mature wheat ready for harvest

The four pillars of food security | Meeting basic needs and avoiding starvation for everyone

If you are reading this post you are one of the luckiest humans ever to have lived because the four pillars of food security ensure you are well fed.

If you are reading this post you are one of the luckiest humans ever to have lived because the four pillars of food security ensure you are well fed.

Most modern humans in mature economies have more food, shelter and time to enjoy life’s wonders than at any other time in history. Social systems are robust, making education, security, and work opportunities 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 COVID 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, an amount we asked if a Westerner could manage.

In medieval times, $5.50 was a king’s ransom. Even more recently, workers’ wages in high income 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—equivalent to 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? What are the four pillars of food security that must be present to feed everyone well?

Four pillars of food security

It is not enough to feed yourself and your family once at Mcdonald’s. Food security is maintaining sufficient calories and nutrients for all metabolic needs fueling an active, healthy life for a 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 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 

  1. availability 
  2. access 
  3. utilization 
  4. stability 

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 despite 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.

Availability is sometimes the first of the four pillars of food security because it is about food production. If food is not grown or reared then it cannot be available. But availability is nothing without the second pillar.

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 to food is the second of the four pillars of food security and is measured by the amount of food people can grow themselves or afford to buy, barter or borrow. Food production is one thing, but food security is only possible if people are allowed access to it for economic or social reasons.

Then there is what can be done to the basic foodstuffs.

Utility is just as important.

If wheat is grown and accessible, then there are calories available, and, for a while, 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.

Food utility is food that is safe and appropriate for a healthy life including in social and cultural terms. Food utility also covers the satisfaction or value individuals derive from consuming different types of food—almost a measure of happiness or well-being a person experiences when consuming a particular food item.

The last of the four pillars of food security comes when the first three are met.

Stability in availability, access and nutrition is the fourth and perhaps the most significant of the four pillars of food security. 

Feeding everyone well cannot be a one-time thing; it has to persist for weeks, years, and even generations.

Woman from India carrying food in a basket on her head to meet the four pillars of food security
photo by Ron Hansen on Unsplash

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 four pillars of food security—availability, access, utility, and 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.

The obesity epidemic is a global problem that reflects poor food security, not in availability but in access and utility.

Indeed, food security is the problem facing humanity now and for the next century.

Science Source

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


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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