What supplies countries with food

World food

Christian Kuhlgatz

Dr. Christian Kuhlgatz (born 1982) studied agricultural science in Kiel and did his doctorate on policies to improve food security in developing countries. He works at the Thünen Institute for Market Analysis and advises the BMEL on issues relating to world nutrition. In addition, he conducts research together with local scientists on the supply of food and nutrients in developing countries.

Persistent malnutrition and sudden hunger crises also occur in countries with enough food. How can that be? And why is the rural population in particular often at risk when food prices rise? Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has researched the key to explaining these phenomena: it is the (lack of) access to food.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The individual fight against hunger

With the agricultural price crisis in 2007/08, the international community of states once again faced the acute question of how global malnutrition could be resolved. The high prices had led to riots, riots and even government crises. Many governments tried to secure the availability of food for their people with measures such as the state purchase of food on the international market or the ban on food exports. In rich countries, the use of biofuel and food speculation has been questioned.

Away from the world stage, the fight against hunger has long been played out on a small scale: every day, poor people have to worry about getting enough food for their families. A sharp rise in the price of food, the loss of a source of income or the failure of the home-made harvest can quickly lead to a situation where not all family members can be adequately supplied. In order to avoid malnutrition, those affected must find other sources of income or food or be supported by transfers. In many cases, however, this does not succeed, because in the last few decades more than 800 million people worldwide have suffered constant hunger, regardless of whether food prices were high or - as in most of this period - relatively low. It is worrying that malnutrition also occurs in countries where there is enough food to feed the entire population. In many cases, the countries affected by hunger crises even exported food at the same time. How does malnutrition and, in the worst case, starvation come about despite the apparent excess of food?

The Indian economist Amartya Sen has dealt intensively with this question since the 1970s. He examined various severe famine disasters over the past two centuries and came to the conclusion that their causes were not due to lower food availability (see Box 1 for an example). Rather, the occurrence of hunger can be explained by the fact that the people affected were no longer able to acquire the food they need. In doing so, for the first time, he focused hunger research on the individual and their access to food. This approach was groundbreaking at a time when increasing the supply of food was seen as the essential tool for food security. In 1983, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) included the concept of individual access to food in the definition of the term "food security". Among other things, because of his research on hunger and poverty, Sen received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.


Causes of a famine - the example of Bangladesh in 1974

In 1974 there was a dramatic famine in Bangladesh with around 1.5 million deaths, mostly landless and day laborers. At this point in time, however, food availability was higher than in previous years (see Figure 1). How could the catastrophic development nevertheless come about?
Fig.1: Grain availability in Bangladesh License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
A major cause was the flooding of rural areas. This led to an immediate loss of income because the fields could no longer be cultivated and there was no longer any employment for agricultural day laborers. The massive loss of purchasing power in the affected regions led to panic and the first deaths from starvation. The supraregional food markets were gripped by nervousness. Predictions and rumors about a further worsening food shortage led wealthier households to buy additional food in advance and food prices continued to rise as a result. In addition, the public administration functioned inadequately immediately after the country gained independence.

With the start of international aid and an improvement in the distribution of food in the country, the food situation improved rapidly. However, the hygiene problems caused by floods and the long-term health effects of malnutrition continued to have an impact far beyond 1974, with countless other disease-related deaths. The crop failures directly caused by the floods played only a subordinate role in the development of the hunger crisis, as the harvest affected by this was only brought in when the acute famine was over.

The individual access to food

There are essentially three ways of gaining access to food:
  1. Food can be produced by yourself. For this, agricultural production means and the necessary knowledge must be available.
  2. Food can be bought in the market. The income necessary for this has to be earned, for example, through wage labor, the sale of other agricultural products or the sale of property. In developing countries, private wealth is very limited, which is why wage labor and agricultural sales are the main source of income for most people.
  3. Food can be obtained with the help of a transfer income. These include payments and allocated food within the family, pensions and transfers from state social programs.
A person only has secure access to food if he can get enough food into his possession with the help of the combination of these access possibilities.

In times of crisis, access to food can be severely impaired. For example, if a person loses their job and cannot find a new source of income, they have less money to exchange for food. If this happens to many people in a region, family and social networks, which under normal circumstances function as a safety net in rural regions, cannot compensate for this failure. It so happened, for example, that mass unemployment among agricultural workers in 1974 in Bangladesh was a major cause of the famine. The food available on the market was bought by other sections of the population, even if they were less needy. It was the same at the time of the legendary Great Famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1849, which killed around a million people as food was transported past the starving to the export ports: buyers in other parts of the United Kingdom were more solvent than the distressed Irish Population.

Purchasing power is not only based on individual income, but also on food prices. Poor regions and sections of the population are particularly hard hit by price increases (see Box 2). This is one of the reasons that agricultural and food prices are an important linchpin for world food.


Why are poor households particularly affected by increases in agricultural prices?

There are two main reasons for this:

Fig. 2: Amount of food expenditure in relation to total household income in different regions of the world. License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (bpb)
1) Poor households feel the price increases for food more clearly and with greater consequences because they have to spend a very large part of their income on food (see Figure 2). For example, households in southern Africa spend on average more than half their income on food. For comparison: German households only need an average of 12.5 percent of their income for this. There are also clear differences within the regions. The poorest households in southern Africa and South Asia even use around two thirds of their income to buy food alone.

