Global food prices rose twice as fast as inflation during the last decade, according to the World Bank. An estimated 44 million people were propelled into poverty during the food price spikes of 2008. Two dozen countries saw "food riots" in 2008 and 2011.
Food insecurity is a hot topic—and something we’re probably going to have to get used to. Extreme weather events, higher prices for oil and other agricultural "inputs," changing diets, and competing demands on crops and land—are all likely to keep the issue on the agenda. With the global population set to hit 9 billion by 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says food production will have to increase by 50% to 70% to meet demand.
To aid understanding, and help us cope with the next food shock, the Economist Intelligence Unit has designed an index and research tool covering food insecurity in 105 countries. The aid combines data not only on affordability and availability, but also the quality and safety of food supplies.
The top-ranking countries are not surprising. Richer nations, such as the U.S. and France, have more supplies, spend more on research, have better food logistics systems, and therefore spend less per head. On average, OECD households spend about 20% of income on food, while the most insecure countries in Sub-Saharan Africa spend more than 50% (and sometimes up to 70%).
Like other rich countries, the U.S. enjoys a calorie surplus. On average, Americans have access to 3,600 calories a day—well above the recommended 2,300. The poorest, such as Haiti and Burundi, on average have 100 calories less than minimum— though for the very poorest, it’s worst than that. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a per-person food supply of 1,605 calories, or 43% below requirement.
The report notes that some of the lowest-scoring countries are also some of the fastest growing economically—suggesting both increased risks, but also the increased ability to do something about the problem. Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ethiopia fall in this category.
It’s not all good for the richest. Many countries have access to food generally, but not good food, which leads to struggles with obesity and relatively poor diets. Germany ranks 10th in the main index, for instance, but 43rd for "micronutrient availability" (owing to a lack of "vegetal iron"). The U.S. comes in first overall, but 15th for micronutrients.
The importance of food is hard to overestimate. Lack of nutrition raises health care costs, depletes economic growth, and is strongly correlated with civil unrest, poor institutions, and human rights abuses, the report says. But the good news is that government action, safety net programs, and agricultural investment bring proven results. In other words, there is nothing inevitable about hunger: shortages and shocks can be planned for, and smoothed out. The EIU says it hopes the index will provide "an early warning system" for future problems.
Hopefully it will.