Food Security

  • Pius GumisirizaEmail author
Living reference work entry



Food security is defined in this entry as “having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times, by all people in order to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 1996: 2).


In 2010, it was estimated that over one billion people in the world lacked adequate amounts of nutritious food with enough macronutrients (protein, fat, and caloric content) and essential micronutrients, minerals, and vitamins (iron, vitamin A, and iodine) (Havas and Salman 2011). Close to a decade later, efforts to reduce this acute food security problem seem to have achieved very limited success. Current data indicates that the absolute number of people affected by undernourishment or chronic food deprivation in the world in 2017 was nearly 821 million. The situation is worsening in South America, and in most African regions it is even expected to escalate by 2030 because of global warming (FAO 2018). This entry discusses the key food security dimensions (availability, stability, accessibility, and utilization) and their complex determinants including: conflicts, climate change, macroeconomic trade imbalances between countries, natural resource constraints, human resource bases, weather conditions, gender balance issues, education, health, natural disasters, livestock ownership, farmland size, family labor, farm implements, employment opportunities, market access, level of technology application, crop disease, oxen ownership, and family sizes.


Availability of appropriate and sufficient quantity of food among all people in a given society is a key dimension of food security. Food availability maybe achieved by locally producing food, imports or food aid. Any one of these methods that can be used to avail food to people is enhanced or constrained by different factors among individuals, households, communities and in different countries. For example climate, available land and its quality, availability of workers, their numbers, their technical and managerial skills, production tools and machinery used plus storage buildings and facilities may influence sufficient local food production. Other factors that may enhance or constrain food production include inputs such as water, fertilizers, animal feeds, plant and animal health, animal and crop disease prevention and control, integrated pest and weed management, cropping techniques, and animal and crop genetic improvement such as having in place short-cycle, drought-resistant varieties and disease-resistant varieties. The way producers are organized for instance as individual, cooperatives, groups, or contracted growers; the types of traders (collection, wholesale or retail); the marketing infrastructure such as roads, rail, air, and types of vehicles; storage, information systems, processing technologies, and retail structures (small shops, supermarkets or hypermarkets); and the level of competition at various stages of the value chain all influence the availability or lack of food to people among or within a country (Thomson and Metz 2000). It is such factors that in practical terms separate developed countries like Australia, Holland, or even single states like California in the USA that have all these described factors in their favor from third world countries like Malawi, Uganda, Burundi, and indeed the entire sub-Saharan Africa region where majority of the populations are still dependent on rain-fed agriculture, using hand hoes to till the land for food production and losing most of it to pre- and postharvest handling problems. The analysis simply drawn from these factors is that food security is not about just having land, rain, and a bunch of people but rather involves a whole range of complex infrastructure that most countries still describe as third world must work upon. For countries like Singapore that have very limited space for food production or desert countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, food availability can and indeed has been achieved by some through purchasing food on the world market, although this comes with a condition of a country having the money. Most of these countries are oil rich and food the case of Singapore, it is a wealthy high value manufacturing and services economy. Thus countries like Cuba, which experienced a blockade for decades, could not follow such a model; or Afghanistan who may find themselves with similar disadvantages as Saudi Arabia but without the oil or other sources of wealth have most of their people starving or dependent on food aid. Besides, it is very difficult to avail sufficient and nutritious food to large numbers of different people for a long time through food aid. Thus food aid as a model for food security is very unsustainable at least in the long term. But also depending on international trade for food availability comes with a lot of risks – for instance, price fluctuations on the world market, trade sanctions, or even country blockade as is happening to Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain can come with devastating consequences if it happened to a poor country. Qatar may be withstanding the pressure because, in fact, it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. This cannot work for countries like Yemen, Eritrea, or Burundi, and even the ongoing example of Venezuela illustrates that even if a country has a lot of potential wealth creating resources such as oil, if government pursues wrong policies or has saboteurs, it can go bust and fail to feed its own people. But even when there is enough national food supply or availability, it cannot guarantee food access to an individual household unless that specific household has the means, resources, and purchasing power to access that supply. Thus enough supply (availability) of food to a population is a necessity but not a sufficient condition for food access. In other words, food availability at individual, household, community, country’s region, or countries level does not necessarily mean that food security is also achieved at the other levels; for instance, many countries that are in a situation of national food security include some who people who do not eat sufficiently; a food-insecure household may also include some members who fully meet their food needs, and countries with a food insecure situations always have some population groups whose food needs are fulfilled (Thomson and Metz 2000).


