Sustainable Cities and Communities

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Food Security

  • Issa Ibrahim Berchin
  • Wellyngton Silva de Amorim
  • José Baltazar Salgueirinho Osório de Andrade GuerraEmail author
Living reference work entry



The definition of food security within the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is based on the statement from the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action: FAO’s formal definition of food security is “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 1996).

Aiming to ensure food security for all, at all times, the World Food Summit (FAO 1996) declared seven commitments:
  • We will ensure an enabling political, social, and economic environment designed to create the best conditions for the eradication of poverty and for durable peace, based on full and equal participation of women and men, which is most conducive to achieving sustainable food security for all.

  • We will implement policies aimed at eradicating poverty and inequality and improving physical and economic access by all, at all times, to sufficient, nutritionally adequate, and safe food and its effective utilization.

  • We will pursue participatory and sustainable food, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and rural development policies and practices in high- and low-potential areas, which are essential to adequate and reliable food supplies at the household, national, regional, and global levels, and combat pests, drought, and desertification, considering the multifunctional character of agriculture.

  • We will strive to ensure that food, agricultural trade, and overall trade policies are conducive to fostering food security for all through a fair and market-oriented world trade system.

  • We will endeavor to prevent and be prepared for natural disasters and man-made emergencies and to meet transitory and emergency food requirements in ways that encourage recovery, rehabilitation, development, and a capacity to satisfy future needs.

  • We will promote optimal allocation and use of public and private investments to foster human resources, sustainable food, agriculture, fisheries and forestry systems, and rural development, in high- and low-potential areas.

  • We will implement, monitor, and follow up this plan of action at all levels in cooperation with the international community.

FAO also identifies four main dimensions of food security, physical availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilization, and stability of the other three dimensions over time (FAO 2008, 2009). National availability to food signifies that there should be enough food supply for a determined population to guarantee that people have access to adequate and sufficient nutrition. Households’ access to food can be categorized into two pillars: economic and physical. Economic availability is determined by income, food prices, and through access to social assistance. Physical access is already related to availability and quality of infrastructure which guarantee access to nutrition. Thus, the concept of stability can also be categorized into two pillars: vulnerability and shocks. Both relate to the risks of climate change, international trade oscillation, and political instability, which are all capable of jeopardizing food security.

Stability has a fundamental role to promote and maintain food security. This has been increasingly discussed in the past few years when searching for the forces which cause variation in food availability. Food stability relies on matters of climate and weather, technologies, and methods of production (Anderson 2018).

Although the increasing knowledge of the four pillars of food security have served to a facilitate better understanding of availability, access, utilization, and stability within food systems, it seems that the notion of “pillars” brought a misleading representation that these dimensions were statistics, separating ones from the others. However, these pillars are interdependent, and to measure food security, one can attribute particular weights and values (e.g., 25% for each), varying according to the particularities of each community, country, or region (Berry et al. 2015).

Food insecurity exists when there are problems in food production and/or consumption. The most affected by food security are those whose living conditions are most precarious and exposed to natural and/or anthropogenic stresses (Gould 2017). Thus, food insecurity can be chronic, when it persists for a long time and is usually generated by long periods of poverty, or it can be transitory, when it is temporary or occurs in a short period and it can be generated by the lack of access to food, due to low food production, financial instability, or other events (FAO 2008).

Strategies to promote food security deal with several challenges and pressures on food resources that can be applied to the national or household scale (Gould 2017).

Introduction to the Challenges of Environmental, Demographic, and Economic Changes

Ensuring food security is one of the main challenges of the twenty-first century, particularly in developing countries (Tendall et al. 2015). Worldwide, undernourishment affects 815 million people, and poor nutrition causes nearly 3.1 million children deaths each year, particularly in developing countries where 12.9% of the population is undernourished (United Nations 2018a).

Industrial and consumers’ demands for natural and nonrenewable resources increase the challenge of ensuring food security for all in a growing population scenario coupled with increasing environmental changes. To overcome these challenges will require an aptitude of policymakers, industries, civil society, and other stakeholders to manage food security in a scenario of global risks, guaranteeing that high standards of food quality continue into the future.

