Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Stockholm Environment Institute's online course, Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia. Join the course to learn more.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand by Ppoonns / CC BY-SA 4.0

Linking food security to the food systems approach

At various times already this week we have touched on food security as a key outcome of food systems. This article goes into more depth on the key aspects of food security, including access to food, how it is distributed and consumed, why food demand is rising, and how a food systems approach can address these issues.

Food security

All people have the right to a healthy diet. This right has been explicitly recognized by world leaders for many years, most recently in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which establishes the goal to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” (Sustainable Development Goal 2).

The concept of food security has risen to prominence in recent years, amid concerns about population growth, increased food demand, and climate change. Although food production has more than doubled in the past 50 years, more than 800 million people still go hungry, and more than 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies – in particular, vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc. At the same time, more than 2 billion people are overweight or obese; food overconsumption is a serious problem.

The way food is distributed and sold has also changed, with major international companies, including supermarket chains, increasingly dominating the market. Commodity market volatility has heightened food security concerns as well, especially the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011, which wrought havoc on the poor. And food demand is growing notably faster than the world population, as diets change with rising incomes. This raises questions about how we will meet that rising demand, and ensure food security for all, despite climate change and without further straining natural resources.

But what do we mean by “food security”? The most common definition is from the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security:

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

The Committee on World Food Security of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) amended the definition in 2009 to add the concept of social access to food. It has also emphasized notions of food availability and food utilization: it’s not just about producing food, but about how it’s distributed and sold, who consumes how much, and what safety nets we provide for vulnerable groups.

Similarly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, launched in 2012, sets five targets: 100% access to adequate food year-round; no stunted children under 2 years of age; all food systems are sustainable; 100% increase in smallholder productivity and income; and zero food loss or waste.

Food systems approach

The food systems approach is so relevant to the food security debate because it examines every step in the chain, from growing and harvesting food, to processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food and related waste. It identifies the key actors and their motivations, and links the activities to their outcomes, including food security.

A food systems approach can better address both undernutrition and over-consumption, including how different dietary choices might lead to more resource-efficient food systems and better health outcomes. And by looking at food supply and demand in a balanced way, within the context of actors, institutions and governance, it can help us identify opportunities at all levels to improve food security.

Achieving and maintaining food security remains a major goal in Southeast Asia. Next week, we will explore the food security status of the region and discuss current efforts to achieve this goal.


UNEP (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.

Image Source: “Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand” by Ppoonns / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute