Food insecurity is a complex condition with four main dimensions: availability, access, utilization and stability. Food insecurity can be chronic or transitory. Chronic food insecurity implies a long-term or persistent inability to meet the minimal nutritional requirements. Transitory food insecurity is the short-term inability to meet required nutritional intake, and implies a capacity for recovery. Cyclical food insecurity, which occurs when there are habitual seasonal variations in the food security situation can be either chronic (if it lasts more than six months), or transitory (if it lasts less than six months).
In 1943, in the context of a war torn and mostly famished Europe, President Roosevelt invited representatives of the allied nations to meet in Virginia, USA, to plan for its rebuilding and plan for meeting the challenges of a world in need, especially the needs related to food and agriculture. With a focus on freeing the world from “want”, the first priority was achieving “freedom from hunger”. Freedom from want was thus partially defined as an “adequate and suitable supply of food for every man, woman and child”. The immediate objective was to supply food in places of famine, whilst the longer term goal was to address one of the root causes of food insecurity: poverty.
However, policy-makers in the 1950s and 1960s rapidly lost sight of achieving the latter goal and focussed on solving the supply and availability issue mostly through the delivery of food aid and a focus on increased production. In the mid-1960s, the first version of the Food Aid Convention emerged. Again, with the focus on supply and availability, this version saw its members agree to a total food aid pledge of 4.5 million tons of grain to be shipped to developing countries.
In the early 1970s, the importance of nutrition as a critical component to food security emerged. At the same time, the world was being hit with the first of two food price crises. World food stocks dropped by more than 25% after 1971 to 134 million tonnes in 1974. At the UN World Food Conference in Rome (1974), a minimum of 10 million tons per year of food aid was committed by members of the Conference, with a strong focus on strategically placed grain reserves. This was in response to the increasing lack of availability (the central focus at the Conference), with members ambitiously aiming to provide “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”. It did not take long to for this goal to be found lacking.
Between 1974 and 1984, there was a major shift in philosophy and tactics to eliminate the world's food problem. At the beginning of the decade it was believed that there would be a period of tight food supplies brought about by population growth without a cushion of large reserves and that mass starvation was a distinct possibility. What was needed was the mobilization of political will necessary to keep food issues in the forefront; then, with increased production in food-deficit areas, the worst effects of food shortage would be eliminated. The years 1976-1978 did bring a substantial recovery in cereal production and in the levels of reserves held by the major grain producers. 1981 and 1982 bumper world production brought in record surpluses and the lowest real market prices for cereals in 30 years. In the decade between 1974-1984, world population increased by one billion, but did not lead to a strain on the world food situation. Quite the contrary: by 1984 the world cereal situation was similar to that of the early 1970s – ample supplies at the global level, depressed grain prices, and unmarketable production in North America and the European Community.
However, after impressive gains global food production slowed. World grain production between 1984 and 1990 grew by 1% a year while the population rose by nearly 2%; in 1987 it fell below consumption. Many countries experienced depressed growth or zero growth in grain production and the loss of momentum in world food output was widespread. The level of grain security at the end of the 1980s as a proportion of consumption was below the 1969 level. It was noted also that the apparent successes of global production of foodstuffs disguised substantial regional differences. For example, average African food grain productivity over 35 years had declined from 50% to 20% in relation to European productivity, with a drop in per capita food output of 1% per year since the beginning of the 1970s. Estimates showed that 64 developing countries (with a population of approximately 1.1 billion) would lack the resources to feed themselves in the year 2000.
As a result of declining food security, the number of undernourished people in Africa nearly doubled from 100 million in the late 1960s to nearly 200 million in 1995. FAO projections for food supplies by region (FAO 1996) suggested that future problems would be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and that chronic under-nutrition was expected to affect 11 per cent of the population, or 637 million people, in the year 2010. Projections indicated that Africa would be able to feed only 40 per cent of its population by 2025 (Nana-Sinkam 1995). Those countries projected to suffer from serious shortfalls in food supply were also those faced with rapidly growing populations and urbanization, low productivity agriculture, high debt and insufficient wealth to import food. Food availability in all other regions was projected to be adequate by the year 2010, as agricultural production growth was expected to keep pace with growing food requirements.
In 1982, Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, which participated toward the understanding that physical and economic access to food was as important as availability of food in order for food security to exist. The concept of food security was thus broadened to encompass adequacy of food supplies, stability of food supplies and markets, and security of access to supplies.
The 1996 World Conference on Food Security declared that one is considered food secure when they have "at all times, physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".
The reliance of many developing countries on imported staple foods has markedly increased since that time. Import dependence has been encouraged by the concessionary price programmes of exporting countries; however, availability under such subsidies is declining, and developing countries must absorb increasing amounts of commercial supplies. The reasons for increased staple imports are complex. Crop failures, disasters, droughts and wars increase short-term needs in various countries, but do not themselves create dependence on foreign supplies. Rapid population growth and urbanization is a main cause; domestic production and marketing has not expanded in step with this growth and many governments choose imports to fill the gap. The enterprises (both national and transnational) which participate in this process build plants and adopt technologies designed to handle the imported product, often with financial assistance from the surplus countries. Technical problems arise when countries try to reduce dependence, once the factories that use imports are in place. Retraining workers and re-equipping the industries is a prerequisite to overcoming this institutionalized dependence. Specific factors that lower food self-sufficiency and security in Africa include pests and diseases, inappropriate food production and storage practices, inadequate food processing technologies, civil wars and the low economic status of the women who produce the bulk of the food.
The true incidence of food insecurity is debatable, as food security is a complex condition for which the appropriate measurement techniques have not yet been refined.
Common indicators used to measure food insecurity include: prevalence of undernourishment in all demographics; children aged <5 years stunted; children aged <5 years underweight; and children aged <5 years wasted. More modern and holisitic approaches also consider indicators such as: political stability and road density.
Hundreds of millions of people in different parts of the world, especially in the low-income countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, still go without the adequate food which would enable them to lead fully productive working lives. Grains form more than half the world's direct food supply in most poor countries. Some rich countries consume less grain directly, but they consume grain at over twice the rate per capita of poor countries indirectly in the form of meat and beverages.