Agriculture plays a key role in alleviating poverty, improving food security, and raising households’ income, by employing 40% of today’s global population (United Nations 2018a). Thus, considering that up to 80% of food consumed in the developing world comes from small farms, investing in smallholders contributes to improve food and nutrition security (United Nations 2018a).

Food insecurity due to its correlation with low income affects the poor population more intensely. Poverty causes food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition, leading to poor physical and cognitive development, which may result in low productivity that perpetuates poverty (FAO 2008). In developing countries, households spend more than half of their income on food purchase (Tendall et al. 2015). Hence, considering that, proportionally, the poorer you are, the more you spend on food, famine and food insecurity will result from poverty and the lack of access to financial resources (Bickel et al. 2000; Holden and Ghebru 2016).

As stated above, “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 1996). Therefore, in an ever-changing world facing population growth, resources scarcity, economic changes, urbanization, massive migration, climate and environmental changes, growing aging population, and changing patterns of consumer choices and food consumption (Tendall et al. 2015; Fan and Brzeska 2016; King et al. 2017), stablishing food security for all, at the global level, will require local strategies and initiatives adapted to the local reality but also aligned with global cooperation and partnership to support them.

The continuity of the “status quo” through the strategies currently adopted by governments to increase food production is no longer enough. Global changes will require profound changes in land management, in resource use, and in the consumption and production patterns (McCarthy et al. 2018). Observing these challenges, the United Nations (2015) launched the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through the Agenda 2030, aiming:

To end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.

In a changing world expected to reach nine billion people in few decades, ensuring sustainable food and nutrition security for all is at the core of the United Nations SDGs (King et al. 2017). Accordingly, Goal 2 “Zero Hunger” aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” (United Nations 2018a). Some of the opportunities to achieve food security are discussed in the next section.

Achieving Food Security in a Changing World: Opportunities from Public Policies, Technological Innovation, Capacitation, Financial Resources, and Partnership and Cooperation

Global food security is a major challenge that should be addressed regionally (Belesky 2014). To increase food security locally and nationally, food production should be handled by smaller and more localized production, which contributes to lower food prices and more local development (Chaifetz and Jagger 2014; Thornton and Herrero 2014; Belesky 2014; Matacena 2016).

Despite their inability to intervene in global markets, national authorities play key role in ensuring global food security by handling food production between large producers and smallholders while ensuring sustainability and social inclusion (Oosterveer et al. 2014; Shete and Rutten 2015). However, strengthening partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, academia, and other sectors of civil society are equally important and contribute to the formulation of environmentally sustainable food security policies, which can promote gender equality and reduce the effects of climate change on food production (Magalhães 2014).

Despite the significant decrease, the number of people living in the rural poor is still higher than in the urban area (FAO 2016). Aiming to reduce poverty in rural areas and increase food security, public policies need to support small farms by increasing their access to technologies and financial resources (Larson et al. 2016; Devereux 2016; King et al. 2017), opening up possibilities for rural communities and family farmers to adapt to climate change that negatively impacts their livelihood and makes them highly vulnerable (Makuvaro et al. 2018).

Smallholder agriculture is essential to global food security, especially in developing countries, which creates more jobs and increases families’ incomes (Tscharntke et al. 2012; Nehring et al. 2017; Larson et al. 2016). Large-scale farms produce great amount of food, and such farmers have more resources to invest in equipment, techniques, and technologies, using less human capital, therefore contracting less employees, whereas small farmers employ, proportionally, more people, in more concentrated spaces, contributing to regional development, poverty alleviation, and local food security (Shete and Rutten 2015; Otsuka et al. 2016; Larson et al. 2016; van Vliet et al. 2015).

One of the greatest threats to family farmers and smallholders is the lack of access to resources, therefore reducing their possibilities to invest in technologies and other mechanisms to enhance their production, productivity, and resilience (FAO 2016; Tirivayi et al. 2016; Nehring et al. 2017). Hence, stabilizing incomes and food prices is essential to maintain consistent food security, and it can be achieved by increasing insurance to producers, by guaranteeing employment creation, by providing financial aid to poor people, by food aid (i.e., in extreme cases), and by price interventions and food supply management (Devereux 2016; Tirivayi et al. 2016; Nehring et al. 2017).

