02 Features
Cereal Foods World, Vol. 64, No. 2
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Global Food Security in the 21st Century—Resilience of the Food Supply
A. Vasan1 and B. G. Bedard2

GMA Science and Education Foundation, Arlington, VA, U.S.A.

1 E-mail: AVasan@gmaonline.org; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/akhilavasan

2 LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brian-g-bedard-91247949


Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for maintaining an active and healthy life. Given the growing risks associated with increased demands for natural resources, social transition, political instability, trade barriers, climate change, and economic inequality, building a resilient, secure global food system is essential. This article reviews current research in this area, critically summarizes the varied efforts that are underway, and candidly questions our ability to address evolving threats to agri-food supply chains.

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The Global Landscape

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for maintaining an active and healthy life (3). Statistics from the recently released “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report (4) are staggering and continue to show that hunger is on the rise. Chronic food deprivation has increased to 821 million people; the number of stunted children has decreased by 9% to 150.8 million; 1 in 3 women of reproductive age globally are anemic, with significant health and development consequences for both the women and their children; 50.5 million children are impacted by wasting (e.g., low height and weight, higher mortality risk); and more than 672 million adults globally are obese. These conditions are primarily the effects of malnutrition and lack of wholesome food. Undernourishment and severe food insecurity are increasing in almost all subregions of Africa, as well as in South America, whereas the situation is stable in most regions of Asia. The mantra in food security is to “leave no one behind,” and to undertake this mammoth challenge, we need to intensify our efforts to build resilience into systems for food security and nutrition (4). The recent food price crisis demonstrates the dependence of vulnerable countries on global food production and distribution systems for their food security. This vulnerability is reflected in the unprecedented droughts experienced throughout the Americas and Eastern Europe. The situation is particularly worrying in developing countries, where challenges in food production, productivity, availability, and access prevail. Placed in the context of an expanding global population that is expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, food and nutrition security is expected to remain a global issue for years to come (Committee on World Food Security, www.fao.org/economic/cfs09/cfs-home0/enCFS).

There are a variety of international programs at local, national, and global levels that are focused on the issue of food security, but achieving a sustainable food future and meeting demands for food requires closing three essential gaps by 2050: 1) the food gap between the amount of food produced in 2010 and the demand in 2050 for 7,400 trillion calories, or 56% more calories from crops; 2) the land gap between 2010 and the area required for crop production in 2050, which is estimated at 593 million ha, an area nearly twice the size of India; and 3) the greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation gap between current annual GHG emissions and emissions likely from agriculture and land-use change in 2050, which is estimated at 15 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The underlying “menu” for a sustainable food future encompasses a number of complementary strategies to 1) reduce growth in demand for food and agricultural products; 2) increase food production without expanding agricultural land use; 3) exploit reduced demand on agricultural land to protect and restore forests, savannas, and peatlands; 4) increase the fish supply through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture; and 5) reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production (14).

Although not explicitly spelled out, food safety and nutrition are both basic expectations encompassed by the concept of food security. Foodborne diseases cause significant illness and death worldwide, and food safety can contribute significantly to reducing the malnutrition–infection cycle of inadequate dietary intake that causes weight loss and leads to growth faltering, increased vulnerability to disease, increased morbidity, and/or increased severity of disease. Most developed countries have adequate systems and procedures in place to guarantee the production of safe and nutritious foods. Such systems and procedures have not yet been fully established in developing countries to support increased food production, facilitate market access, and contribute to the security of the global food supply. Producing more food without meeting minimal quality and safety requirements, however, would undermine the response to the global food and nutrition security challenge and the resilience of vulnerable rural households (Global Food Safety Capacity Building Partnership [GFSP] and World Bank Group, “The Nexus of Food and Nutrition Security and Food Safety,” internal report, 2013). Aflatoxin is one example of a food safety risk that is a global threat to food security. Aflatoxin contamination affects more than 40 primary agricultural products, such as grains (e.g., corn, sorghum, rice), grain legumes (e.g., soybeans), oilseeds (especially peanuts), some pulses, cassava, and even a few critical vegetables. It can also affect livestock and aquatic species, resulting in lower conversion ratios, adverse health effects, and significant levels of aflatoxin derivatives in consumer products such as dairy products, eggs, and meat. Aflatoxins contribute to liver cancer, affect maternal and infant health, and cause stunting in young children. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that up to 25% of the global food grain and nut supply is contaminated with aflatoxins, which can impede trade, reduce marketability, and harm consumer brands, resulting in increased recall costs, reduced sales, and increased production and marketing costs. As a food security issue, aflatoxin contamination in staple foods leads to economic losses, increased health-care costs, reduced physical development, lower IQ, and nutritional deficits (John Lamb, personal communication). The 2005–2007 avian influenza outbreak is another example of a widespread food security crisis. This event disrupted the food supply by creating fear among consumers and ultimately precipitated a significant decrease in global production and consumption of poultry products, which affected the incomes, livelihoods, and food security of populations in many developing countries.