For food security to be practically achieved, food does not only need to be available in appropriate and sufficient qualities/quantities, it must also be accessible. Accessibility as dimension of food security involves many dimensions including people having the required resources (purchasing or production power) to acquire the food they need for a nutritionally adequate diet, proximity to markets or other distribution channels through which food may be acquired, and rights of access to the resources required to produce food or to receive it from others. In the same way, infrastructure – especially roads, ports, rail, water, and air transport that link producers to consumers (local, national or from the rest of the world) – also play a big role on food accessibility. Indeed, in the last 10–15 years, countries like Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia have committed a very significant proportion of their budgets on infrastructure building especially roads, electricity generation, ICT infrastructure, and building modern railway systems because these have a direct impact on agriculture, food production, and accessibility. At household level, several empirical studies have concluded that sex, age, income, and education of household head among other factors greatly influence food availability and accessibility of food security dimensions that in many instances reinforce each other. The age of household head impacts on his or her labor supply for food production, and it has been noted that older household heads tend to be more food secure than the younger household heads (Arene and Anyaeji 2010). Female-headed households have higher dependency ratios that hinder household capacity to allocate labor to on-farm or other income-generating activities. In addition, female heads of households tend to be older and have fewer years of education than male heads of household (FAO 2012). The size of a household may also determine its food security status with bigger households having a higher probability of food insecurity because there is larger number of people to be taken care of by the same source of income. The more household heads engage in gainful employment or income generating activities, the higher their incomes that can in turn guarantee household food security. The income is expected to increase household’s food production and access to more quantity and quality food. Education has also been noted to have positive influence on household food security. As the level of education increases, the percentage of food secure households increases because with increase in the level of education, individuals are be able to adopt more modern farm technologies on their farms thus improving their productivity and again have access to better job opportunities in the labor market. The larger the farm size of the household, the higher the expected level of food production. It is, therefore, expected of a household with a larger farm size to be more food secure than a household with a smaller farm size. However, if it is a large family with most members composed of dependent children and the elderly, then the outcomes on food production and food security maybe negative. The level of off-farm activity can also influence household food security, but this can either be positive or negative depending on the level and gains from the activity; for instance, engagement in an activity can bring in money thereby corroborating the food security situation of the household. On the other hand, if farmers spend more of their time on off-farm activities at the expense of working on their farm and particularly if the wage they earn does not commensurate with the foregone farm income, their food security situation could be worsened (Babatunde et al. 2007).


Stability as a dimension of food security is concerned with both food production and food access. Several factors including private and public food stocks, financial services, and safety nets may contribute to food stability. Public or private food stocks have a key role to play in interseasonal and interannual stabilization of food supplies. The issue of whether or not to hold strategic public food stocks has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. Even though they may be expensive to keep in terms of physical loss of goods, maintenance, and funding, stocks are among the few instruments that the state can use to intervene in food markets and to influence prices, either by releasing some part on the markets (which contributes to bring down prices) or by using them to supply safety nets. Private stocks, which generally contribute mainly to a better distribution of supply throughout the year, are profitable to hold only if there is sufficient difference between the price at time of harvest and that observed during the lean season (FAO 2000). In a country such as Uganda, the government should urgently invest and put in place infrastructure such as silos to stock surplus food production, especially cereals such as maize, not only to help farmers to keep their produce safely but also to stabilize prices and enhance food security which is not the case at the moment. At the moment, Uganda produces around five million tons of maize every year but consumes around half its production. The rest is being exported to neighboring Kenya, Rwanda, and South Sudan. South Sudan imploded in 2013 and most of its population lives as refugees in other countries including Uganda. Kenya and Rwanda had a bumper harvest in 2018 because of good rains, thus cannot import Uganda’s maize. This has resulted in a sharp drop for maize prices from UgShs 900 per Kg to UgShs 200 per Kg, leaving farmers even unable to recoup the money they invested in and may be unable to raise money to plan for the next seasons. The Minister of Finance, Hon. Matia Kasaija, declared that government of Uganda injected Shs100 billion to buy off excess maize stock that has resulted into falling corn prices in August 2018 and that those funds would be accessible to all interested traders in the maize business who have requisite storage, cleaning, and drying facilities in order to allow the maize to be stored for at least six months when prices are expected to recover. However, many commentators have previously and still argue that the solution for such problems that will most likely be a common occurrence is to build storage and processing plants that are sustainable (Onyango-Obbo 2018). Affordable financial services can also help to finance storage costs in the form of supplying funds to construct individual storage facilities, large-scale commercial storage, community bonded warehousing, and insurance in case of an economic or natural shock. The cost of commercial loans in most countries in the East African region, but especially Uganda, is very prohibitive; and, even in many cases, loans are not there altogether. When the governments privatized commercial banks, the main argument was that private sector led banking would lead to reduced interest rates on loans especially to farmers which has not happened. It is high time that the government started its own banks or a fund to address issues of financing farmers especially those in the subsistence category because that is where majority of the population is bundled, and it is also where food security problems are acute.

