譚偉恩:Food Insecurity – Why is it the Common Threat to Powers & How do We Deal with It?

Wei-en Tan
Member of Slow Food, NYC

Reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) and designing the Post-Kyoto Climate Regime tend to dominate discussions on climate change so far.[1] But to the booming world population, one emerging issue caused by climate change may be even more worth noting and demand no delay: food insecurity.

Climate change is continuing to increase the risk of global food insecurity, and is leading to more and more people in hunger. The combination of severe drought in the U.S. this summer and the growing food demand in China led to a spike in world food prices. Given this, the Oxfam report warns that high food prices may “become the new normal,”[2] and this common and urgent threat should be concerned by two powers.

What is Food Insecurity?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is defined as “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”[3] This kind of security is one of several conditions necessary for human beings to be healthy and well-nourished. Food insecurity, in turn, refers to limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire food.[4]

Food insecurity is specifically related to limited household resources.[5] By definition, these are the conditions regarding the low income, constant poverty, and frequent hunger. However, global food insecurity to some extent is a shame that so much food is wasted and that so many governments are inactive. In other words, food insecurity is not only influenced by extreme weather, but also by economic and political factors.

This article addresses some causes of food insecurity, in particular how this urgent problem is experienced in the U.S. and China, and how to implement solutions that reduce it.

In the U.S.: Man-made; Do not blame Nature

Food insecurity and climate change are already inhibiting human well-being and economic growth throughout the world, and these problems are poised to accelerate. The U.S. is not an exceptional country; according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) which measures food security and releases data annually, the number of U.S. families struggling to put enough food on their table now is at record-high levels. Namely, 1 in almost 7 households suffered from food insecure since 2011, and it is believed that almost 18 million households had trouble feeding themselves nationwide.[6]

The problem—getting enough food—is especially severe among households headed by single mothers with children, and poverty is widespread in these families. Material hardship is quite common for single-mother families. For example, in 2009 37% of single-mother families were counted as food insecure, meaning that their access to adequate food was limited by lack of financial resources. In addition, numerous studies have shown associations between food insecurity and adverse health outcomes among children.[7]Namely, children from families in hunger very likely incur developmental impairments that limit their physical and intellectual growth.

The one main cause leading people to see food insecurity in the U.S. is the operation of its political system. In other words, the U.S. political system is not concerned about poor people. For example, big corporations and the rich have succeeded in guarding their private interests through their ability to lobby Congress and indirectly to influence the U.S. government expenditure. The other main cause of food insecurity is the energy policies embodied in the capitalist economic market, in which biofuels made directly from food crops such as corn and sugar obviously divert these foods from the table, or cause them to cost more, thus exacerbating hunger.

Since the U.S is a pivotal player in world food production, if its crop is devastated by the government policy and domestic market, how serious is food insecurity going to be to the rest of the world? The following section is going to address this question, particularly focusing on the viewpoint of China—a rising food trade power.

In China: from Export to Import

There are many essential food producers in the world. China is one of them, particularly as a wheat producer, but now this country is also the largest food consumer.[8]

A jump in food prices has pushed China’s inflation rate to rise 2 % in August this year compared with a year earlier. China thus faces intense pressure and threat to its food security. Agricultural producers are fighting a battle on two fronts: the growth in food demand stemming from the increasing population and the decrease in amount of arable land. According to a research paper from Standard Chartered bank, China is more or less self-sufficient in food, but within 20-30 years it will need to import million tons of food a year to meet the growing appetites of its population, in particular the middle classes.[9]Chinese food imports, in fact, more than doubled from 2004 to 2009. Last year, China imported $20 billion worth of soybeans, corn, cotton and hides from the U.S., outpacing Canada for the first time. China is also the world’s second biggest importer of corn after Japan. It is expected to import 5 million tons of corn next year.[10]

Because China today seriously depends on grain imports from outside to supplement its own insufficient harvests, and because intense drought, flood, and other natural disasters are damaging crops elsewhere, global food supplies are expected to shrink and prices to rise throughout the world. This is the realistic interdependence; what happens to one has immense impact to another.[11] What happens next is, of course, impossible to predict, but as for the current extreme weather, the prediction of instability can be seen in China, where food prices are expected to rise at a time of growing hardship for low-income, migratory workers and poor peasants. Further, higher food prices in China could also lead to reduced consumer spending on other goods, which contributes to the slowdown in the global economy.

What can We Do?: Improving Gender Equality, Reducing Waste, and Biting Back

Investments in water storage and irrigation systems are not only essential but also can help countries get through droughts. Paving roads and improving ports undoubtedly strengthen food supplies. All of these strategies, however, are conventional, what mankind needs now is something different; that is, international society has to establish new strategies in defense of food security.

I. Women Matter

A new research released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) uncovers a fascinating finding. It shows a strong correlation between women’s economic opportunity and access to food.[12] FAO also confirms that giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could increase their farm production by 20 to 30 %, raising agricultural production in developing countries by up to 4 %.[13] In this sense, it is important to make sure that women have equal access to opportunities, land, credit and other resources. Ensuring women’s access to land and other resources requires changes in laws and institutions domestically and globally.

On the one hand, the U.S. and Chinese governments can play an important role in terms of financial support to rural development and the agricultural sector. To support women-led associations and small-scale businesses to provide food in low-income and food insecure regions, strengthening their capacities in business and management skills. On the other hand, international society, particularly the United Nations, should actively confirm food security as a human right without any doubt.[14] Furthermore, in looking at women’s rights to adequate food, other related human rights need to be taken into consideration also since the interaction of all rights may be crucial to the achievement of any. In short, the realization of food security depends on parallel achievements in the fields of health, education, and so forth.


