close up of a green apple

Food security definition describes the most humanitarian concept around

The food security definition of everyone with sufficient, safe and nutritious food always is the most egalitarian in the diplomatic lexicon. We like it, and here is why.

A standard definition of food security is all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

This utopian condition for humanity is the commonly accepted food security definition developed during the 1996 World Food Summit and widely adopted, including by the World Bank. 

Sustainably FED shortens this to feeding everyone well.

Either way, there is no ambiguity about

  • Everyone all the time 
  • sufficient 
  • safe 
  • nutritious 
  • health and 
  • well-being

Each word and phrase is clear and combines into the most egalitarian and humanitarian definition in the global Lexicon. Whilst politics is ever present, it is hard for any political party or politician to sour this ambition.

Behind the food security definition

As you will expect, sustainably FED looks behind the statements adopted because an internationally credible organisation promotes them. We look closely to ensure the meaning is clear.

Everyone, all the time

Everyone, all the time, is unambiguous.  It works so long as all the time includes time yet to happen. Food security today is no use if there is a famine next month.


Sufficient means enough, but assumes that it is enough of the right foods in the combinations that deliver the necessary nutrition. This is picked up in nutritious and healthy, but, interestingly enough, the definition of food security is not implicitly about a healthy diet.

The type of food matters, as does the nutritional content of the food. According to the World Health Organisation, an adequate volume of fruit and vegetables is insufficient if the food lacks trace nutrients—micronutrient deficiencies affect 2 billion people globally.

It is easy to hide behind the sufficiency of energy given that, for the time being, the 22 trillion kilocalories a day challenge is met with the industrial production of grains, seed oils and sugar.


Safe is taken for granted in the West. 

Food processing, packaging and labelling have been regulated to ensure there are few unsafe foods sold. Increasingly food safety is delivered by the food system and not from personal responsibility. Whilst this is efficient and relatively easy to regulate, it assumes rational actors in the supply chain and diligence by regulators. 

Luckily acutely unsafe foods are rarely profitable, but many offer poor nutrition and damage metabolic health, especially the ultra-processed options

Education on food selection, preparation and storage is central to all human cultures. There are gender biases in what is learned and who carries out key tasks, but most families have at least one member who does more than boil an egg. This helps with food safety during food preparation. However, in the fast food democracies, there are generations of youngsters who think milk comes from the fridge. 

Some would ‘boil’ an egg in the microwave.


Nutritious means there is food for calories, protein, and all the trace elements needed for human health. 

Our ancestors obtained essential nutrition from a complex diet with many plant and animal sources. Michael Pollan’s best-selling book In Defence of Food simplifies this requirement to ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’.  

Not so easy to achieve if the complex six-continent food supply chain priorities are to have profitable, transportable foods that store well and leave supermarket shelves at a rapid rate. 

A further challenge is that each human has a unique combination of requirements for nutrition, partly because of the relationship with each highly personal microbiome. Researchers are still learning about how important this is for overall health and well-being.

Nutritious also has to cope with human psychology that can disrupt an optimal diet when we give in to sweet, salty or fatty foods. Even with good food, passing up french fries with mayo takes a lot of work.

And what is health?

Health is always a slippery concept.

At one level, health is the absence of illness and a combination of traits and feelings. This is the most ambiguous of the terms in the food security definition, but it still has enough general meaning to suffice. 

A food-secure person is not suffering from malnutrition, food poisoning, obesity or other diet-related illness.

three lunch boxes with nutritious vegetables in keeping with the food security definition
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

Egalitarian and humane

Politically correct it may be, but all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life, lands on some high moral ground.

The assumption is that the food security definition is built on an egalitarian ethic that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. It is also humane, marked by compassion, sympathy, and consideration in advocating for a healthy and active life. 

What is not to like?

The problem, as with so many of the pledges and international treaties, is different from the intent. The problem is the delivery. How will we feed everyone well when the population spike has given us 8 billion souls, half of whom are already in poor metabolic health from inadequate nutrition, and a billion are impoverished and food insecure?

‘All people at all times’ implies a huge daily challenge of 22 trillion kilocalories in food energy that has to go on for decades, sustainable in ecological time.

The only way to meet the challenge is to change the food system. 

The current six-continent, just-in-time food supply chain is a human ingenuity and technology miracle motivated by profit. The food supply challenge is met because there is a dollar in it.

So, here is the thing.

Profit has never been egalitarian and humane.

What sustainably FED suggests 

We congratulate the academics, diplomats and politicians who created and support this common food security definition.

We like it.

It implies there is enough production of the right foods to ensure well-being. Of course, there are nuances to add, notably around cultural sensitivities and local context, as well as the endless debate on the best diet. But as an agreed starting position, it is sound.

Now all that is needed is to implement food production systems and supply chains that can deliver on the food security definition over ecological time.

And for that, we suggest that food systems are decoupled from profit.

Hero image from photo by Marina Grynykha on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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