Crop Diseases and Climate Change

Meanwhile, as these countries are struggling with low prices just because of one year bump harvest, one must not forget that for the last 5–7 years these countries have seriously suffered with crop diseases especially a devastating bacterial banana wilt disease that left many banana crops destroyed in Uganda, parts of DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi. In addition to the crop diseases, there has also been the dangerous fall of armyworm pest that originated from South America and devastated cereal crops, especially maize, leaving losses in billions of dollars in Southern, East, and West Africa. Meanwhile, this impossible-to-eradicate, dreaded worm has been reported in parts of India and Southern China, countries with huge population and big maize producers, and is on the march to Europe (Farmer 2018). Changes in the global climate system with more frequent hurricanes, storms, heavy flooding, and prolonged droughts have escalated in recent years leaving behind a huge trail of devastation in countries starting from the USA, Nicaragua, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, Philippines, China, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Sahel countries of West Africa among others, all experiencing heavy flooding or droughts in 2018. The impact of climate change on food security is overwhelmingly devastating on all dimensions of food security (food availability, access, utilization, and stability) as well as reinforcing other underlying causes of malnutrition related to child care, feeding, health services, and environmental health, especially among poorer countries and poor households (FAO 2018).


Looking at what is going on in Yemen, South Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Burundi, Central African Republic, Somalia, Afghanistan, and other previously destroyed countries like Uganda and Iraq, it is not hard to know that conflict, whether it is a civil war or an invasion, leaves lives shuttered and food security systems destroyed. For instance, in Yemen, both warring sides have been reported to have committed severe war crimes, blocking ports and closing the airport, thus making it impossible for food aid and humanitarian support to come in, leaving millions in severe malnutrition status especially women and children. Similar outcomes are in DRC and South Sudan, Somalia, where it is almost impossible to access food to war victims because the warring groups are too aggressive to anyone. Even for refugees that fled to other countries, their food and nutritional needs are not properly satisfied in Camps. For example, Uganda hosts over 1.4 million refugees with south Sudanese refugees estimated at over 1 million plus. Each refugee living in a settlement in Uganda receive 12 kg of maize, 12 kg of beans, and salt per month which is not enough food by any standard. But even with this meager food, aid agencies are struggling to support them given the fact that major donor countries such as Germany, the USA, Sweden, and EU have their own immigration issues to deal with especially refugees from Syria and West and North African countries whom they would want to limit from entering Europe. Apart from refugees, even host countries suffer. Before the war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, it was Uganda’s biggest trade partner with Uganda earning over US$800 million per year in trade. When war broke out, all this trade collapsed with devastating consequences on Ugandan traders, farmers, and government revenues, all of which directly or indirectly affects food security at individual, household, and country level. The same scenario has happened to countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan that neighbor Syria.


The concept of utilization as a dimension of food security relates to the conditions, which ensure that once food has been consumed the body efficiently converts it into energy, growth, and good health. The capacity of the body to make full use of food is very sensitive to disease, affecting the digestive system and food nutritional quality. It has been proven that bacterial and parasitic diseases, including diarrhea and intestinal worms, are important causes of food insecurity even when adequate quantities of food are eaten. Diseases that affect the digestive system can be best mitigated by good sanitation and hygiene, drinking safe water, proper disposal of human waste, and availability of health services. Infrastructure that provides access to quality drinking water, along with sanitation, plays a critical role in the cleanliness of the environment in which people live, particularly so in urban areas (Uthman and Aremu 2008). Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria also impact on food security both at the phase of assimilation of food elements and on the working capacity of affected populations, determining their capacity to earn a living that will allow them to have access to food or to produce food if they are engaged in farming. Thus health services that can manage disease prevention and act rapidly in case of disease are also a key factor of food security (Alex 2003). Food nutritional quality is highly influenced by nutritional balance and diversity of a diet in terms of nutrient content (carbohydrates, fats, and protein), vitamins and trace elements, food hygiene, and safety standards. Balanced food diets also have implications for the physical and mental growth of children, maternal health including the health of unborn babies, and working capacity of people. It also has an impact on health (emaciation, obesity, resistance to diseases, and prevalence of cardiovascular diseases among others). It has been proven that a shortage of vitamins and certain micronutrients is obstacle to proper mental and physiological development, weakens the immune system, generates handicaps at birth, and leads to a life in which the full physical and intellectual potential of an individual is never achieved (Conceição et al. 2010).

