The basics of food security (and how it’s tied to everything)

Updated Jun 28, 2022
Across cultures, food is a way to bring togetherness to a group and celebrate community. But more than that, it’s one of a healthy human’s basic needs, along with water and shelter. Food is essential for every person to survive and thrive.

Yet by May 2022, the United Nations was warning of a global food security crisis. Despite all the world’s resources, food security or reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food – is a pressing issue in multiple countries.

As a global community, we have the ability to feed every human being. Yet developments such as the crisis in Ukraine, armed conflicts in multiple countries, climate change and economic instability have left millions on the brink of famine. 

In this article, we’ll explain the basics of food security. We’ll look at how it impacts adult and child health, agriculture, climate change and women’s empowerment. You’ll learn why food security is important and what we can do to improve it. And we’ll explain some of the causes of the global food crisis.
  1. What is food security?
  2. Why is food security important?
  3. How does food insecurity impact Canadians?
  4. How does food insecurity impact developing countries?
  5. How can countries improve food security?
  6. How has COVID-19 impacted food security globally? 
  7. How do other global issues such as armed conflict, economic crisis and climate change impact food security around the world?
  8. What can I do to help?

1. What is food security?
The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food security definition is when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

In other words, food security is having consistent, reliable access to safe, nutritious food. When the availability, accessibility, nutritional quality and longer-term stability of food sources become strained or non-existent, “food insecurity” exists. 

“Zero hunger” remains one of the most rigorous of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. While there has been a steady decline in global hunger in past decades, the year 2015 saw numbers rise again. By June 2022, an estimated 690 million people were dangerously hungry. Experts noted that if recent trends continue, this number will balloon to more than 840 million by 2030.

You may be wondering, “Can’t we just produce more food?”. But issues around food security are complex, to say the least.

Technically, we are producing enough food to feed the world’s entire population. Yet millions are undernourished. Food security can be disrupted by many things such as armed conflict, climate change, economic and political instability and natural disasters. In the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has joined that list.

A man carrying a white sack of rice on his head.
In 2021, Haiti was devastated by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed 2,200 people, injured 12,000, and destroyed 100,000 homes and 130 schools. Haiti is among a list of countries forecast to be facing the direst food shortages in 2022. Photo: Edson Lubin

2. Why is food security important?
Access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food is a basic human right, with priority given to the most vulnerable. Apart from basic nutrition, food security is linked to economic stability, long-term health, women’s empowerment and the environment.

Food security impacts our health - especially children’s.
Research reveals that food insecurity can result in ongoing short and long-term health problems. The first 1000 days (from conception to age two) of a child’s life are of critical importance for their healthy growth and development.

For children, severe food insecurity has been linked to chronic health conditions like stunting, wasting and anemia. A diet lacking enough calories, protein, vitamins and minerals will impede a child’s growth and development from before they’re born up until adolescence.

A pregnant mother’s malnutrition can lead to low birthweight, infant mortality, preterm delivery and slow cognitive development for her baby.

A playful twelve-month-old toddler in Angola stands on his mother’s lap while she smiles at him.Beto, now 12 months old, is a playful, happy child in good health. With help from World Vision, he recovered from severe malnutrition. Photo: Susy Sainovski

Food security depends on agriculture.

You may have heard the phrase “farmers feed families” urging us to “buy local” more often. Why should we do this?

Right now, up to 811 million people in the world go to sleep hungry every night. Since 2019, the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity has more than doubled from 135 million to 276 million. And a total of 48.9 million people are facing emergency levels of hunger.

With education and support, farmers, forestry and fishery workers can provide nutritious food for themselves and their communities.

Organic agricultural practices that have access to proper resources and learn best practices are more likely to generate much higher crop yields. This allows farmers to secure enough for their own needs and produce enough to sell in local markets. This improves the family’s livelihood, strengthens community resilience and furthers the local economy.

A small boy running around a garden planted with green leafy vegetables.
Caston, age 2, running around his family’s garden. His father, Milton, is a farmer who received training on high-yield agricultural techniques from World Vision in Zambia. Photo: Laura Reinhardt

Food security is tied to climate change.

The world’s ecosystems are experiencing rapid change and often, immense damage. Climate change is putting even more pressure on the resources we depend on. When natural disasters like droughts, floods and insect infestations grow in frequency and severity, more people go hungry. Many rural families can no longer make ends meet on their land, forcing them to migrate to cities in search of opportunity.

Locusts cover the entire sky above a village in Ethiopia.A 2020 report by the FAO described Ethiopia’s worst desert locust invasion in 50 years. Photo: World Vision

The number of climate-related disasters – including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms – has increased five-fold over the past 50 years, the World Meteorological Organization noted in 2021. These disasters harm agricultural productivity, which means food availability suffers. With this comes a domino effect, causing food prices to skyrocket and income losses that prevent people from being able to afford food.

Food security empowers women, families and future generations.

“When women have an income, [they] dedicate 90% to health, education, to food security, to the children, to the family, or to the community. So, when women have an income, everybody wins.

- Michelle Bachelet, United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights

Women typically start with fewer advantages than men, especially when it comes to nutrition, money and resources. This translates to poorer health for women and less of a say in decisions that keep their families and communities fed, nourished and healthy. But when they are provided with resources and opportunities, women are more likely to direct most of what they have toward helping others.

Four women and a child stand smiling next to their home in Zambia.Zambia is prone to droughts, making it especially vulnerable to food insecurity. Most farming families rely on recycled seeds from the previous harvest to plant crops. Once they received seeds and crop starters, families who were once rationing one meal a day had three meals a day. This female-headed household is one of them. Photo: World Vision

An FAO study estimates that closing the gender gap helps empower women, which in turn, contributes to food security. Such is the case in developing countries where women don’t have the same access to agricultural resources as men. Giving women access to resources like land, credit, machinery or chemicals could close gaps in crop yields by 20 to 30 per cent. Developing countries can also benefit from increased agricultural production of up to four per cent. This means up to 100 million fewer people living with hunger.

When we give women the tools and support they need to take the lead in providing food for their households, everyone benefits. Feeding a mother and teaching her how to grow food means nourishing her family – wisdom she can pass on to future generations.

A woman riding a power tiller on a farmGiving women agricultural resources leads to more financial independence, better health and more food on the table. Photo: Aboni Albert Rozario

So, how can we contribute to women’s empowerment through sustainable food security? According to a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, we can:
  • Nurture production practices for diverse nutrition and female labour.
    In many areas of agriculture, men and women are responsible for different crops, and this division of labour is often gendered. “Development organizations working on the ground can promote food security and women’s empowerment by promoting the use of female-grown crops,” says Cristina Larrea, Head of the Sustainability Standards for the Economic Law and Policy Program. “This includes new, nutrient-dense crops, such as bananas.
  • Promote women’s independence, especially in financial decisions.
    Organizations working with farmers can take a gender-transformative approach to improve food security in households by promoting women’s decision-making. Economic empowerment for women ultimately boosts the entire family’s food security, health and wellbeing.
  • Seek opportunities to address gender bias in agricultural settings.
    “Cash crops are typically overseen by men,” Larrea says, which can unintentionally reinforce gender bias. This is just one example of the many seemingly insignificant behaviours and systems that can be addressed to uplift the rights of women. If more time can be invested in learning local gender power dynamics, a smarter way to grow and sustain agriculture can be established.

3. How does food insecurity impact Canadians?
Food insecurity isn’t just a battle we’re fighting abroad. It’s present on Canadian soil and in our local communities, particularly in Northern Canada.

Canada is among the world’s wealthiest nations. Yet in the fall of 2020, Statistics Canada reported that 9.6 per cent of all Canadians had experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months. The report noted that the situation would likely worsen after pandemic government benefits ended.

Both before and during the pandemic, certain population groups were more vulnerable to food insecurity in their household. They included:
  • people with lower levels of education,
  • those who rent their dwelling,
  • those in lone-parent-led households and
  • those in households reliant on social assistance as their primary source of income.
Indigenous people and food insecurity
Across Canada, Indigenous people are more likely to be food-insecure than Canada’s overall population. Even before the pandemic, the proportion of Indigenous people with moderate or severe food insecurity was more than double that of the overall population, according to Statistics Canada.

During the pandemic, the Canadian government responded to heightened food security concerns in Indigenous communities.

Soaring food prices
February 2022 recorded the largest year-over-year inflation rate increase since August 1991 at 5.7 per cent, causing price surges for groceries, as well as the costs of shelter, energy and other necessities. With households finding it increasingly difficult to afford food and other basic needs, food insecurity is certainly a cause for concern for many Canadians.

Geographic disparities
Remote Canadian communities are far more likely to be vulnerable to food insecurity. In 2020, the food insecurity research group PROOF noted that Nunavut is particularly vulnerable. The group stated that “57% of households in Nunavut reported some level of food insecurity and almost half of these households were severely food insecure (meaning that members experienced absolute food deprivation).”

Despite food programs like Nutrition North that aim to provide better access to nutritious, affordable food in remote areas, food insecurity is still a rising problem in many remote communities.

A group of farmers tending to a patch of land planted with leafy vegetablesFarmers in South Sudan receive training from World Vision Canada on growing food-producing plants throughout the year and not just during the rainy season. Photo: Scovia Faida Charles

4. How does food insecurity impact developing countries?
Consider the issues standing in the way of food security in Canada, then add the strain of armed conflict, climate crisis and economic and political instability. In many parts of the world, these are the main drivers of hunger and food insecurity.

By May 2022, the crisis in Ukraine was drastically affecting the country’s ability to export life-saving grains to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Grain exports from Russia were also down. Both factors had a significant impact on the growing global crisis in many countries.

But even before 2022, hunger levels had surpassed all records previously reported by the Global Report on Food Crises. Regions at greatest risk were those already facing multiple threats, like climate change, violent conflict and political and economic turmoil. Some examples: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nigeria, Syria, and South Sudan. (In many high-hunger countries, armed conflict is the primary driver of food crisis.)

5. How can countries improve food security?
Here are some of the ways we can tackle food insecurity:

  • Give immediate hunger relief. Whenever possible, offer food accessibility to keep children and families alive and safe from extreme malnutrition. If countries are unable to gather and distribute nutritious food to their citizens, accepting help from charities or donor nations is a first step.
  • Improve gender equality.  In many regions of the world, girls and women often eat least, last and of poorer-quality food. In 2020, World Vision and the Canadian government launched a groundbreaking new framework, directly addressing the systems and norms which keep girls and women malnourished. Steps like these are critical to ensure women’s role in improving food security.
  • Offer education and resources for agriculture. Teaching families how to farm effectively during drought – plus providing resources such as drought-resistant seeds – can help reduce the threat of food crisis. It’s particularly important to include women in this. Improved food production can help families, communities and the country’s economy.
  • Work toward addressing root causes. With any chronic issue, many interventions are only temporary. This article lists some of the root causes of food insecurity.

People in Zambia line up under a blue sky full of clouds beside hundreds of bags of food.A food distribution day in Zambia. The goal was to reach 97,716 households in the South and Western regions. Photo: World Vision

Since food security is tied to poverty, healthcare and other complex issues, there is no simple answer. We do know that the world was making strides toward ending hunger in response to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but of course, new challenges have arisen. Being educated on these issues can help get to the core of the problem and equip governments and world bodies to work toward better solutions.  

6. How has COVID-19 impacted food security globally?
Pandemic-related lockdowns closed businesses and community markets alike, driving millions of the world’s people into hunger and poverty. According to the World Food Programme, 276 million people were left facing severe hunger due to COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread,” said the World Food Programme’s Arif Husain in 2020. “It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage.”

As the economies floundered, fewer and fewer people had ways to earn that wage in developing countries. Families exhausted their savings. With supply chains disrupted, food prices soared. Against the backdrop of pre-pandemic threats such as conflict and severe weather patterns, COVID-19 created a severe impact on food security.
What’s even more frightening is the pandemic’s aftershock effects and its threat to children. When parents die or fall ill, there is no one to care for their children. Children are left vulnerable to hunger, abuse and even child marriage.

Even before the pandemic, up to 30 million children a year were vulnerable to illnesses like malaria and malnutrition. It’s likely that more children will die from residual impacts brought on by COVID-19 than from the virus itself.
A woman in a black baseball cap and protective mask receives a care kit from a World Vision Ecuador staff member at her front door.
Care kits were distributed to sponsored children and their families in Ecuador. Photo: Chris Huber

7. How do other global issues like conflict, surging inflation and climate change impact food security around the world?
While COVID-19 dramatically contributed to the worsening of food security, millions of people were already suffering. Those most at risk were countries affected by conflict, economic crisis and climate change, according to the Global Report on Food Crises. Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti are the 10 most vulnerable.

In areas of conflict, there is often a fight over the control of important factors in food production such as land and water. This affects food accessibility and makes it harder for people to secure food to feed their families. Logistics is another area of concern, especially for food items and raw materials that are not readily available locally.

A prime example of how conflict impacts food security is the crisis in Ukraine. The situation contributes to the surging costs of globally traded food commodities given that Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of grains. Moreover, the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by several Western countries have affected the price of oil per barrel. With product exports strained and the prices of commodities already high due to post-COVID demand, even life essentials are out of reach for millions of people.

Climate change and extreme weather conditions are also seen as major drivers of hunger. Such is the case in Somalia, where the worst drought in decades has left millions of Somalis struggling to find food, even leaving their communities behind to search for food and work.

8. What can I do to help?
World Vision has programs in place with food security at the forefront. These are systems that meet children, families and communities where they’re at by placing your donor dollars where they’re needed most.

A mother in Bangladesh in a white and red niqab sits cradling her infant in her lap.
Farida is part of a new mother’s group through World Vision in Bangladesh. “We are changing our food habits [by] bringing variety in our meals, especially for our children,” she says. “Traditionally, we avoid certain foods during pregnancy that we believe are not good for babies. Now we know that pregnant women should eat all kinds of vegetables, fish and meat for nutrition.’’ Photo: World Vision

Gift Catalogue offers ways to improve families’ livelihoods and provide emergency food when needed. Gifts include emergency food, nutritious school meals, crop seeds for farmers and many others.

Child Sponsorship is a monthly pledge that empowers children and their families by providing access to basics like food, clean water, education and health care. Because of our community-focused solutions, for every child you help, four more children benefit, too.
World Vision staff member in Bangladesh sits facing a circle of women sharing in a discussion.Farida is part of a new mother’s group through World Vision in Bangladesh. “We are changing our food habits [by] bringing variety in our meals, especially for our children,” she says. “Traditionally, we avoid certain foods during pregnancy that we believe are not good for babies. Now we know that pregnant women should eat all kinds of vegetables, fish and meat for nutrition.’’ Photo: World Vision

Updated by Charizze Abulencia and Deborah Wolfe