Feeding the world: The search for food security



To feed the world population in the year 2025, predicted to be 8 500 million, current world food production will have to more than double.

About one-third of the people in cities of the developing world live in desperately overcrowded slums and squatter settlements.

The population of most developing countries is still growing rapidly, even though the rate of growth has slowed down. Every year the global population increases by 90 million. Most of the increase, around 95 percent, takes place in the developing world. Populations in most developed countries are increasing only slightly, if at all; in some of them, such as Germany and Hungary, they are even falling.

Taking the most conservative projections for world population growth over the next 30 years, food production will need to double in order to meet minimum requirements. Yet the land available to produce this additional food is being degraded, largely as a result of deforestation, overgrazing and poor farming practices. FAO estimates that some 1 200 million hectares of land are affected by soil degradation. Erosion by wind and water accounts for just over 1 000 million hectares of this, with the balance caused by chemical and physical degradation.

At the same time, the availability of productive agricultural land per caput is declining in many countries because of population growth and the lack of reserves that could be brought into production.

Data from 57 developing countries show that nearly 50 percent of all farms are smaller than 1 hectare in size. Many poor farmers find that, as a result, they can no longer make a living from their land.

In the developing countries people are migrating in large numbers to towns and cities in search of paid employment and better opportunities. Nearly 70 percent of all Latin Americans now live in urban areas compared to just 30 percent or so 30 years ago. Urban areas are growing by 6-8 percent a year in sub-Saharan Africa. Soon, more people will live in towns and cities than in the countryside in developing countries as a whole. The young and more vigorous people tend to migrate, leaving women, children and the old to carry the burden of work.

Food services have grown up to provide for city workers and others who spend most of the day far from home. Street vendors, restaurants, fast food chains and caterers are important in almost every country. In Malaysia, for example, street food sales from the 100 000 or more vendors are estimated to have an annual value of more than US$ 2 000 million.

In the developing world, street vendors usually sell traditional dishes that are produced locally. They provide a ready market for farmers and home gardeners. Many poor families also depend on them. For those living in shanty towns, they may be the only source of cooked food.

Many street vendors offer good nutritious food, but some sell products of questionable hygiene and safety. As a result, where street foods are widespread vendors need to be trained and standards introduced to ensure good hygiene and provide food free from harmful contamination.

Urban and rural population projections in developing countries
Millions (and percentage of population)

Growth rates, 1985-2010

Ingredients for food security

Poverty is the root cause of food Insecurity. A food secure country can produce, store or import the food it needs and distribute it equitably. Food insecure countries typically have either large numbers of very poor people, or very low average food consumption levels, or large fluctuations in food supplies coupled with low consumption levels.

No single recipe will ensure food security for all individuals, households or nations. The basic ingredients, illustrated here, are well-known, although their quality and availability vary greatly from region to region.

Making people's nutritional wellbeing the focus of national and international development policies -and using it as a measure of their success - would be a major step in creating a well-fed world.


Agriculture and population

Growth of world population
Thousand millions, 1950-2100

World agricultural production and population

Index, 1961=100

Source: UNFPA

The world's ten largest urban agglomerations by the year 2000


What is food security?

Food security exists when "all people at all times have access to the food they need for a healthy active life".

Achieving food security depends on four key factors:

Availability of adequate food supplies - there must be enough food to ensure that each person's daily energy and nutrient needs can be met.

Access to sufficient food even in a country with adequate food supplies, food security does not exist for those who cannot afford to buy enough and/or grow their own.

Stability of supplies - severe fluctuations in food availability or accessibility, caused by such factors as droughts, floods, sharp price increases or seasonal unemployment, leave people vulnerable.

Cultural acceptability - use of certain foods, food combinations or handling methods can be preempted by religious or cultural taboos.


Pressures on resources for food production

Arable land per caput

* based on UN Population Division's low, medium and high population projections

Although the volume of agricultural production has doubled over the past 30 years, this progress has bypassed many countries and peoples: in sub-Saharan Africa nutritional levels have actually fallen since the 1970s.

Poverty is the root cause of undernutrition in a world which has been able to increase overall food production. The major problem is that the increases are spread unevenly around the globe, and that the poor cannot afford to buy what is produced.

An increasing population has to live off a dwindling supply of arable land and increasingly limited water resources. There is a vicious circle between increasing poverty and resource degradation. This makes it vital to achieve sustainable forms of agriculture.

Sustainable agricultural and rural development conserves land, water and plant and animal genetic resources. It is environmentally non-degrading and technically appropriate, as well as being economically viable and socially acceptable.

Some improvements are already accessible to the small farmers who form the majority of food producers. They include a range of farming practices designed to reduce the need for high levels of expensive farm inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Integrated plant nutrition uses a combination of organic and mineral sources of soil nutrients with tillage and crop rotation to increase crop production; and integrated pest management (IPM) which reduces the need for chemical pesticides by making use of biological controls to minimize disease and damage by pests.

To achieve sustainable food production and security, poor farmers need access to finance and productive resources, including advice and technical help. Rural incomes, status of women, diets and food distribution systems need to be improved. Agricultural waste will have to be reduced. Land and other resources will have to be distributed more equitably. At the same time, progress in reducing population growth will help relieve pressure on resources and bring food production and supplies into balance with needs and demand.


International Conference on Nutrition

In December 1992, some 159 countries and the European Community gathered in Rome for the International Conference on Nutrition. Organized jointly by FAO and WHO, the Conference adopted a broad-based plan of action to combat malnutrition.

The Conference had nine major themes:

The participating states agreed to take all necessary steps to eliminate, before the end of this decade:

They also pledged to reduce substantially within this decade:

By 1995, some 90 countries were launching national programmes designed to reduce malnutrition and improve diets.