The Biggest Threat to the Human Population: Food Security

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When you think of the most prevalent problems facing the world, you may not think hunger to be high on the list, but hunger around the world has slowly grown since 2015 after decades of a gradual decline. In 2018, there were an estimated 821 million individuals that suffer from hunger worldwide. If nothing changes, the enormous challenge of achieving the Zero Hunger Goal by 2030 will not be accomplished. At the same time according to The State of Food Safety and Nutrition in the World 2019, overweight and obesity continue to increase in all regions of the world. For these reasons and more, food security is the biggest threat to the overall health of the human population.

When looking deeper into the giant monster this world is facing, food security, we must first define what exactly food security is. Food security relates to the production and availability of sufficient food for feeding a population, as well as the ability of the population to access appropriate food. The 1996 World Food Summit participants described food security as a period when ‘all people have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.’ This description extends the idea of food protection to involve nutrient adequacy. Other less widely used concepts of food security often recognize cultural preferences; for example, when determining the food security of communities adhering to religious vegetarianism, those that do the assessing must refrain from considering meats as available food. 

Food security has historically been a common concern. Originally, local populations were dependent on the food they produced, even as global trade expanded. Failure to grow crops would cause devastating local famines and root entire populations out of control. The loss of Ireland’s potato crop during the Great Famine from 1845 to 1852 caused Ireland to lose one-quarter of its population to famine and emigration. The Industrial Revolution saw the increasing of both urbanization and agricultural productivity, but made more people dependent on buying food from others, rather than growing it on their own. The Green Movement changed worldwide agricultural activities from the 1940s into the 1970s. 

The movement promoted the production and use of crossbred, enhanced, or genetically modified seeds to avoid crop disease and increase yields. It also saw improved drainage systems, improved land management methods, and increased agricultural mechanisation. From 1965 to 1970, new hybridized crops in Asia allowed wheat and rice production to increase at least two-fold. Despite these increased yield gains, the populations of the world most vulnerable to food poverty and hunger were those living on less than the equivalent of $2 a day. The world’s 1.05 billion poorest people are mainly either recent migrants in developed nations to urban areas or rural smallholders at or near subsistence levels (Everett). Between 1958 and 1961, 23 to 30 million Chinese people died as a result of the failed agricultural program. 

This event named the Great Leap Forward, has been deemed the worst famine in modern history. Colonial powers frequently left behind oppressive political and social hierarchies in many parts of the world that were very good at collecting wealth and sending them north but not so good at supporting social justice and human welfare. Developing nations are mostly governed by a tiny ruling class that owns much of the land, dominates industry, and runs the government. Because the poorest people who suffer most from starvation have little power to influence government policies and manage the economy of the country, their needs are often unheard of and unfulfilled. A government that rules without its people’s democratic support has less incentive to protect those who would suffer in times of hunger.

Although food security is a well known thing in third world countries, it is definitely a problem in developing and developed countries. The clearest example of this condition certainly comes from the USA, where a large number of people suffer from various forms of malnutrition, given the general state of well-being. This is also demonstrated by a recent report released by the journal Population Health Management, showing that over half of the patients in the sample who were often admitted to hospital – more than 3 times in the previous year – did not have daily access to nutritious food and also had an insufficient amount of food in the home. In response to the claim, the reasons that lead to these seemingly extreme circumstances are very common: those who suffer most from food insecurity are elderly people, low-income individuals, or those who have difficulty going out to buy and cook food or depend on others (relatives, institutions or charities). 

However, the results of this study are not entirely surprising given that in 2014, around fifteen percent of families in the USA claimed they had problems accessing food, according to USDA data. Throughout Europe the situation isn’t substantially different. The 2015 General Overview of Food Insecurity, focusing on Europe and Asia and released by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) experts highlights the fact that food insecurity in Europe and Central Asia has slowly developed from an inadequate calorie issue to a more complex and difficult food quality issue. 

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According to the data in the report, Eurasia achieved the objective of halving hunger incidences by 2015, reducing the number of undernourished people to below 5%. However, another problem still exists, that of malnutrition, which in a similar way affects the region’s rich and poor countries. In addition, the number of people suffering from micronutrient deficiencies with dangerous health implications as well as those who are overweight or obese has been growing. FAO experts suggest that programs should be designed for better national food security, and that “not enough focus is given to the quality of people’s diets”.

While reading this you may be asking yourself, “What is being done around the world?”. As mentioned above the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) is a key organization when it comes to increasing global food security. The FAO finances and manages research on food security worldwide. Since 1990, the FAO and other global organizations’ efforts have helped to reduce the number of undernourished citizens in developing regions from 23.3 percent to 12.9 percent in 2015. The efforts of the FAO and other global organizations have helped reduce the number of vulnerable people living in hunger since 1990. In 1990, more than one billion people were seen as food insecure. Today , the number of people who lack food security is now 797 million. 

Progress is being made but much remains to be done. Now the United Nations and FAO are committed to eradicating hunger by 2030. Modern food technology has greatly increased in the past fifty years. Drought-resistant seeds and root crops, such as sweet potato and cassava, are a few examples of such innovation. Knowledge about the use of climate-smart agriculture and improved post-harvest management is being given in the form of Farmer Field Schools. OXFAM claims that almost 3 million children die every year from complications caused by malnutrition. More than six thousand children under the age of 5 die each year in Cambodia from ‘maternal malnutrition, underweight and wasting, poor infant feeding practices or deficiencies in micronutrients.’ 

To help combat this problem, the FAO has launched a nutrition-sensitive project aimed at diversifying farmers’ food production, increasing productivity and improving nutritional and food education. The program ‘s nutritional education component focused on feeding, care, and sound food safety practices, such as proper hygiene, for infants and children of ages 6-18 months. Governments, state governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also discuss food insecurity on a national basis. In the US, the USDA through the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers food and dietary assistance to low-income Americans. 

SNAP offers financial assistance to food insecure individuals in the U.S. with an electronic debit card that can be used for food purchases. This is the largest low-income nutrition assistance program in the United States, serving over 46 million low-income Americans in 2012. NGOs are providing extra regional assistance in countries around the world, filling the gaps in service organizations that states don’t provide. Feeding America is one such organization. In the United States, Feeding America is ‘the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.’ They operate through a network of ‘200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.’ 

Feeding America helps supply food to one in seven Americans. The FAO reports that one-third of the food produced annually (about 1.3 billion tons) is wasted or lost. All the food lost or wasted each year could feed more than twice the nearly 800 million people who are hungry in the world. Across several developing countries, endeavors are under way to reduce food waste. The WeFood project in Denmark has opened two stores that sell surplus food, a food that is still good but past its expiry date. WeFood is managed by DanChurchACT, a Danish charity that uses WeFood ‘s proceeds to help fund its efforts around the world to counter hunger and food insecurity.

In the US there has been a push for urban agriculture. Eighty percent of the population in California lives in cities. Feeding the towns of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, with a total population of about 7 million, means shipping 2.5 to 3 million tons of food every day over an estimated distance of 500 to 1,000 miles. This system demands huge amounts of energy and produces significant greenhouse gas emissions. It is also extremely vulnerable to major disruptions, such as large earthquakes. The food this system provides fails to hit one out of every eight people living under the poverty line in the region — mostly senior citizens, children and minorities. Access to quality food is limited by both poverty and the fact that low-income communities in California have 32.7 percent fewer supermarkets on average than high-income areas in the same cities. Many organizations see urban farming as a way to boost food security. It also provides benefits for the environment, health and social. 

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