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Too Much Here and Not Enough There: Unfair Distribution and Food Insecurity

Written by Rebecca Richardson

Ecological Economics

“The explanation for hunger is more complex than “too many people” combined with “low farm productivity”” (Peoples and Bailey [1])

Food insecurity is defined as being a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development [2]. Historically food insecurity was understood to be an issue of scale. Thomas Malthus stated that whereas food growth was linear in scale, population was growing exponentially. Malthus argued that this meant eventually the scale of the population would outweigh the scale of food production leading to phenomenon such as war, disease, and famine [3].

From the 1970s, however, the thinking has shifted. Many academics within the field have since forcibly advocated that food insecurity is not an issue of unsustainable scale, but instead ultimately one of unfair resource distribution.

With 795 million people already hungry and an additional 2 billion extra mouths to feed by 2050 [4], food insecurity is a globally significant social issue. Recognising this, in September 2015 the United Nations published the Sustainable Development Goals in which the second goal was to collectively end world hunger and achieve universal food security by 2030 [4].

Yet despite staggering levels of food insecurity plaguing the globe, specifically South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen [5] currently, studies have shown that up to 50% of the total food produced each year is thrown away as waste [6].

There is an obvious unfair spatial distribution of food. 98% of the world’s hungry live in the developing world [7] whist North American and European consumers lead the shocking statistic of food wastage. Each person in Europe and North America wastes on average between 95-115 kg of food a year, whereas consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South- East Asia waste only 6-11 kg a year [8].

Quite clearly the global issue of food insecurity is not a matter of a lack of available food. It is paradoxical that on the one hand vast amounts of edible food is thrown to waste each year, whilst on the other food insecurity and famine continue to occur. Evidently it is not an unsustainable scale which causes food insecurity but instead an exceptionally unfair distributions in resources meaning that whist some have far too much, others have far too little of what is collectively available.

Devereux writes that food insecurity “must be seen as a problem of maldistribution and disrupted access to food rather than one of inadequate food production and availability.” [9]

Amartya Sen was arguably the first to highlight that food insecurity was caused by an unfair distribution of resources and not by an unsustainable scale through the development of his ‘Entitlement Approach’ [10]. Within the Entitlement Approach Sen uses the terms ‘Entitlements’ and ‘Endowments’. Entitlements are how food is accessed such as buying food or growing food; Endowments are the resources needed to exercise Entitlements, for example money to buy food or land to grow food [10].

Sen’s Entitlement Approach ultimately argues that an unfair distribution of Endowments (resources) will result in a lack of ability to exercise Entitlements (access food) [10]. Therefore it is an unfair distribution of resources which directly causes food insecurity as the unfair distribution of wealth and power constricts the poor and unpowerful’s ability to access food. Put simply, if an individual does not have the money to buy food or the money or power needed to own land to grow food, they cannot access food even when food is available or potentially available.

This works to explain why richer and more powerful nations generally do not suffer from food insecurity and famine whereas poorer and less powerful nations, such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen, disproportionately do.

Homer-Dixon argues that it is “the severe imbalance in the distribution of wealth and power which the results in some people within a society getting disproportionately large slices of the resource pie, whereas others get slices that are too small to sustain their livelihood.” [11]

Any serious solution to the issue of food insecurity therefore demands imbalances in the distribution of wealth and power to be corrected.

Attempts to increase food productivity as a way of alleviating food insecurity are futile. Food availability is not the root cause of food insecurity, instead a lack of access to the available food is. Food insecurity can only be “solved by striking [inequality] head on” (Altieri and Rosset [12]). However the necessary solution is easier said than done. To do so would require a global paradigm shift away from the current dominant mode of economics which arguably facilitates such inequalities. It is with this that a true solution to, and not just a masking of, the issue of food insecurity looks unfortunately unlikely in the imminent future.


[1] Peoples, J. & Bailey, G., (2011) Humanity: An introduction to cultural anthropology. Cengage Learning. p. 422

[2] FAO (2001) When People Live with Hunger and Fear Starvation Available at:

[3] Malthus, T (14th edition: 1826). An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J.M. Dent, pp. 1-24 passim

[4] United Nations (2017) ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ Available at: (last accessed 31/10/17)

[5] World Health Organisation (2017) Emergencies: Famine and Health Available at:

[6] IMechE (2013) Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not Available at:

[7] Oxfam (2016) There is enough food to feed the world Available at:

[8] FAO (2011) Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. Rome

[9] Devereux, S., (1993). Theories of famine. Harvester Wheatsheaf p. 22

[10] Sen, A., (1979) ‘Famines’ World Development. Vol. 8, pp. 613-621

[11] Homer-Dixon, T.F., (2010) Environment, scarcity, and violence. Princeton University Press p. 15

[12] Altieri, M.A. & Rosset, P. (1999) Strengthening the case for why biotechnology will not help the developing world: A response to McGloughlin AgBioForum vol. 2, no3&4 pp. 226-236. p. 26


Rebecca Richardson

MSc Sustainability and Consultancy 2017/18