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Transformation of Food Systems in Vulnerable Areas

Written by: Olivia Zhang

Edited by: Krysta Reveche



The term “food system” refers to the global network of processes that encompass the growth, production, transportation, and consumption of food to sustain the world’s population. Even though food systems are generally producing greater quantities of food for developed nations, there is a lower quality of nutrition, and many food-related jobs are low-paying. Approximately 8.9% of the world’s population, or 690 million people, are hungry, with this number having increased since 2015, according to the United Nations’ official page titled Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Such hunger disproportionately impacts communities in less-developed countries, where resources, humanitarian assistance, and effective food security policies are less accessible. Food system transformation is a crucial step in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the goal of having zero hunger.


Disproportionate Hunger: Statistics and Background

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or the IPC scale, is commonly used in annual reports by credible organizations to classify the hunger risk of a population. As stated by the United States Agency for International Development [USAID], the IPC scale ranges from 1 to 5, and indicates as follows:

Phase 1 - Minimal: acute malnutrition rates are below 5%, and more than 4 in 5 households meet their basic nutritious needs.

Phase 2 - Stressed: acute malnutrition rates are between 5 and 10%, with at least 1 in 5 households only meeting bare minimum of nutritious needs, often needing to make lifestyle changes to accommodate other needs.

Phase 3 - Crisis (humanitarian assistance starts to be urgently required from this phase onward): acute malnutrition rates are between 10 and 15%, with at least 1 in 5 households not consuming enough food and resorting to selling items to support lacking diets.

Phase 4 - Emergency: acute malnutrition rates are between 15 and 30%, with at least 1 in 5 households facing extreme food and nutrition shortages; increased risk of disease and hunger-related death.

Phase 5 - Famine: acute malnutrition rates are above 30%, with at least 20% of households experiencing starvation. More than 2 per 1,000 people are dying each day.


The Food Security Information Network’s [FSIN] 2020 Global Report on Food Crises states that, in 2019, there were 135 million people living in a state of Crisis (Phase 3) or worse, with the number having risen by 2020. Importantly, more than 50% of the Phase 3 or above classifications fell on communities in Africa (mostly observed in the eastern region), where the consequences of exploitation and lack of access to resources are more pronounced. Moreover, many Middle Eastern countries face political and economic problems that contribute to the widespread insecurity of food. As the FSIN reported, the disproportionate impact of food insecurity is a manifestation of conflict (seen in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Yemen), and worsening climate conditions or economic shocks (seen in countries such as Ethiopia, Haiti, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe). This information is concurrent with the International Medical Corps, a global and nonprofit humanitarian aid organization.


Relationship Between Food Systems and Climate Change

The agriculture sector, encompassing the production and distribution of food products for consumption or export, contributed to 21% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions between 2007 and 2016, as cited by the scientific journal Nature. Poor agricultural practices is also a leading cause of biodiversity loss. One-fourth of the world’s cultivated land area is degraded because of the pressure that food production places on resources. While harmful agricultural practices contribute to climate change, a vicious cycle exists as climate change, in turn, (seen in the form of droughts, disease outbreaks, flooding, pollution, etc.) disrupts food production and transportation. Due to the prominence of hunger in vulnerable areas, the impact of unsustainable food systems on climate change, and the increasing threat of worsening climate conditions and disease, there has been greater urgency for food system transformation and reform.


Plans for Increasing Food Security

While increasing the food supply in vulnerable regions will not ensure an end to political conflict, economic crises, or harmful climate conditions, it is recognized by the UN and the Food and Agricultural Organization as a crucial step to achieving a more food-secure future. Specifically, the UN created the Global Humanitarian Response Plan [HRP] in late 2020 to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the world’s poorest communities. It was reported that the food and agriculture sector, including private farmers, was harmed by a decreased supply of labor, interruptions to transportation, and an increase in food loss and waste.


Additionally, in 2021, the Food Systems Summit, UNFCCC COP26, UNCBD COP15, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit are opportunities and discussions aimed at making food systems more sustainable. According to Nature, the three main priorities are as follows:

  1. Foster inter-governmental and global cooperation in relation to food systems and the agricultural sector. This is especially important because food systems operate across country borders, and thus contributes to a global system of cause and effect.

  2. Adopt multi-level policies that are based on scientific research on topics such as climate change, preservation of natural resources, health, nutrition, harmful chemical use, etc.

  3. Accommodate the experiences and perspectives of low and middle-income countries (less-developed countries) in synthesis and assessment reports to create policies.


What Does the Transformation of Food Systems Look Like?

Lawrence Haddad, who was awarded the World Food Prize in 2018 for his research in child nutrition as it relates to global food security policies, states that bridging the intersections between nutrition, climate, and food systems is key to a more sustainable future. He outlines three steps to making sustainability in food systems a reality:

  1. Power: Get policymakers and large corporations to acknowledge and address the inefficacies in global and national food systems and how they contribute to climate change and livelihoods (this is seen being done with the summits happening in 2021, where there will be more youth voices being heard).

  2. Educate: Gather and share data about food habits that people fall into and the necessary actions that should be taken to improve agricultural production and processes. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition [GAIN], for example, is working with universities like Harvard and Johns Hopkins to develop such tools, according to Haddad.

  3. Scale: Have government programs and global organizations work to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19 on access to food in vulnerable areas (outlined in the UN’s Global HRP); improve markets for nutritious foods.


All in all, the necessity of change to current food systems is shown by the impact of food systems on climate change, and the extent of hunger in vulnerable regions. Climate change and unsustainable agriculture are in a constant tug-of-war that can only be alleviated if action is taken.




Works Cited

USAID. (2020, June 8). Integrated food security phase classification (IPC) explainer. United States Agency for International Development. https://www.usaid.gov/documents/integrated-food-security-phase-classification-ipc-explainer%C2%A0#:~:text=Phase%203%20%E2%80%93%20CRISIS%3A%20Some%20households,to%20support%20a%20limited%20diet.

International Medical Corps. (n.d.). https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/emergency-response/famine-risk/

UN. (n.d.). Sustainable development goals. Goal 2: Zero hunger. United Nations. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/

Webb, P., Benton, T.G., Beddington, J., Flynn, D., Kelly, N. M., Thomas, S. M. (2020). The urgency of food system transformation is now irrefutable. Nat Food 1, 584–585. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-00161-0

FSIN. (2020). Global report on food crises. Joint analysis for better decisions. Food Security Information Network. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114546/download/?_ga=2.257952845.670073190.1625755260-446902897.1625755260

WFP. (2020, April). COVID-19: Potential impact on the world’s poorest people. World Food Programme. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114205/download/?_ga=2.241337546.952775517.1586900153-341597442.1584735263

UN. (2020). Global Humanitarian Response Plan: COVID-19. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Global-Humanitarian-Response-Plan-COVID-19.pdf

Haddad, L. (2019, November 1). What does food system transformation mean? Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. https://www.gainhealth.org/media/news/what-does-food-system-transformation-mean




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