Dr. Mark G. Robson, PhD, MPH, DrPH,
Dean of Agricultural and Urban Programs, Professor of Entomology, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences – Rutgers University

“The world produces enough food to feed everyone.”

World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002). The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food. 

Almost 1 billion hungry people in the world or 1 in 7 persons

No one really knows how many people are malnourished. The statistic most frequently cited is that of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); 925 million people were undernourished in 2010. As the figure in the next slide shows, the number of hungry people has increased since 1995-97, though the number is down from last year. The increase has been due to three factors:

1) Neglect of agriculture relevant to very poor people by governments and international agencies;
2) The current worldwide economic crisis, and
3) The significant increase of food prices in the last several years which has been devastating to those with only a few dollars a day to spend, 925 million people is 13 percent of the estimated world population of 7.billion. Nearly all of the undernourished are in developing countries. 

The World Food Programme and the US Agency for International Development presently have a system that measures intensity and magnitude through a series of levels: food secure, food insecure, food crisis, famine, severe famine and extreme famine. Magnitude under 1000 deaths is a “minor famine” and over 1 million deaths is a “catastrophic famine.”

“In the 20th Century there have been an estimated 70 million deaths that resulted from famines.”

How do you measure something as large and complex as food insecurity?

The British government developed the Indian Famine Codes back in 1880. They listed three states of food insecurity; near scarcity, scarcity, and famine. This proved useful for making predictions for a number of occurrences.

The World Food Programme and the US Agency for International Development presently have a system that measures intensity and magnitude through a series of levels: food secure, food insecure, food crisis, famine, severe famine and extreme famine.
Magnitude under 1000 deaths is a “minor famine” and over 1 million deaths is a “catastrophic famine.”

Food insecurity can occur in times of extreme political conditions related to oppressive governments or related to war. One of the most damaging impacts to the populations in need occur sometimes because of infrastructure and sometimes because of government inaction or corruption.

Famines and food insecurity can also happen when governments fail to provide the infrastructure to help maintain the population balance. There is an imbalance of food production when the country’s population exceeds the carrying capacity of the region.

So where does the “political” dimension of food insecurity enter and how do you prevent it?

Food security is maintained by investing in modern agricultural technology that keeps pace with the growing population.

These investments typically include improved irrigation systems, fertilizer, better seeds, and pesticides. When government does not invest or block outside aid the insecurity becomes a politically drive problem.

Food insecurity and famines in history

“Holodomor” literally translated from Ukrainian means “death by hunger.” This is also a complex and controversial topic. The estimates for the total deaths were reported to be as high at 7.5 million in 1932 and 1933. The mass starvation resulted from policies associated with food rationing, food supply and food distribution.

The population most at risk: children and the elderly as well as people with serious health issues such as immune-related diseases.

“Poverty is the principal cause of hunger.”

There is a risk when food insecurity affects children. When children are stunted at an early age, they do not grow out of this condition. They cannot “make up” the calories later. Stunting results in permanent damage as they are growing rapidly and the growth loss is not recoverable.

The causes of poverty include poor people’s lack of resources, an extremely unequal income distribution in the world and within specific countries, conflict, and hunger itself. The World Bank (2008) estimated that there were 1,345 million poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less. Extreme poverty remains a serious problem in the world’s developing regions.