Food Security Matters

Toby Bruce
16 October 2020

Food is a basic requirement for human health and well-being. So basic that it is sometimes forgotten how necessary it is and there is an assumption that food will always be there! Until recently, with a brief pause caused by panic buying at the start of the COVID crisis, supermarket shelves were never empty. In the UK, an average of about 10.6 % of household income was spent on food in 2017/18[1] which is a relatively modest amount compared to earlier times in history or to some other parts of the world when and where 40% of family income was spent on food.

Not having secure access to food or going hungry can have a devastating effect on human health and well-being. Ultimately, people die of starvation which is about as serious as matters can get. So perhaps the food system deserves more attention?

Why is there complacency and lack of concern about food? Perhaps because food shortages have not been experienced? However, in a changing world, it is not safe to assume that because food availability has been improving in the last few decades, it always will be readily available. Furthermore, consuming the wrong types of food can lead to obesity. On a global scale, inadequate nutrition is the biggest risk factor for disease and one in five deaths are associated with poor diet[2]. Perhaps we should think more about food and how nutrition can be improved?

Another reason why food is so important is the huge environmental footprint associated with food production. Farming uses more land and water than any other human activity as well as having a heavy demand for energy and many natural resources. Land clearance for farming is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss which is why the land already used for farming needs to be used as effectively as possible. We need to consider where our food comes from. Food and the environment are inextricably linked. While food production affects the environment, the environment also affects farming – climate change is already having a severe impact on farming systems in many parts of the world.

Much of my research has focussed on how crop losses to pests can be reduced so that harvests can be protected. But food production is only one aspect of food security. There are also socio-economic aspects associated with access. This was made clear by John Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath:

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit- and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains. And the smell of rot fills the country.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines 4 dimensions of food security[3]. These are Availability, Access, Use and Utilization and Stability:

 

1.     Physical AVAILABILITY of food Food availability addresses the “supply side” of food security and is determined by the level of food production, stock levels and net trade.

 

2.     Economic and physical ACCESS to food An adequate supply of food at the national or international level does not in itself guarantee household level food security. Concerns about insufficient food access have resulted in a greater policy focus on incomes, expenditure, markets and prices in achieving food security objectives.

 

3.     Food UTILIZATION Utilization is commonly understood as the way the body makes the most of various nutrients in the food. Sufficient energy and nutrient intake by individuals is the result of good care and feeding practices, food preparation, diversity of the diet and intra-household distribution of food. Combined with good biological utilization of food consumed, this determines the nutritional status of individuals.

 

4.     STABILITY of the other three dimensions over time Even if your food intake is adequate today, you are still considered to be food insecure if you have inadequate access to food on a periodic basis, risking a deterioration of your nutritional status. Adverse weather conditions, political instability, or economic factors (unemployment, rising food prices) may have an impact on your food security status.

 

 

The UN has more recently set a Sustainable Development Goal of Ending Hunger (SDG2) which addresses Food Security[4] and the UK is developing a UK Food Strategy[5].

The challenge of ensuring food security while protecting the environment is one of the biggest challenges humanity faces this century. This is why we are setting up the Keele Centre for Food Security (KCFS) to conduct research into how to improve food security.

Food Security is not a single subject topic. Improving food security requires different disciplines – natural sciences to understand how to improve “availability” or production, social sciences to understand how to improve “access” and medical sciences to understand how to improve utilisation or nutrition. This maps with the Keele research areas of sustainability, social inclusion and global health and fits with the Keele tradition of multidisciplinary research.

We hope our strategic research on food security can make some contribution to improve global food security. We are keen to engage with external partners in collaborative projects.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-food-201718/family-food-201718[2] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190403193702.htm

[3] http://www.fao.org/3/a-al936e.pdf

[4] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/

[5] https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org