They show that growing food is just the first challenge. Getting the right food to the people all the time is a logistical, societal and political challenge of unprecedented size and scope.
We cannot big this up enough.
Way too many people are food insecure, and the number grows by the day. Hunger makes people cranky, but starvation makes them desperate. Food security is global because it applies even in countries where people get food from supermarkets.
Indeed we would argue that food security is the problem facing humanity now and for the next century.
Laborde, D., Martin, W., Swinnen, J., & Vos, R. (2020). COVID-19 risks to global food security. Science, 369(6503), 500-502.
Hero image from a photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash