Global food security: Insights from USDA projections

Woman with a recent harvest of rice in the rainfed village of Gorita, Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo by: Francesco Fiondella / IRI / CCAFS / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — The largest share of today’s 782 million food insecure global population can be found in Asia. By 2028, that figure will shrink by nearly half — though the greatest burden will shift to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Food Security Assessment for 2018-28.

The report, produced by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, predicts the transition to occur as the percentage of food insecure people living in the world declines from 21 percent to 10 percent over the next decade.

“That is a decline of 782 million people in 2018 to 446 million people in 2028,” ERS economist Karen Thome explained, presenting the findings to a global audience from Washington, D.C., on July 11. “And that is despite the fact that that population grows from 3.7 to 4.3 billion people.”

Within the 76 countries analyzed for the report, food prices are anticipated to remain low with solid income growth projected. By 2028, per capita gross domestic product is expected to grow in the four analyzed regions — Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa — which will improve countries’ ability to access food.

But between regions, there are large variations in results.

The diversity in social, political, and environmental challenges from country to country means that these overall gains projected will not be uniform. By 2028, some countries are projected to see little gain — and some projected to see food insecurity increase.

There are still large challenges ahead to reduce the 36 million metric tons food gap that currently exists worldwide. But the report aims to help governments and aid agencies better plan and prepare for a food secure future.

Analyzing food insecurity

ERS has been modelling food security in some form since the 1990s, with the aim of helping identify and address chronic food insecurity and its drivers.

The analysis evaluates food insecurity in each of the 76 researched countries by estimating the share of the population unable to reach a caloric target of 2,100 calories per person per day — the level of intake required to support an active lifestyle.

“It’s beyond just sustaining life,” Thome said.

The model used to assess food insecurity follows a demand-oriented framework that responds to changes in price and income to capture food access. The access to food analysis looks at corn, rice, sorghum, and wheat — key commodities for many developing countries included in the analysis. Sources used for country-based assessments come from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank as well as USDA’s Agricultural Projections.

Since the early days of modelling food security, the understanding of barriers has changed and so too has the analysis. Today, the focus of food security analysis is on access to food rather than simply the presence and availability within a country. Factors such as income, economic growth, population growth, and social and political insecurity all create barriers to access.

The report, Thome explained, is important from a humanitarian angle and has value beyond that.

“We can actually ask this question — how is global food demand changing?” Thome said. “If the food security situation is improving, global food demand is going to be rising — just as it is rising with population growth. It is interesting for us as economists and the USDA to think about where this demand will be in the future, where it is growing fastest and where it is changing.”

Trends in Asia

A total of 3.7 billion people were covered in the 2018 ERS assessment. 2.4 billion of them are based in Asia. Currently, 51 percent of the global food insecure population live in Asia. Over the next decade, this will decline rapidly. According to ERS, this region will see the largest improvement in food security, with the population classified as food insecure predicted to decline by 71 percent.

Just 4.7 percent of Asia’s population are predicted to be food insecure by 2028.

“India and Southeast Asia have really fast growing economies and they are generally able to make really big improvements in the food security situation over the next 10 years,” Thome explained.

The total Asian economy is expected to grow by 6.4 percent per year, while population growth hovers at around 1 percent.

But despite strong regional growth, there are outliers being left behind.

“Some other countries, in particular Yemen, North Korea, and Afghanistan, are projected to still have significant food insecurity in 2028,” Thome said. “Yemen is projected to see 78 percent of the population food insecure.”

Warfare is a major factor leading to food insecurity. With war, populations are displaced, which impacts livelihoods and access to markets.

Trends in North Africa

The analysis of the North Africa region considers food insecurity in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.

In 2018, 5 percent of the population is calculated as being food insecurity — making up just 1 percent of the food insecure population globally. And this region is expected to make further improvements by 2028. Over the next decade, food insecurity will drop to 2.4 percent of the population.

According to the report, the population of these four countries have been consuming at a caloric level “comparable to many high-income countries.”

“The governments [of North Africa] have supported consumption policies, so people in general are able to access sufficient food,” Thome explained. “In fact, they are having issues with obesity.”

Latin America and Caribbean

A total of 11 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were analyzed, finding that the 33 million food insecure population of 2018 will decline to 18 million people by 2028 — less than 10 percent of the total population.

A projected population growth of 1 percent is lower than the previous decade and will help lead to stronger per capita growth — improving populations’ ability to access food. Economic growth will be highest in Peru, with per capita growth predicted to be 6.2 percent.

But some countries face greater challenges to food security.

“In particular, Haiti has had to deal with a number of natural disasters recently,” Thome explained. “And so they have had high levels of food insecurity that are going to improve, but will still be relatively high in 10 years.”

Haiti currently has the highest share of food insecure population in Latin America and the Caribbean — just under 50 percent. Despite economic growth prospects looking positive through 2028, food insecurity could be reduced by 25 percent, dropping from 5.4 million to 3.7 million people — as long as they don’t face any more natural disasters or environmental challenges.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Despite ERS projections that sub-Saharan Africa will be the epicenter of global food insecurity by 2028, regionally, improvement will occur. The food insecure population is expected to decline, but at a much slower rate than Asia, due to larger population growth. Overall, the food insecure population will decline from 346 million to 299 million in 2028.

The key to improved food security in the region, according to Thome, is growth in per capita income.

As sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest population growth of the regions analyzed, per capita growth lags well behind Asia.

But for the 39 countries assessed in sub-Saharan Africa, the diverse climatic, social, and economic conditions that affect their food security mean very different projections from country to country.

Central Africa has low income and has been characterized by warfare, unrest, and displacement. In 2018, the food gap here is highest — despite being the least populous region in sub-Saharan Africa.

East Africa as a whole, Thome explained, is more politically stable, with interregional trade. And this areas has seen improvements recently in weather conditions that have previously impacted people’s food security.

Southern Africa has faced challenges recently with weather and pests, while West Africa has been relatively stable.

“Many of the countries here are part of the West African monetary union at that has helped them control inflation,” Thome explained. “This has been a problem in many other regions,” and they haven’t had the challenges of weather as other countries in East and Southern Africa.

While percentage of the population classified as food insecure will decrease across all regions of sub-Saharan Africa by 2028, in real numbers, the food insecure population in Central Africa and Southern Africa will increase. Increased inflation and depreciation of currency are among the economic impacts predicted to affect food access.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Somalia are among regions that are struggling with conflict displacement, creating a barrier to food security — DRC is predicted to see no improvement, with over 75 percent of their population still food insecure in 2028.

Anticipating natural disasters

There are factors the forecast cannot account for, including natural disasters. But there are ways to forecast the impacts when a disaster seems imminent.

“We get a lot of questions about climate change and we use the USDA agricultural projections as part of our data model and they do project, globally, that food production and commodity will increase due to global demand,” Thome explained.

“One of the nice things about this framework, though, is that if we do anticipate a disaster occurring, we can use this framework to run some scenarios and see what will affect individual countries.

“But we cannot anticipate disasters in 10 years.”

Factoring in nutrition

The calorie base of this food security assessment overlooks discussion on the need to improve the diversity of diets. Nutrition is becoming an increasingly important factor in assessments of food security.

But it is not something that has slipped the mind of ERS economists.

“We’ve been thinking about nutrition a lot,” Thome explained. “Making a caloric threshold is relatively straightforward because we can count the number of calories that people are consuming and draw a line of people above or below.”

“Nutrition is harder, because we need to think about the target we are going to define.”

In the past, ERS have conducted analyses on macronutrients — carbohydrate, protein, and fat breakdowns. And based on data of food sources available, this would be possible.

But overall, Thome is unsure that the current model is the right framework for an analysis on nutrition gaps.

Influencing development policy

Regardless of barriers to the model of analyzing food security, the report has been an important driver in assessing how the United States will direct aid and support to the developing world — and can help decision-makers working on food security globally.

“One of the reasons we do this report is because USDA and USAID [the United States Agency for International Development] are the U.S. government agencies tasked with supplying food aid,” Thome explained. “This is a way people can monitor what is going on and can look forward to where the need will be in the future.”

The coming year will likely see a range of challenges for the assessment — more natural disasters and the potential impact of a heated trade war on food prices. But ERS will continue to monitor and assess changing political, environmental, and social impact on food security, and hopefully see the trends continue to move in a positive direction.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.