2) Households in industrialized nations mainly consume highly processed foods such as bread, corn flakes or hamburgers and mainly pay the costs of further processing (e.g. labor, energy, additional packaging costs). The raw agricultural product only accounts for an insignificant part of the total costs, e.g. around 4 to 8 percent for wheat bread. This is why food prices in industrialized countries only react relatively weakly to fluctuations in the price of agricultural commodities. In contrast, poor households in developing countries buy far fewer processed products. Changes in the price of agricultural commodities such as grain therefore affect them much more severely.
In addition to economic factors, social norms and traditional conventions also determine access to food. In many poor countries, for example, women can only participate in economic life with restrictions and are therefore disadvantaged in the distribution of food within the household. In addition, women usually pay more attention to the diet of their children. Malnourished children can also benefit from strengthening social recognition and greater decision-making authority for women in the household.

The role of public infrastructure and the state

Protests during the agricultural price crisis in 2007/08 were mainly in cities. There people felt particularly at the mercy of the unchecked rise in food prices.

Measured against people's need, the focus of the media and politics on the urban population is misguided: in fact, 75 percent of the world's hungry live in rural areas. A major reason why the rural population is susceptible to hunger is the lack of a functioning transport and storage infrastructure as well as a functioning transport system, which makes trade more difficult. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, around a third of the rural population has to put up with times of over five hours to reach the nearest market (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Market access of the rural population by region, measured by the time to reach the next market License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (bpb)

These circumstances exacerbate the food problem because local crop failures cannot be adequately compensated for by stored food or surpluses from other regions. This leads to local food shortages in the affected areas and drives up food prices.

The inadequate market connection also prevents farmers from having sufficient access to fertilizer and information about new technologies (see Box 3). The rural population often has problems obtaining loans for working capital and long-term investments. Traditional agriculture in particular is considered unsafe. Granting small loans in rural areas, with high costs and often uncertain property rights and collateral that is difficult to verify, is hardly profitable for the banks. The below-average economic development of remote areas leads to lower purchasing power for the local population, which makes them prone to losing access to food.


Food security in remote regions, for example the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Malteser International relief organization shows the importance of poor infrastructure, insecure political conditions and poor food distribution in the family in two short videos about humanitarian aid measures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Creating access - reaching people: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaQ6rFsnGPg

The fight against malnutrition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3donNkh7hQ

How is trying to improve access to food in this specific case? The problem analysis mentions, among other things, that farmers lack access to seeds and that children receive too little of the food available to the family. Accordingly, seeds are distributed to the farmers in the aid project and a nutrition center is operated in which children in need are fed under professional supervision. Nutritional training for parents, the improvement of road connections and the construction of a hospital all contribute to long-term food security.
Modern industries and service companies emerge mainly in cities. The urban population benefits from a better infrastructure than the population in rural areas and thus, among other things, from better market connections, more modern food stores and better access to financial service providers and state social programs. It can also organize itself politically in the densely populated areas and close to government offices and exert significantly more political pressure to make its situation known and to improve it. This is one of the main reasons why politics in starving countries is mostly geared towards the needs of the urban population. The problems of the rural population were in many cases neglected by the governments of poor countries during the agricultural price crisis in 2007/08.

How governments react to food crises also depends to a large extent on the influence of parliaments, civil society and the media. A functioning political opposition and independent media increase the pressure on the government to take effective measures against hunger crises. This reduces the interference with government activities through corruption and clientele politics. Free media are also often better at alerting governments to grievances in remote parts of the country than politically dependent officials who are under pressure to report successes. For example, embellished reports from local officials during the great Chinese famine from 1958 to 1961 contributed to the fact that the central government was not informed about the seriousness of the situation for a long time and its misguided policy continued unabated.

How can access to food be increased?

Poor people and households all over the world have developed an abundance of strategies to improve their nutritional situation and protect against risks, but ultimately their options are often insufficient because of the limited resources available. How can attempts be made at the political level to improve access to food?

Scientific studies have shown that investments in infrastructure and the agricultural sector are among the most effective strategies in the long term. This can support broad-based economic growth that also reduces poverty. These investments not only contribute to a better supply of food, but above all also create better income opportunities for the poor population in rural regions. Thanks to broad-based economic growth, even city-states like Singapore have improved access to food - and that with hardly any domestic food production. Other, very different developing and emerging countries such as Vietnam, Rwanda or China have also been able to significantly improve their food situation through broad-based economic growth. This strategy was supported by the increasing local and global availability of food and falling agricultural prices.

In acute crises, existing state employment or social transfer programs can be expanded with the aim of quickly compensating for an impending loss of purchasing power.In various countries such as Ethiopia, Brazil and India, these measures have already provided effective assistance. If transfer programs have not been set up by local governments or cannot be adequately topped up, food crises can often only be countered with short-term international food and income transfer programs. These include employment programs for the acquisition of food and income as well as free food deliveries, which are mostly carried out by the UN World Food Program. In India, there is also a large supply of cheap food to give the poor better access to food. However, this policy is usually associated with high administrative costs and must be tailored precisely to the needy target group in order to be successful and affordable.

The complex economic and social relationships that determine access to food show one thing in particular: the optimal strategy for food security depends heavily on the local context.


Sen, A. (1981): Poverty and Famines. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. (1999): Development as Freedom.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Federal Statistical Office (2010): Economic calculations. Sample income and consumption expenditure of private households for private consumption 2008. Fachserie 15, Heft 5. Wiesbaden: Statistisches Bundesamt.

World Bank (2008): World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development. German-language special edition for the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag. English version can be downloaded from: http://go.worldbank.org/2DNNMCBGI0.