Policy interventions are necessary to face long-term poverty and food scarcity (Just and Gabrielyan 2016; Pérez-Escamilla 2012); however, good governance is essential to meet global demands for food security without compromising sustainable development (Lele et al. 2013; Iglesias and Garrote 2015; Pérez-Escamilla 2012).

Food security governance can be stablished by ensuring “clear, participatory and responsive planning, decision making and implementation”; “efficient, effective, transparent, and accountable institutions”; “respect for the rule of law, and equality and fairness in resource allocation and service delivery”; and “coherent and coordinated policies, institutions, and actions” (Pérez-Escamilla 2012, p. 120).

Among the initiatives to promote food security mapped in the literature are:
  • Financial aid: Financial aid policies aim at guaranteeing financial transfers to complement extremely poor families’ income, reducing poverty and increasing food security (United Nations 2018a; Devereux 2016; Larder et al. 2015; Dimitri et al. 2015; von Braun 2008).

  • Food aid: Food aid policies aim at supporting poor families living in food insecurity, also improving the quality and quantity of food consumed (United Nations 2018a; Wilkinson 2015; Clark et al. 2015; Broussard et al. 2014; Lentz and Barrett 2013; Ninno et al. 2007).

  • Technical support and technologies: Technical support policies aim to guarantee investments (also appealing to international cooperation) in rural infrastructure, technological development, and researches to increase crop productivity. Also, providing farmers with mechanisms to produce food in a competitive manner (United Nations 2018a; Vermeulen et al. 2013; Tilman et al. 2011; Lynch et al. 2000; Carvalho 2006; Fan and Brzeska 2016; King et al. 2017; Welch and Graham 1999; Foster and Rosenzweig 1995).

  • Capacity building: Capacity-building policies aim at training and allowing farmers to produce effectively and through sustainable practices, increasing their productivity and food security (United Nations 2018a; Terry 2014; Klerkx et al. 2009; Pratley 2008; Ayele and Wield 2005; Raynolds et al. 2004; Folke et al. 2002; Foster and Rosenzweig 1995).

  • Land tenure management/food production: Land tenure management and food production policies aim to guarantee sustainable farming practices by supporting practices to increase agricultural productivity while conserving and improving soil quality. Also, enforcing a fair production system, by registering all producers and promoting agrarian reforms (United Nations 2018a; Holden and Ghebru 2016; Clark et al. 2015; Garnett et al. 2013; Gebbers and Adamchuk 2010; Fan and Brzeska 2016; Godfray et al. 2010; Jakobsen et al. 2007; Sanchez 2000; Maxwell and Wiebe 1999).

  • Strong institutions, solid infrastructure, and assistance policies: The development of solid and transparent mechanisms for development and security helps to build resilience for households and small farmers, helping to promote and ensure food security for all at all times. These mechanisms can be translated into the availability of financial, social, legal, technological, and technical assistance, insurances, and stakeholder’s engagement, among others (United Nations 2018a; Fan and Brzeska 2016; Tendall et al. 2015; Haysom and Tawodzera 2018; King et al. 2017).

  • Identify, categorize, and monitor: Policies to identify, categorize, and monitor are important to develop databases and increase the efficiency when developing and implementing plans regarding food and nutrition security, poverty alleviation, land use, and climate change (United Nations 2018a; Fritz et al. 2015; Carletto et al. 2015; Brosnan and Sun 2004; Dramstad et al. 2001; King et al. 2017; Haysom and Tawodzera 2018; Lynch et al. 2000).

These initiatives to promote food security meet both pressing demands of food insecurity (e.g., due to chronic causes or transitory crises), which are palliative solutions (i.e., financial aid and food aid), and lasting demands for food security, helping communities to develop competences and increase their resilience in the long term (i.e., technical support and technologies; capacity building; land tenure management/food production; strong institutions, solid infrastructure, and assistance policies; and identify, categorize, and monitor), meeting sustainability standards.