II. Reducing Food waste

Feeding people globally requires an enormous amount of land and resources. Yet, many foods annually go to waste. Thus, developing habits to save food could dramatically reduce the need for increased food production.

In some developed countries, crops are sometimes left unharvested because their appearance does not meet strict quality standards imposed by supermarkets (in the U.S., there are approximately 121 billion pounds per year).[15] What is more, food can be mishandled or stored improperly during transport. Large portions or poor training for food handlers contribute to food waste in restaurants.[16] Additionally, unsafe food is not fit for human consumption and is, therefore, wasted with necessity. In other words, failure to comply with food safety standards can lead to food losses and indirectly impact on the food security.

Every year, consumers in developed countries waste 220 million metric tons of food, while almost one billion people go hungry. These practices not only hurt those affected by hunger, but also those who over consume and, as a result, suffer from diseases such as obesity. Given this, we must adopt a new strategy; namely, eat correctly and waste less.[17]

III. Why not Eat Insects?

The topic was also the subject of a TED talk, in which Marcel Dicke proclaimed that insects can hold their own against meat in terms of flavor. Interest in eating insects has arisen recently because of the ongoing human population boom. If there are 9 billion people by 2050 as predicted, perhaps eating insects will help stave off the inevitable food shortages. In Addition, insects are rich in protein, ubiquitous, and cheap.[18]

Aside from their nutritional and environmental benefits, some researches show considerable opportunity for edible insects to provide income and jobs for rural people who capture, process, and market insects as food.[19] These prospects can be enhanced through promotion and adoption of modern technology standards to ensure that the insects are safe and attractive for our consumption.

Insects are unlikely to make major contributions to the world’s food supply in the near term, but this new strategy—eating insects—might help overcome global hunger and malnutrition. Insects offer significant advantages in food production, especially when compared with traditional livestock production. In fact, with only a relatively few species being eaten by humans, the incredible numbers of insects in the world add up to massive quantities of potential food. So, let’s bite back!


Food insecurity will remain a worldwide concern for the next decades and beyond. The ability of global agriculture to support growing populations has been a concern for generations and continues to be high on each state’s policy agenda, particularly in the U.S. and China. At the international level, the eradication of poverty and hunger should be considered as the core of our common goal. Nevertheless, crop yield growth has slowed in much of the world because many challenges to food security are posed by climate change and government policies such as political and economic systems.

To achieve food security, policies must be oriented toward feeding people—each individual. If policies do not enable a country to feed its people, or better yet, for the poor to feed themselves, the country is doomed. In other words, the food policy should orient itself to feeding individuals, otherwise it is an industrial system that does not guarantee the provision of a country’s food and basic health needs. Specifically, we should focus on more than the question of agricultural yield, but also include equity in distribution of income. A High percent of agricultural work today is performed by women, and policies designed to empower women must be at the center of international law and national policies.[20] Moreover, reducing food waste is very important. If food waste can be reduced efficiently, it will ease the pressure to engage in food production. Last but not least, insects are green foods (energy-saving), so they’re far more efficiently converted to feed than cattle or pigs. We should try before they are hard to buy.


                                When we sit down to eat every day,
do we seriously think about how the meal we’re eating is the issue of
an injustice and broken global food system?
(In memory of World Food Day, October 16, 2012)

[1] And they are also the central topics of the COP18/CMP8 UNFCCC Conference which will take place in Doha from November 26th to December 7th . See: http://unfccc.int/meetings/doha_nov_2012/meeting/6815.php (last visited: 2012/10/16)

[2] See: Oxfam Issue Briefing (Sep. 2012), available at:http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/20120905-ib-extreme-weather-extreme-prices-en.pdf (last visited: 2012/10/16)

[3] See: http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4671e/y4671e06.htm (last visited: 2012/10/16)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mark Plant, “Food Security and the Increase in Global Food Prices”. This speech was presented at Panama Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, June 19, 2008. Available at: http://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2008/061908.htm (last visited: 2012/10/16)

[6] Alisha Coleman-Jensen, et al., “Household Food Security in the United States in 2011United,” Economic Research Report, No. 141 (USDA), available at:http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/884525/err141.pdf (last visited: 2012/10/16).

[8] See: http://www.thehandthatfeedsus.org/handbook/CHINA.pdf (last visited: 2012/10/16)

[10] Aya Takada and Yasumasa Song, “China May Become Top Corn Importer by 2014, Displacing Japan,” Bloomberg, Apr 17, 2012.

[11] Lawrence Keely, War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 196; Keely’s research shows that with increases of trade and intermarriage among tribes, war became more frequent. The same argument also can see: Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Myth of National Interdependence,” in Charles P. Kindleberger, ed., The International Corporation (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970): 205-223.

[13] FAO, “Women, Agriculture and Food Security,” available at: http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsummit/english/fsheets/women.pdf (last visited: 2012/10/16)

[14] Despite of the commitments made by globe leaders to reduce hunger in the world, the numbers of people suffering from hunger have increased rather than decreased. This trend is an indication that measures that are more positive and objective should be taken to guarantee right to food other than just make mutual empty promises and commitments. What is more, unfortunately enough, it goes without forgetting that in 2002’s World Food Summit, the U.S was the only country that opposed to the right to food.

[15] See: Basic Information about Food Waste, available at:http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-basic.htm (last visited: 2012/10/17).

[17] Michael Pollan, Food Rules; An Eater’s Manual (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).

[18] Patrick B. Durst, et al., Forest Insects as Food Humans Bite Back (2008 : Chiang Mai, Thailand).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Wei-en Tan, “The Need for International Food Security Legal Norms,” available at:http://csil.org.tw/home/2012/09/12/the-need-for-international-food-security-legal-norms/ (last visited: 2012/10/17).