Safety Nets

Safety nets are another mechanism through which food security may be ensured. There are three main types of safety nets (sometimes referred to as social protection measures): food distribution, cash transfers, and subsidies. Safety nets entail transfer of resources toward beneficiaries to ensure that they can have adequate access to food. Eligibility to benefit from safety nets may relate to the economic and social characteristics of beneficiaries (target groups) or to the situation within which a country or region of the country finds itself (e.g., emergencies triggered by soaring food prices, drought, flood, earthquake). Access to safety nets can also be subject to conditions (for instance participation of children in an education or health program). Cash transfers and subsidies can be financed by the state budget, private sources, or external aid. Safety nets in kind can be supplied from three main sources: existing private or public stocks, imports, or food aid in kind. Food can be channeled through special distribution programs, dedicated shops or selling points, or through existing private shops. State financed school meals programs offer another means for food transfers (FAO 2007). While the model of safety nets sounds plausible, experience has also shown that relying on it can come with very dangerous risks. For example, when Al Shabab terrorist attacked Kenya and massacred people in the West Gate mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan government retaliated by expatriating Somali refugees back to Somalia and closed down their money transfer and remittances platform because it suspected that the terrorists were using this platform to transfer money to carry out activities that harmed its people. Thus all of a sudden, Somalians found that the channel through which they received their livelihood support from their diaspora comrades was blocked. The most recent and worst examples is the scrapping of the US$350 million support to the Palestinians by the US President Trump administration which is expected to leave millions of Palestinians without enough food. Israel has also time and again blocked funds supposed to be handed over to Palestinians affecting their food security. Thus while the safety net approach especially made by those who believe in aid sounds good, it may be unsustainable or risky when relationships between the giver and receiver are not going well.

Income Diversification

Food security can also be greatly determined by diversifying income sources away from agriculture. Increased incomes by people mainly engaged in nonagricultural activities can go a long way in securing food security. Income from nonagricultural activities can come from more diversified activities such as services and government, primary activities other than agriculture (like mining), and industrial activities, and is linked overwhelmingly to the multiplier effects of agriculture, through products, inputs, and consumption. These activities are in part also linked to agriculture through inputs (services, production and marketing of inputs, and production and maintenance of agricultural equipment). Income can also be earned from activities resulting from the consumption effect, i.e., activities due to consumption by people living from agriculture. Finally, income in rural areas may also come from sectors that have their own dynamics and are largely independent from agriculture: mining, manufactures, and tourism. All this nonagricultural income is very important among rural and urban workers involved in off-farm activities. In towns, income is mostly of nonagricultural origin, although some people may depend indirectly on agriculture, particularly through their role in agricultural value chains. A small portion may also come directly from agriculture, from peri-urban agriculture, from the use of land located at some distance from the city, from renting out land, or from transfer of resources by relations living in rural areas. Urban income and the employment in urban areas that generates them, whether in the formal or informal sector, will play an increasing role in food security in the future, as world population becomes more urban and the number of persons living in cities who may find themselves in a situation of food insecurity grows. One can safely bet, when addressing food insecurity issues, that this evolution will progressively move the focus of attention from agriculture and rural development toward economic development and income generation in urban areas. This implies that most of the policies for improving access to food will be policies aimed at reducing poverty in urban or suburban areas.


All in all, it can be concluded that food security is achievable and has actually been achieved in many countries. Some countries in developed world are actually struggling with too much food; while in poor countries, malnutrition is a big issue. The key conclusions drawn from this discussion are that there should be intensive and massive government intervention in the agricultural sector and sectors that directly influence agriculture like education, infrastructure, the environment, and trade. It is also important for the private sector and households to do their part by increasing their productivity through modern farming, family planning, education, and savings among others.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public Policy and GovernanceUganda Management InstituteKampalaUganda