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Pathways to tackling food insecurity

Expert comment

Written by Orzala Nemat, Nigel Poole

Hero image description: A young boy looks over a wheatfield in Bamyan, Afghanistan Image credit:Nigel Poole

In a world abundant with resources, the harsh reality is that millions suffer from food insecurity. Natural disasters, man-made conflicts and economic instability condemn people in the most vulnerable parts of the world to hunger and ill health. The World Food Programme’s Hunger Map indicates that a total of around 710 million people worldwide live with insufficient food, and 16 countries have very high levels of hunger – Afghanistan is one of the worst, followed by Haiti, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, as well as Burkina Faso and Mali in the Sahel region. These countries are all affected by protracted conflicts.

Understanding food insecurity and its root causes

Food security crises are often born from complex issues, including droughts, floods, political unrest and poverty. Hunger and malnutrition are immediate consequences, with potentially devastating developmental impacts on the most vulnerable people, particularly children. Further adverse effects are social, economic and political: increasing inequalities, retarded social development, restricted economic growth, and population displacement and emigration.

Food insecurity is to do with lack of food, but not food as a single category: it is a lack of food quality, quantity and diversity. Overt hunger is a lack of essential macronutrients that mainly provide energy. Hidden hunger results from a lack of micronutrients from diverse foods, with profound individual and societal effects. Also, we are learning more about the essential role of other biologically active, so-called ‘non-nutrient’ components of food. Deficiencies cause health consequences that are aggravated by water, sanitation and hygiene problems, common in poverty contexts. The pandemic of non-communicable diseases is partly attributable to these diet-related deficiencies.

Food security is usually defined by four pillars:

1. Availability – a physical characteristic to do with production and distribution.

2. Access – concerned with social, political and economic conditions determining affordability.

3. Utilisation – how foods are prepared and delivered as meals.

4. Stability – largely a function of steady prices, at least over the short term.

Two more factors have been proposed:

5. Agency – the expression of voice and choice by consumers.

6. Long-term sustainability – critical in the era of Sustainable Development Goals and fundamental to preventing the repeated recurrence of food crises.

Early-warning systems

Given the self-evident crises of climate change and conflict, we must better anticipate the impacts of food insecurity. Experts can identify potential crises before they escalate by analysing historical data and systematically studying regional vulnerabilities.

One key method is the use of early-warning systems. These use advanced technologies like satellite imagery, climate modelling and data analytics to detect emerging threats. By monitoring and identifying at-risk areas, humanitarian aid can be deployed swiftly, providing timely and targeted assistance to vulnerable populations. Regular and more frequent research and monitoring by national and international organisations are crucial to developing more effective early-warning systems and hunger-prevention measures.

Immediate hunger-prevention mechanisms – such as the provision of food packages and supplements – cannot solve the entire issue. Parallel to quick responses, there must be means to address the fundamental causes and secure the livelihoods of vulnerable people in the longer term.

Sustainable agriculture and innovation

Investing in sustainable technology and agricultural practices is a crucial step for rural households. Farmers need access to quality seeds of resilient crop varieties, efficient irrigation systems, and eco-friendly farming techniques. Innovation in agriculture, such as precision farming and hydroponics, can maximise food production even in challenging environments, ensuring a more stable food supply.

Food insecurity is not a function of just agricultural systems. Food is the culmination of numerous factors: soil, water, biodiversity, inputs (e.g., seeds, agrochemicals, labour), technology and infrastructure. Post-production, the value chain connects to consumption through processes of transformation and distribution. In terms of this consumption, infrastructure is vital to energise local markets and rural–urban linkages.

Empowering communities

Empowering local communities is a fundamental social process to build resilience against food crises. Education, especially for women, is a powerful tool. When communities understand best practices for farming, water management and nutrition, they are better equipped to face challenges. Additionally, providing economic opportunities and social safety nets through micro-credits or loans can help families withstand shocks, reducing their vulnerability.

The consumption habits of rural and urban people alike are formed within an environment mediated by knowledge of food, culture and industrial forces (such as competition and advertising). Hence, after production and transportation, consumption activities present many critical points for innovation, intervention and regulation, to promote food security, nutrition and health among the most vulnerable.

International cooperation and policy advocacy

Beyond household and community-level action, we recommend policy innovation at regional and global levels. Unprecedented humanitarian and development initiatives across the dimensions of time, space and human interrelationships are needed: ‘Food systems change requires bringing together actors from different sectors and institutions to work in an aligned and coordinated way that is place-based, with a long-term and multi-generational commitment’.

The principal challenge is to develop effective regional and global models of governance that integrate policies and actions of the multidimensional matrix of stakeholders in food security and health: those in food chains linked horizontally and vertically through the levels of supply, production, transformation and consumption; finance and investment; multidisciplinary research; national and international organisations and institutions; and private, public and non-governmental sectors. A crucial step would also be to prioritise and strengthen the production and provision of food and nutrition goods in this local and global nexus.


Anticipating and preventing famine is not only a moral imperative but also an achievable goal. We have highlighted that food insecurity is not just a function of agricultural systems – we need to revisit the current policies and strategies. Through understanding the underlying causes, investing in sustainable practices, empowering communities and fostering international cooperation, we can create a future where every individual has enough to eat. Together, we can turn the tide against hunger and build a more food-secure world for generations to come.