Food security, an overview (Part 1)

What is food security?

The concept of food security was introduced to secure access and availability to food. The official definition of the Food and Agricultural Organisation is: “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”. This definition combines the most important points, which are organised in the four dimensions of food security: Food availability, Food access, Utilisation and Stability.

What is meant by these dimensions? Food availability describes “the availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality”. This can be secured through domestic production or imports. Food access describes the “access by individuals to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet”. These resources can be financial or of a different kind, which can be used in barter trade, for example. The dimension ‘utilisation’ describes factors that are important to achieve “a state of nutritional well-being where all physiological needs are met”. Besides an adequate diet, non-food inputs such as clean water, sanitation and health care play an important role. Stability describes the access of a population, a household or an individual to adequate food at all times. Especially in times of economic or climatic crises they should not lose their access to food.

How is food security measured?

In order to make a statement about food security in a country or region, the four dimensions have to be worded in a way that makes it possible to calculate an index. An index is a number that represents the state of food security in a certain country. A well-known index that has implemented this is the Global Food Security Index. It measures affordability, availability, quality and safety of food, as well as the natural resources and adjustment of each country. This is done by measuring, for example, whether each household has enough food available, what percentage of the income is spent on it and whether all important nutrients can be adequately covered with these foods. Another approach is taken by the Global Hunger Index, which focuses on measuring ‘hunger’. This is done by collecting data on the malnutrition of the population, infant mortality, the rate of children who have too little weight for their height and those who are too small for their age.

On this basis, both indices calculate scores for different countries and then draw up a country ranking. The best results are achieved by North American and European countries, followed by Australia and New Zealand. But also Japan, South Korea and Oman occupy top positions. Thus, most of the countries scoring well are rich, industrialised countries with a strong agricultural sector. In contrast, sub-Saharan countries occupy the last places along with with Yemen, Haiti and Laos.

Food security in India and Sri Lanka

In the two rankings mentioned above India and Sri Lanka are not scoring well compared to other countries. The Global Food Security Index assesses a total of 113 countries. Sri Lanka ranks 66th and India 74th. The problems become even more significant in the Global Hunger Index: of the 119 countries assessed, Sri Lanka ranks 84th and India 100th, on a par with countries such as North Korea and Djibouti. What exactly does this mean? In numbers, about 33% of the population in Sri Lanka is malnourished, in India it is about 17%. This may not seem much at first glance, however, India is thus home to one quarter of the world’s hungry people. This is particularly worrying considering that India has experienced an enormous economic growth in the last two decades. However, not all citizens benefit from it, since especially the poorest remain unaffected. This becomes clear in the unequal distribution of the new economic miracle: mainly the richest 10% of the country benefit.

Picture source: World Bank. URL: (access on 04.04.2018)

The rising gross domestic product shows the economic growth of India. The enormous increase over the last 20 years has however not reached all citizens.

This unequal income distribution is a major problem because it hinders the access to food for poorer people. A varied and nutritious diet depends heavily on income. Thus, people with less income have to stick to an unbalanced diet, based mainly on rice and cereals. This means that even if they have ‘enough’ food, they lack important vitamins and minerals which the body needs to fully develop. Over a longer period of time, this leads to people being malnourished and more susceptible to chronic diseases.

Another frequently overlooked fact is the so-called South Asian Enigma. It describes the phenomenon that children in South Asia are more poorly nourished than children in sub-Saharan Africa, although undernutrition and malnutrition are rather assigned to Africa. This phenomenon became known in the mid-1990s and is unfortunately valid until today: South Asia still has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. But the situation has improved. In the 1990s, South-Asia had a rate of 60% malnourished children, whereas Africa had a rate of 36%. Until 2016, this rate dropped significantly to ‘only’ 34% in South Asia and 28% in Africa. However, the total population grew at the same. Thus, the rate does not give any information about the decline of the absolute number of malnourished children. In our project region Tamil Nadu, only 31% of children receive adequate nutrition. Still, this is the highest rate among all Indian states. At the bottom of the ranking are the states Rajasthan, Gujarat, UP, Delhi and Punjab. However, the South Asian Enigma only describes average figures for the entire continent and refers exclusively to children. This means that there are some African countries where the food supply is significantly lower  than in India.

Furthermore, it is believed that this high rate of malnutrition in India is mainly due to the low social status of women in South Asia. Children are often born malnourished because their mothers did not have sufficient access to food. This also influences the quality and quantity of food children receive during breastfeeding.

Picture source: Unicef, WHO, World Bank. URL: (access on 04.04.2018)

The South Asian Enigma: The chart shows the percentage of under 5 year olds in stunting and wasting. Stunting describes a low height for a specific age and wasting a low weight for a specific height. The comparison between Southern Africa and Southern Asia is shown. Although the figures have been falling steadily since 1990, they are still high.

One more factor affecting the food security is access to hygiene and education. Illnesses can for example spread more easily, if there are no or not enough toilets. Children are particularly vulnerable in this regard and easily affected. Thus, they absorb less nutrients, which also leads to malnutrition. The spread of diseases is intensified by the high population density in India and Sri Lanka. In 2016, 445 people were living in one square km in India, and 332 people in Sri Lanka. In comparison, in Switzerland only 212 people lived in one square kilometre in the same year.

Education also plays an important role in nutrition. Especially illiterate mothers who marry at a very young age tend to have malnourished children later on. Many of them do not know which food is optimal for their child or that it should be exclusively breastfed in the first few months. Studies however also show that even better educated families sometime have malnourished children.

In the second part of the article, we will provide insightful facts on the food security situation in India, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, explain various issues and identify solutions.


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