Contact us:

Re: Coming to terms with terminology

George Kent Department of Political Science, University of Hawai'i, United States of ...

Greetings –

Here is a discussion of terminology from pp. 21-23 of my book, Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005. A no-cost download of the book is available at


Words like hunger and starvation have strong emotional impact, but are rarely used as technical terms by specialists in the field. There are no measures and no published data on starvation as such. The experts prefer to use terms such as food insecurity or malnutrition.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Food security is concerned with questions relating to the food supply, but nutrition status depends not only on suitable food but also on good basic health services and, particularly for children, adequate care. Malnutrition generally results not from a lack of food in the community but from the skewed distribution of the food that is available. That skew results because some people are too poor or too powerless to make an adequate claim on the food that is available. . . .

The FAO equates food insecurity with the more popular concept of hunger. It also distinguishes between undernourishment and undernutrition. Undernourishment refers to an inadequate supply of food, and is assessed by estimating food supplies. Undernutrition, however, refers to the physiological consequences, and is assessed on the basis of anthropometric measures, that is, people's weights and heights. . . . [N]utrition status, as an outcome, results not only from the quality of food but also from the qualities of care and health services, as inputs. Food status is one major factor determining nutrition status. The other two major factors are care and health services. Thus, we can say that nutrition status depends on food status, care status, and health status.

There is now increasing attention to the concept of nutrition security. This term has been defined as the "appropriate quantity and combination of inputs such as food, nutrition an health services, and caretaker’s time needed to ensure an active and healthy life."

Food security focuses on the food component of nutrition security. Thus, food security and nutrition security are different. The FAO's Sixth World Food Survey showed that while food inadequacy is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than in South Asia, the incidence of malnutrition (or, more precisely, undernutrition) based on anthropometric measures is higher in South Asia. The study suggests that the discrepancy is largely due to differences in disease patterns. Most life-threatening malnutrition occurs among children, but children do not require very large amounts of food. There can be widespread malnutrition in a population even while food security measures indicate the food situation is relatively good. Millions of children worldwide die each year as a result of diarrhea, for example, but this has little to do with the level of food supply in their communities or even in their households.
There are many different aspects or dimensions of human security. Food security is one component of nutrition security, together with health security and care security. . . .

The literature often fails to make a clear distinction between status and security. The understanding proposed here is based on the idea that, in its most general form, security means freedom from fear of harm. Particular kinds of security refer to freedom from fear of particular kinds of harms. Thus, physical security refers to freedom from fear of physical harm, environmental security means freedom from fear of environmental harm, and so on. In this understanding, status refers to current conditions, while security refers to anticipated conditions.

It would have been useful if FAO consistently used the term food inadequacy, rather than food insecurity, to describe the condition of inadequate food supplies when they are assessing conditions that are current at a given point in time, not conditions that are anticipated from that moment in time. This terminology would make it easier to distinguish between food status and food security.

Just as we can say that nutrition status depends on food status, care status, and health status, we can also say that nutrition security depends on food security, care security, and health security.

The distinction between nutrition status and nutrition security is particularly useful when assessing different kinds of interventions intended to respond to nutrition problems. Straightforward feeding programs may be very helpful in improving people's current nutrition status. However, they do nothing to improve their nutrition security. Such interventions respond to symptoms, and not to the underlying sources of the problem. Indeed, if people come to depend on such feeding programs, these programs may in fact weaken their nutrition security. In a perverse way, feeding programs, responding only to symptoms, may actually help to sustain problems, rather than end them. You don’t solve the hunger problem by feeding people.

Improving nutrition security would require introducing some sort of change in the local social and institutional arrangements, or providing training or tools or some other resources that could change things over the long run. Nutrition interventions should be assessed not so much on the basis of their immediate impact but on the impacts they are likely to have over the long run, long after the interventions have ended.

The difference between nutrition status and nutrition security may seem slight, but the significance is that the security concept takes account of the institutional measures that come into play. To illustrate, you are interested not only in whether your house is currently on fire, but also in whether there are adequate institutional arrangements in place to put out a fire if and when one should occur. Or, to offer a more appropriate illustration, if you have washed up on a desert island and just eaten your last can of beans, your nutrition status may be alright, but your nutrition security is bleak.”

I would add here that, despite FAO’s sometimes equating food security with hunger, I feel that food security should be understood as a more comprehensive concept, important to people at all levels of income. For example, issues of food safety and food supply in disaster situations are food security concerns for everyone. The question of whether infant formula is nutritionally adequate is a food security question that is relevant everywhere.

Aloha, George Kent