Global Food System Resilience

Food security is dependent on the short- and long-term resilience of the increasingly globalized food system and its ability to respond and adapt to local, global, and interacting disruptions and shocks. Ensuring food security in the face of a growing human population, shifting dietary patterns, limited natural resources, climate change, socioeconomic fluctuations, and environmental variability is a major challenge (2,6). National food system management and related policies attempt to create resilience through self-sufficiency strategies, trade balances in agricultural commodities, modifications in production diversity, and managed grain reserves to mitigate disruptions. However, subtle ripples in complex trade networks can be magnified and intensify into significant perturbations between countries that impact the overall stability of a fragile globalized food system.

The traditional focus of local social resilience has been disaster response at the household or community level, which is evolving to address the shocks of drought leading to famine, conflicts, adverse impacts of diseases such as HIV/AIDS or pandemics and their influence on government institutions, and socioeconomic elements of food system resilience. Globally, the impact of systemic shocks moves beyond individuals to affect economic patterns, the environment, trade flow, and commodity prices, which impacts supply and availability. Household-level resilience in developing countries revolves around savings or the sale of assets such as livestock, grain reserves, local weather prediction tools, production responses, and modifications to dietary patterns. Income and price fluctuations have the greatest impact on access to food for the poor globally, especially during price spikes, crop failures, or loss of assets such as livestock. The poor in countries with higher incomes relative to prices tend to be more resilient, but levels of education for women and stable infrastructure can also influence local food security and resilience.

Responding to the challenges of creating resilience and building a food system that can withstand shocks requires a holistic approach that encompasses all aspects of food production—from the impacts of climate change and socioeconomic changes, to risks along the supply chain, including labor, food security, food integrity, smallholder farmers, market access and agricultural trade policies, nutrition, and technological innovations in smart agriculture. Despite all of the advances in technology and the stability incorporated in future agricultural systems and food manufacturing, the critical link in all supply chains is the human element, highlighting the central role played by intention and behavior and the continued importance of social science and behavioral analysis.

Resilience of Food Supply Chains

The stability of the global food system relies on a complex system of multinational, private-sector food supply networks that are characterized by a unique set of vulnerabilities (e.g., shelf life, variability of raw materials), climatic conditions, and economic, political, and social shifts that have the potential to weaken the resilience of the food supply chain (16). The supply chain from primary producers through to manufacturers must be able to respond and adapt to direct shocks to operations and disruptions in input or ingredient supply, resources, utilities, assets, fuel, transportation, infrastructure, financial services, trade restrictions, and, finally, relationships with customers and consumers. Significant local or global disruptions in food supply networks can create public health risks and affect the provision of safe, nutritious, traceable, and culturally acceptable foods that are available on demand, in ample quantities, and at affordable prices. These food supply network vulnerabilities are being mitigated through industry investments in a combination of organizational capabilities, including geographic dispersion of facilities, flexibility in sourcing and fulfillment, operational redundancy and efficiency, and raising awareness and anticipation to be able to respond quickly to disruptions with security and financial readiness.

Wheat provides a good example of global food production resilience in the face of constant and varied shocks related to climate variability and social, political, and economic factors that impact trade, pricing, and availability on a daily basis. The resilience of the supply of wheat grown around the world is primarily influenced by soil conditions, local weather, availability of seed and other inputs, disease resistance, access to labor, and commodity pricing. The supply chain from harvesting through milling to ingredients used in value-added manufacturing is further challenged by potential disruptions in transportation (e.g., availability of labor and transport), potential conflicts, market pricing, food safety and fraud, customer and consumer demands, dietary preferences and restrictions (e.g., allergens and gluten-free), exchange rates, pricing, regulatory and trade barriers, and much more. Although typically viewed as a simplistic linear supply chain, the progression of wheat from field to market encompasses a complex, multidimensional network of transactions and events, each with underlying risks that can threaten the supply and availability of wheat and other grains that are critical components of global food security.

Most developed countries have adequate systems and procedures in place to guarantee the production of safe foods. However, such systems and procedures have not yet been fully established in many developing countries to support increased food production, facilitate market access, and contribute to the security of the global food supply (9). Because the supply chain at its core is global, with no boundaries between developed and developing countries, enhancing and leveling production practices is critical for a robust food supply.

Socioeconomic Dimension of Resilience

In 2017, the number of undernourished people globally was estimated to have reached 821 million (around 1 in 9 people), with severe food insecurity increasing in almost all subregions of Africa, as well as in South America (4). Average caloric intake in the least developed, developing, and industrialized countries varies widely: 2,120, 2,640, and 3,430 kcal/person/day, respectively. In many countries the average intake is lower than 2,120 kcal/person/day, resulting in undernourishment. Improved access to food is inevitably linked to increased incomes that enable people to move beyond subsistence, engage in their local economies, and pay taxes. Accrued savings and assets help them manage more complex risks, diversify their diets, secure essential health care and education, and invest in small businesses and commercial activities, driving job creation and economic growth. With a majority of the developing world’s poor reliant on agriculture, the spin-off from investments in agriculture and food systems helps improve household incomes and food security.

The world is currently in the midst of a nutritional transition, with dietary patterns increasingly dominated by meat, sugar, and saturated fat—all of which are linked to the rising incidence of obesity and diabetes (12). Given the emergence of both unsustainable and unhealthy dietary patterns, agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offer nutritional guidelines on balanced diets (5). If everyone were to follow the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (18) for all food groups (oils, grains, meat and pulses, fruits and vegetables, and dairy), however, we would need additional fertile land, roughly the size of Canada, to produce enough food to feed the world. With an expected global population exceeding 9 billion by 2050, the need for arable land is going to continue to increase (13). In addition to dietary health concerns, challenges include limited access to natural resources such as arable land, water scarcity, production of GHG emissions, and loss of biodiversity resulting from feeding a growing population (10). Agriculture accounts for 90% of fresh water consumption globally (8), and mitigation strategies for conserving water include changing dietary patterns, developing drought-resistant crops and livestock, and even trading water through policy and trade initiatives (7).

Political instability, inequality, and conflict can heighten, and even be driven by, food insecurity. Traditionally, efforts to address poor diet quality and resulting micronutrient malnutrition have largely focused on “quick fix” approaches, such as supplementation, food fortification, and development of specially formulated and fortified products for different vulnerable groups. These direct nutrition interventions have the potential to improve micronutrient intake in the short term, but their sustainability is questionable if they are implemented without simultaneously addressing the key underlying determinants of undernutrition. Approaches focused on the function of the supply chain, national level policies, and regulations to facilitate trade and catalyze domestic private-sector investments and foreign direct investments can help stabilize domestic food supplies and reinforce local food system resilience. Fostering well-nourished communities, when combined with investments in multisectoral efforts to increase access to safe, nutritious foods, will help mitigate the frequent and intense shocks and stresses that threaten food system resilience, such as droughts and floods, price volatility, health crises, population pressures, clean water shortages, and environmental degradation. To thrive in this environment, a food-secure future necessitates more resilient individuals, families, and communities (17).

Biophysical and Production Dimensions of Resilience

It is estimated that by 2050 the food gap will require production of 56% more calories from crops than were produced in 2010. Food security has traditionally been characterized in the context of commodity volumes and production yields, but re-evaluation is warranted in light of current consumer awareness, global dietary patterns, potential lack of diversity in the food supply, the need for alternative or nontraditional food sources, rapid urbanization, and regional variations in food consumption patterns, especially for countries that are experiencing economic transition.

Addressing the food security gap will require significant efforts to utilize fallow land, bring potential water resources into aquaculture production, and decrease the yield gap through advanced nutrient supply, irrigation, or utilization of new farming technologies, biotechnology, and dietary modifications and innovations (15). The redundancy embedded in biophysical capacity, although declining globally, contributes to resilience through available areas of uncultivated land, untapped freshwater resources, and the potential for closing agricultural yield gaps that affect food production. Aquaculture and especially seaweed are growing in importance as more secure food sources, and seaweed is being explored as an alternative to forage crops for livestock feeds. China and Indonesia, for example, produce more than 23 million tons of seaweed each year, which is used in many food products across Southeast Asia. Countries as diverse as Chile, Canada, and Norway and off-shore farms in Connecticut and Maine all contribute to this growing US$6 billion industry (11). Completely new food systems, such as cell-cultured meat (free of antibiotics and epidemic viruses) offer the possibility of repurposing existing arable land that is currently being used to grow grains for animal feeds (1). Several other changes in innovative food production, sustainable operations, and smart agricultural systems are being deployed at various rates around the world, but the question remains whether we are doing enough to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 with our current resources.

