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Food inequality: humanity's biggest moral failure?

Written by Clara Sibaud

Ecological Economics

 “The number of overweight people in the world, suffering their own health problems, is roughly equal to the number of hungry people” [1].

A shocking United Nations statistic revealed that there is enough food on the planet to feed every single one of us a diet of around 2,800 calories per day [2], which is far more than the recommended 2,000 (for women) or 2,500 (for men). Yet the Food and Agriculture Organisation states that 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger [3] while the World Health Organisation says that around 650 million are obese [4]. How is it that we can simultaneously have too much and too little food at our disposal?

The answer to food inequality lies in unfair distribution; Daly [5] defines distribution as “the relative division of the resource flow among alternative people”, and thus unfair distribution refers to an unjust division of said resources. Whilst we do produce enough food, we are failing miserably at distributing it to those who need it. A case in point of this global moral failure is that despite food production in 2010 being 20% higher than that required globally [6], 925 million people were undernourished [7].

Unequal food distribution is directly linked to the unequal distribution of wealth (both within and between countries). In fact, the primary forces behind hunger and malnutrition are poverty, inequality and marginalisation [3]. It follows then that there is an overwhelmingly evident spatial distribution of food inequality; indeed, developing countries are home to 98% of the world’s “hungry” population [8]. A neoclassical economist might view this as a natural by-product of the so-called perfect markets that we live in, but D’Odorico et al. [9] argue that the existing inequalities represent a failure of our globalised food supply system to respect one of the most fundamental human rights: the human right to food. While the natural geographic distribution of biophysical resources and subsequent access to food does play a part in food inequality, which Rawls [10] argues is “neither just nor unjust... simply natural facts”, the inequality lies in how institutions affect this natural distribution. Very few countries in the world suffer from genuine food deficits, such as Haiti [11], yet many experience high variation in access to food and diet quality.Ultimately, in our world, food security and access to food are determined by socioeconomic development, international trade, natural resource appropriation and dietary patterns [12]; [13]; [14].

If we follow on from Devereux’s [15] analysis of food insecurity being “a problem of maldistribution and disrupted access to food rather than one of inadequate food production and availability”, it seems evident that the key to solving food inequality is re-distribution. This does not necessarily mean the re-distribution of food itself, but rather of wealth and income. The re-distribution of wealth is first and foremost a policy issue, to be tackled at the national level. Short-term, taxes and income transfers are the best way to address income inequality. Cash transfers to those in developing countries have shown to be highly effective in reducing poverty [16];[17], such as Mexico’s Prospera program in the Chiapas [18]. Additionally, raising the minimum wage in developing countries could contribute to reducing inequality, as long as informal sector wages are targeted, thereby affecting the majority of the population in developing countries [19]. Furthermore, government programs such as Mahatma Ghandi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in India offers each rural household 100 days of paid labour, which has already improved resilience to climate change [20].

However, solely relying on income re-distribution is unlikely to solve inequality; direct investment into opportunities for poor people is crucial. Transferring wealth to the poor should not be confined to cash; instead the focus should be on building the capacity of people to generate an income. This can be in the form of ensuring access to healthcare, water and energy as well as investment into education [21] and smallholder farmers. For example, Umunthu Microfinance is an organisation based in Malawi which provides loans to farmers to help them start their own small-scale businesses [22]. Additionally, investment into sustainable agriculture is key in order to increase food production, which will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed the growing population, and to improve nutrition whilst conserving natural resources [23].

Overall, it is becoming quite clear that we need a global paradigm shift in how we view food. In order to achieve the goals of SDG 2 to end hunger and achieve food security by 2030, we need stronger political commitment, bolder actions and sensible investments [3]. The fact that just 1% of the current global supply of food would suffice to feed the 13% of the world’s population who currently go hungry [2], while disheartening for some, proves that the solution lies within our reach.


[1] The Guardian, 2012. Ending world hunger is possible- so why hasn’t it been done? [Online]. [Accessed 14th November 2019]. Available from:

[2] The Guardian. 2014. 10 things you need to know about the global food system. [Online]. [Accessed 12th November 2019]. Available from:

[3] Food and Agriculture Organisation. 2019. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. [Online]. [Accessed 11th November 2019]. Available from:

[4] World Health Organisation. 2018. Obesity and overweight. [Online]. [Accessed 14th November 2019]. Available from:

[5] Daly, H.E., 1992. Allocation, distribution, and scale: towards an economics that is efficient, just, and sustainable. Ecological economics6(3), p.186.

[6] Pradhan, P., Hiç, C., Rybski, D. and Kropp, J.P., 2016. Food surplus and its climate burdens. Environmental science & technology50(8), pp.4269-4277.

[7] Food and Agriculture Organisation. 2010. The State of Food Insecurity in the World. [Online]. [Accessed 8th November 2019]. Available from:

[8] Oxfam. 2016. There is enough food to feed the world. [Online]. [Accessed 8th November 2019]. Available from:

[9] D’Odorico, P., Carr, J.A., Davis, K.F., Dell’Angelo, J. and Seekell, D.A., 2019. Food Inequality, Injustice, and Rights. BioScience69(3), pp.180-190.

[10] Rawls, J. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

[11] World Food Programme. 2019. Haiti. [Online]. [Accessed 12th November 2019]. Available from:

[12] MacDonald, G.K., Brauman, K.A., Sun, S., Carlson, K.M., Cassidy, E.S., Gerber, J.S. and West, P.C., 2015. Rethinking agricultural trade relationships in an era of globalization. BioScience65(3), pp.275-289.

[13] Dell'Angelo, J., Rulli, M.C. and D'Odorico, P., 2018. The global water grabbing syndrome. Ecological Economics143, pp.276-285.

[14] Seekell, D.A., D’Odorico, P. and Pace, M.L., 2011. Virtual water transfers unlikely to redress inequality in global water use. Environmental Research Letters6(2), p.024017.

[15] Devereux, S., 1993. Theories of Famine (Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York), p.22.

[16] Barrientos, A. and DeJong, J., 2004. Child poverty and cash transfers. London: Childhood Poverty Research and Policy Centre.

[17] Bastagli, F., Hagen-Zanker, J., Harman, L., Barca, V., Sturge, G., Schmidt, T. and Pellerano, L., 2016. Cash transfers: what does the evidence say? A rigorous review of programme impact and of the role of design and implementation features. London: ODI.

[18] Gil-García, Ó.F., 2016. Gender equality, community divisions, and autonomy: The Prospera conditional cash transfer program in Chiapas, Mexico. Current Sociology64(3), pp.447-469.

[19] Gindling, T.H., 2018. Does increasing the minimum wage reduce poverty in developing countries?. IZA World of Labor.

[20] GodfreyWood, R. and Flower, B.C., 2018. Does Guaranteed employment promote resilience to climate change? The case of India's Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Development Policy Review36, pp.O586-O604.

[21] ShimeleS, A., 2016. Can higher education reduce inequality in developing countries?. IZA World of Labor.

[22] Nyasa Times. 2014. Umunthu Microfinance: Fighting poverty in Malawi with small loans. [Online]. [Accessed 11th November 2019]. Available from:

[23] Murray. 2018. Impact investing plants seeds of growth for small-scale farmers. [Online]. [Accessed 25th November 2019]. Available from: