The staggering decline in world food security and nutrition has driven home the urgency of confronting the underlying drivers of these global challenges. The recent United Nations State of Food Security and Nutrition (SOFI) report found that in 2022 an estimated 691 to 783 million people worldwide faced hunger, and nearly 3 in 10 people suffered moderate or severe food insecurity.
While the cause of spikes in global food insecurity is certainly the confluence of severe shocks—including conflict, COVID-19, climate extremes, and economic crises—the enduring lack of access to affordable and nutritious food is ultimately rooted in pervasive inequality. For example, a healthy diet is out of reach for nearly half of the world’s population, yet food manufacturers and global seed giants continue to report record profits.
If we are to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by 2030, governments must radically and ambitiously commit to tackling inequality. This is the message delivered by the U.N. Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in its most recent report on Reducing Inequalities for Food Security and Nutrition—and a message leaders can act on this month, if they choose.
Developed by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN), this recent report analyzes evidence on inequalities within the food system, identifies their systemic drivers, and delivers recommendations for designing equity-sensitive food system policies.
As U.N. delegates and food systems leaders get ready to gather in Rome, Italy, for the 51st plenary session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS 51) this week, these findings need to be front and center.
Inequalities permeate every facet of the food system, tracing imbalanced entry to food production resources (including land) and market opportunities, power asymmetries between large food corporations and producers, and access to affordable, nutritious foods. The report finds significant regional variations in food insecurity prevalence: over 85 percent of Eastern, Middle, and Western Africa’s population can’t afford a healthy diet, while less than 2 percent in Europe and North America face this challenge. Hunger is highest in Africa, affecting 20.2 percent, compared to less than 10 percent in Asia and Latin America, and under 2.5 percent in North America and Europe.
The report emphasizes how intersectional issues compound food security and nutrition inequalities within regions along dimensions like gender, education, ethnicity, indigeneity, rural/urban locations, and socio-economic status. The interaction of these dimensions results in systematic disadvantages for certain groups—globally, more women than men experience food insecurity. This disparity spans up to a 19 percentage point difference within countries due to gendered vulnerability, exacerbated by ethnic, geographic divides, and indigeneity.
Yet women are essential actors in supporting food security at multiple scales. In the Global Alliance’s work with the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) research program, we found that women’s groups have been pivotal to the success of transforming local food systems. Likewise, the transition to natural farming in Andhra Pradesh has bolstered local women’s agency, including influencing what crops to grow. In this transition, communities have grown a wider range of crops, helping to support better household nutrition and dietary diversity, as well as enhanced agrobiodiversity.
While global poverty has seen a progressive decline since 1990, increasing hunger since 2010 challenges the belief that average income and poverty prevalence drive food security. The report’s findings unveil that lower education, weak social networks, less social capital, and low household income are major drivers of unequal food security outcomes, suggesting that social protection policies and institutions are critical.
The Latin American region is a beacon of hope for improving social protection policies, having made progress on its vast inequalities through universalized improvements to social welfare, including basic income policies and social insurance for loss of income. Quito, Ecuador, is one municipality which built resilience to the food security challenges posed by COVID-19 by strengthening its social protection systems.
The city focused on assessing and supporting the needs of neighborhoods most vulnerable to food insecurity and undernutrition, informing more targeted approaches to improving food distribution and access. As a result of such interventions, Latin America is one of the few regions where inequality has decreased overall, even in the wake of globalization.
Inequalities are typically accounted for in policy by focusing solely on redistribution, but such approaches are blind to the intersectional lens: recognizing who is most marginalized, why, and how, and involving them in policy design.
The overarching conceptual framework of this report, and hopefully action this month in Rome, intends to support countries in designing more holistic policies that tackle the systemic drivers of food system inequalities. It calls this the “Engine of Equity”, where recognition, representation, and redistribution are equally factored into policy design, better equipping nations to achieve transformative change.
The proposed set of actions encompasses these justice-informed principles, including: applying rights-based approaches to land and resources; building inclusive institutions and partnerships to improve representation; developing inclusive value chains, and strengthening data to enable improved understanding and monitoring of equity in food security domains.
The report underscores the pivotal significance of participatory decision-making, recognizing its vital role in tackling the pervasive inequalities evident in food systems outcomes. These disparities frequently mirror the inequities deeply embedded within our political systems. Therefore, the inclusion of marginalized groups in the formulation of policies emerges as a powerful strategy for addressing the fundamental drivers of hunger and malnutrition. CONSEA, known as the Brazilian National Council for Food Security and Nutrition, has prominently advanced this notion as they unveiled an ambitious plan for eradicating hunger, placing a strong emphasis on democratic governance.
The comprehensive approach of this CFS report can make distilling a single key message difficult. However, a significant contribution is challenging the belief that inequality motivates progress. Inequalities are linked to poorer food security and nutrition, with far-ranging social, economic, and environmental costs. Addressing inequality, particularly through recognizing intersectional disparities and implementing participatory governance measures, can provide long-term benefits to food security and nutrition outcomes, contributing to urgently needed food systems transformations.
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Photo courtesy of Alex Hudson, Unsplash