Moving Forward

Around the world 800 million people are chronically undernourished, 2 billion are micronutrient deficient, and 159 million children under the age of 5 are stunted, robbing them of opportunities to reach their full potential and limiting economic growth in their countries. Emerging trends such as urbanization, migration, dietary changes, and climate change require new approaches and a new commitment of resources and effort. Food security is not just a humanitarian issue with growing concentrations of poverty and hunger. Climate change, natural resource degradation, and demographic trends further threaten global security, leaving countries and communities vulnerable to increased instability, conflict, and the potential for violence. Projections indicate that by 2030 more than two-thirds of the world’s poor could be living in fragile countries where state–society relations are already strained. Food security and malnutrition are complex, systemic challenges that require a holistic effort among governments, international donors, civil societies, and the private sector.

Ensuring food security requires that food production and distribution systems function through all disruptions. Understanding the factors that contribute to the ability of the global food system to respond and adapt to such shocks (i.e., resilience) is critical for understanding the long-term sustainability of human populations. The robustness of a food system or supply networks represents their ability to withstand or resist shocks, while resilience is reflected in the ability of a system to absorb, respond, and adapt to these disturbances and minimize their impact.

The FDA has reported that more than 240,000 suppliers from 150 countries now provide food to consumers in the United States. The availability and affordability of food will increasingly depend on how much safe food developing countries are able to produce that will satisfy both their own needs and the needs of importing countries. The access of producers to the global food supply network will bring significant positive consequences, ensuring more sustainable income and secure livelihoods in these countries, and, in many cases, contribute to political stability.

Going forward through the 21st century, there is a dire need to act now, working strategically together to build a resilient food supply network—a system that can withstand repeated tumultuous disruptions and produce safe and nutritious food that is accessible by all. To solve the challenges of a contemporary supply chain, we need to develop modern solutions and innovative technologies to meet our challenges, develop alternative sources of nutrients, work sustainably given the ever-limited resources, and bank on social, economic, and scientific advances. Decoding the genome, integrating global systems with localized subsistence and urban farming, using genetic advances such as epigenetics, and modulating the microbiome have the potential to further transform our understanding of health and nutrition. Collecting and analyzing data from consumers and customers and on agricultural growth conditions and the environment and making strategic decisions based on quality data utilizing artificial intelligence will force us to rethink food. Our consumers of tomorrow will continue to drive change, with demands for transparency providing a powerful push to make a change and move the needle. Although a plethora of technological solutions are being made available every day, we must understand that technology is not a panacea or a silver bullet, but rather an enabler to support sustained, long-term solutions with ethical human choices. Ultimately, farmers and manufacturers process food products, and the roles of the private-sector working together with academia and government organizations to form efficient public–private partnerships must support tangible results that will meet the food demands of 9.8 billion consumers by 2050.


Akhila Vasan, Ph.D., has more than seven years of food safety research and education experience. In her current role as the program manager, food safety and education, at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Science and Education Foundation, Akhila manages multiple projects to provide foundational food safety education to industry executives and personnel. She manages projects from inception and research, through proposal development and management, together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists, consultants, academics, and vendors. She also leads food safety capacity-building projects to support consumer packaged goods (CPG) company international supply chains. Akhila strongly believes that science can bring people together, and is keen on learning, educating, and enabling solutions to help others. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/akhilavasan


Brian G. Bedard, M.S., DVM, the executive director of the GMA Science and Education Foundation (www.gmaonline.org/sef), is a veterinary epidemiologist and food safety specialist with experience living and working in Canada, the United States, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This experience has included international projects and programs related to food safety, sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) compliance and capacity building, livestock health and production, sustainable agriculture, research, and the facilitation of sustainable agri-food value chains through public–private partnerships. While previously employed at the World Bank, Brian managed international programs for the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) and Human and Avian Influenza (GPAI) and One Health initiatives. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brian-g-bedard-91247949


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