The global chains of food supply compose all activities related to the processing and transport of food, and it has become more heterogenous, globalized, cooperative, and highly distributed (Badia-Melis et al. 2014), involving other activities such as supplying raw materials, parts, and assemblies and storing and tracking of products that are distributed to numerous channels of distribution.

Resilient food systems help to ensure “sufficient, appropriate and accessible food to all,” promoting food security to all at all times, despite environmental, social, political, or economic disturbances (Tendall et al. 2015, p. 19). Further explaining these categories of food system resilience, Tendall et al. (2015, p. 19) elucidate that sufficient means “sufficient quantity and nutritional quality of food”; appropriate encompasses “the notions of culturally, technically and nutritionally appropriate food”; and accessible means “physically and economically accessible.” Together and being able to ensure the functioning of these categories in times of disturbance promote stability and resilience to the system, matching the four dimensions of food security as understood by the FAO (2008).

In order to maintain food security on track and measure its path, it is necessary to develop and apply assessment mechanisms. However, food security is a multidimensional and multiscale phenomenon that requires holistic and comprehensive approaches, such as food system approach (Haysom and Tawodzera 2018). The food system approach is particularly relevant for urban areas, considering that the world is becoming increasingly urbanized, while food security assessment tools still tend to focus on the rural context (Haysom and Tawodzera 2018).

Half of the world’s population already live in cities, and this percentage is expected to grow in the next years, including in the developing world (United Nations 2018b). This increase of urban population stresses cities’ infrastructure and resources, intensifying its challenges; causing an increase of slums; limiting access to treated water, sewage, clean energy, proper houses, roads, and infrastructure; threatening food security; and increasing pollution and wastes. In 2014, about 30% (nearly 880 million people) of the global urban population already lived in slum-like conditions, increasing their vulnerability (United Nations 2018b). This reality makes the relationship between smart cities, governance, and food even more complex (Sonnino 2009, 2016), bringing new challenges to the urban food systems, which should manage how food is produced, processed, distributed, and sold (Grewal and Grewal 2012; Maye 2018).

Therefore, in this scenario where food represents one of the principle challenges for humanity and particularly for large urban centers, cities also become a vital part of the solution as global actors, fundamental for the planning of a food system (Moragues-Faus 2017; Morgan and Sonnino 2010; Sonnino 2009). That is, the questions related to “urban food” became a new normal, where food and agricultural practices began to be discussed by municipal authorities, municipal advisors, and social urban movements (Derkzen and Morgan 2012). Effectively, some cities already work with their food systems in an organized urban scale, such as New York, Manchester and Toronto.

In this regard, actions such as urban agriculture demonstrate optimistic results, revolutionizing the actual food systems (Dieleman 2017), mostly in developing countries, which rely on rural production (Amar-Klemesu 2000). Thus, it contributes to the decrease of organic waste disposal, improving the functioning of the urban ecosystems and guaranteeing a low-carbon economy, since supply chains, when shortened, often require a smaller amount of fossil fuel for transport (Ferreira et al. 2018).

Despite critiques, urban agriculture emerges as a strategy to improve food security and dietary diversity in cities, shortening the distance between food production and consumption, also improving access to fresh food in cities (FAO 2018; Warren et al. 2015; Badami and Ramankutty 2015). Worldwide, about 800 million people practice urban agriculture, including for commerce (FAO 2018). Thus, urban farming also contributes to reduce families’ expenditure with food (Poulsen et al. 2015), enabling them to invest in other needs like education and health.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Issa Ibrahim Berchin
    • 1
  • Wellyngton Silva de Amorim
    • 1
  • José Baltazar Salgueirinho Osório de Andrade Guerra
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Research Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability (Greens)Universidade do Sul de Santa Catarina (Unisul)FlorianópolisBrazil
  2. 2.Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (C-EENRG), Department of Land EconomyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Samuel Borges Barbosa
    • 1
  1. 1.Federal University of ViçosaRio ParanaíbaBrazil