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Food Security

What is food security?

Publication date: 14-02-2024, Read time: 5 min

Food security is sometimes mistaken for food safety. Whilst there is some overlap, the two are quite different. So, let’s start with a definition. 

Can we provide sufficient food to everyone at all times? 

Is that food affordable and accessible? 

Is it utilizable? In other words, does it meet people’s cultural and dietary preferences? 

Is it safe, and does it provide the nutrition that people need to have a healthy lifestyle? 

True food security requires that we can answer yes to all these questions all of the time.

If there is problem in producing sufficient food; if the food that is produced becomes scarce and expensive, or if the available food does not meet dietary and cultural needs, then the result can lead to food insecurity in the short, medium or long-term.

Figure 1 Food security means that the availability, accessibility and utilisation of food is stable over time

Improvements and risks

Food security is a dynamic phenomenon; it changes over time. A look at its development worldwide shows that the situation is much better now than it was, say, 40 years ago. Innovations in livestock and plant sciences, soil and water management, storage, transport and many others part of our food system have led to huge improvements in production to keep pace with demand, and in making food more accessible and affordable. 

However, in some parts of the world food security is still a struggle. Many people simply do not have enough to eat, and shocks to the system – such as the increasingly frequent and intense droughts and floods around the globe – can have a serious impact on food production. It goes without saying that such natural phenomena can also affect accessibility if, for example, roads get damaged or washed away in a landslide. Conflicts, changes in import and export policy and other shocks can also lead to food insecurity.

Figure 2 Loss to crops and livelihoods due to the increasing intensity and frequency of disasters

How geo-information science can help

Geo-information and Earth observation science can play an important role in addressing food security issues. For instance, remote sensing technology can be used to assess food production in terms of crop health and productivity. It can help to determine whether a particular harvest is going to be good or bad, relative to past years. Geo-information can also look at factors like access to food, e.g., by mapping out the time people need to travel to a market to buy food, or similarly, the travel time for a farmer to get to a market to buy fertilizer or seed. The distance and time that people have to travel is certain to have an effect on the price of what they buy and on what’s available in their neighbourhood. Briefly put, we have vast amounts of geo-information with which the food security puzzle can be investigated. 

As remote sensing data is available day after day, year after year, it makes for a reliable monitoring basis. It helps to detect changes, spot trends and identify factors during the growing season that could be a cause for concern. This information can then be deployed to support vital decision making. For instance, if policy makers are alerted in time that production volumes will be relatively low, they can look at other markets to bridge the gap. Or if they know it's going to be a particularly good year, they may start thinking about stockpiling and storage for the future. In essence, this information can help better decision making and ultimately stabilise the market.

Figure 3 Monitoring the spatial and temporal patterns in vegetation can alert us to unexpected changes causes by drought for example
Dr Kees de Bie

Making dimensions meet

The thing that particularly fascinates Prof. Nelson about food production and food security in general is the amount of progress that has been made over time - whilst recognising the urgent action that is still needed. Our food system is amazing in its ability to continually evolve to maintain pace with the increasing demand for food. Over the past decades this has led to improved food security for many. At the same time, our food system demands enormous amounts of natural resources which need to be sustainably managed to ensure that we can continue to produce, process, transport, market, cook and even dispose of food in ways that have minimal environmental impact. 

Figure 4 We can map, monitor and model the different components of our food system to ensure the system remains sustainable and well managed

(Source: FAO. 2022. The future of food and agriculture – Drivers and triggers for transformation. The Future of Food and Agriculture, no. 3. Rome.https://doi.org/10.4060/cc0959en)

We see some concerning trends where the environmental, health and economic impacts of our food system now go beyond what can be sustainably supported. We need to ensure that our natural systems are not overly impacted by food production whilst ensuring that our food production system provides sufficient healthy and affordable food for all. Our ability to map, monitor and model these systems in unprecedented detail will help to find the answers that are required to sustainably meet the world’s food security goals.

This article is based on an interview with Prof. Nelson from the Geo Hero YouTube channel. Check out the original Geo Hero interview with Prof. Nelson here. 

Food Security Natural Resources Management
Last edited: 07-05-2024

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