The 2015 Global Hunger Index reports that despite progress in reducing hunger worldwide, hunger levels in 52 of 117 countries remain “serious” or “alarming.” The FAO’s 2015 State of Food Insecurity report estimates that 795 million people are undernourished, with uneven levels of undernourishment across countries. Simultaneously, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.9 billion adults are overweight.

These statistics illustrate the importance food and nutrition security (FNS) as a development goal. A new IFPR discussion paper contributes to this goal by providing an analytical framework to study the long-term drivers of FNS. This framework can help policymakers and development practitioners better understand and analyse the factors driving, and impeding, progress on FNS goals at the global and national level.

The paper splits a range of FNS drivers into two broad groups: individual and household-level factors (incomes, prices, sanitary conditions, education, and transaction and market costs) and market equilibrium factors (drivers of aggregate food demand and supply).

Regarding individual and household-level drivers, household income appears to be a critical factor, as poverty and hunger are highly correlated. For instance, stunting and undernourishment are higher when the poorest segments of society have a lower real GNI per capita. According to the paper, countries that have successfully reduced undernutrition (such as China, Vietnam, Brazil, Senegal, and Peru) are those that have experienced income growth in recent years. However, the paper also shows that overall economic growth alone is not a sufficient condition for FNS improvement; increases in national income need to be well distributed. For instance, a comparison between India and China shows that China has achieved rapid reductions in undernutrition in recent decades, while India has not. The paper suggests that this is because the creation of wealth has been more evenly spread in China than in India.

Prices can also play a role in improving FNS. The paper illustrates that under normal demand conditions and for a given level of income, a decrease in the price of non-food products will generally translate to an improvement in households’ FNS situation. In addition, improving households’ purchasing power reduces both undernutrition and malnutrition, since households’ real income is generally spent first on calorically dense foods (for example, cereals) and then on diversified products with higher micronutrient contents (for example, fruits and vegetables).

However, the paper also emphasizes that the relationship between income and food prices can be complex. If real income and food prices are positively correlated, then households tend to be more resilient in terms of FNS; however, if real income and food prices are negatively correlated, then households may be food insecure. For urban or non-farm households, the correlation between real income and food prices is generally negative. For farm households, the situation is more mixed, depending on food price variation. For instance, in the context of a negative yield shock, market prices of food are likely to increase, but the income of a specific farmer may increase or decrease depending on how this specific yield shock has affected that farmer’s own production.

Finally, households’ education levels and sanitary conditions both significantly impact households’ overall dietary quality. Sanitary conditions refer to the conditions in which food products are consumed or prepared; the paper finds that households with higher incomes are likely to have better access to sanitary conditions (such as refrigerators and water filtering systems) which improve or sustain the overall quality of the food prepared. Better education and better dissemination of information regarding safe food preparation and storage can also help shift households’ consumption toward healthier products and thus contribute to the reduction of obesity, malnutrition, and cardiovascular diseases.

Regarding market equilibrium factors, the paper examines both aggregate food demand and aggregate food supply. Global population increases are identified as a key driver of food demand. According to UN projections, the world’s population will continue to increase, reaching 9.3 billion by 2050. Population growth increases the demand for agricultural products, resulting in upward pressure on food prices; these higher prices are likely to negatively impact FNS, especially for the poorer segments of society, as these populations will be less able to access more nutritious, but more costly, food. Additionally, a significant portion of population growth is expected to occur in low-income countries (such as Bangladesh and Pakistan) that have limited capacity to increase their domestic food supplies. This will make their FNS increasingly dependent on and susceptible to international food price fluctuations.

Increases in per capita income also generally lead to increases in the demand for food per capita. According to the paper, the predicted rise in world incomes will increase FNS for households with rising real income but will also increase global food prices and food price volatility due to a shift toward a more inelastic food system. In this context, households and countries that experience little or no income gains will see their FNS deteriorate as food prices increase.

On the aggregate food supply side, the paper highlights three main drivers: the land available for food production, the normalized average yield, and the share of waste/losses generated by the food system. Historically, the evolution of food yields (together with income) has been the most important driver of FNS. Recent statistics cited by the paper show that global average yield growth rates are declining for key agricultural commodities (wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans). The paper suggests that yields can be positively influenced by farm prices, improved land quality, increased inputs and investments, and improved knowledge of successful agricultural practices. Supporting and investing in these factors will improve FNS in the long run.

Regarding land availability, the paper states that increases in the overall amount of agricultural land available will reduce food prices and contribute to improvements in FNS. Factors that can positively influence the supply of land include higher agricultural prices (as they incentivize farmers to increase the amount of land used for production), investments in irrigation (which will allow for production on previously under- or un-utilized land), and improvements in transport and trade infrastructure (which will increase market access to remote pieces of land).

Finally, food loss and waste has a significant impact on FNS. According to the paper, one-third of all food produced globally is wasted. On the consumer side, increased education and improved regulations can help reduced waste. Similarly, on the producer side, improved value chain efficiency and investments in infrastructure (transportation and storage) will reduce losses and boost food supplies with the same level of inputs, leading to price decreases and a systematic improvement of FNS.

The drivers of FNS are complex and interlinked. In order to deal with this complexity, the paper recommends that countries define what FNS entails for them, choose specific FNS indicators that allow them to identify a benchmark against which to measure success, and identify the country-specific drivers and appropriate policies that they need to focus on (based on their comparative advantage) to achieve FNS.

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