The 2018 Global Food Security Index: What does the picture look like?

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The 2018 Global Food Security Index: What does the picture look like?

The 2018 Global Food Security Index: What does the picture look like?

Food security is the state in which all people at all times have physical and economic access to adequate, safe and nutritious food that meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.[1] While food security refers to access to food, availability, utilisation and stability, food insecurity is the absence of adequate, quality, safe affordable and nutritious food. Several factors influence food security including inter alia, access to finance, land fertility, climate change, political stability and trade openness.

This tralacBlog reviews the 2018 Global Food Security Index (GFSI) findings made of the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), which are available here. GFSI provides insights on priority areas for policy formulation to address challenges of food security. The information it provides is useful to governments and private institutions in the development of early warning mechanisms and water use and conservation programmes.

The EIU annually conducts research to determine how food-secure countries; regions and the world are. This is done using diverse indicators such as availability, affordability, safety and quality in 113 countries. To establish the food security status of the 113 countries, the 2018 GFSI used the above indicators. It also sought to answer the following questions;

  • What are the essential physical resources supporting food systems?

  • What are the challenges to the availability and quality of these resources?

  • How can countries build resilience to alleviate food security risks?

The 2018 study focused on the risks and resilience in food security. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), defines resilience in food security as the ability to prevent disasters and crises as well as to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from them in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner.[2] The resilience of 113 countries was examined to determine how the countries prepare and adapt to climate change, financial, political and social, and trade and supply chain risks. Recommendations for each of the identified risks were also proffered.

For the first time, study incorporated the effect of natural resources risks and how countries can build capacity to mitigate their vulnerability and build resilience to natural resources risks. The study concludes by ranking the 113 countries according to their food security performance and ability to absorb shocks or disasters.

Three main physical resources necessary for food security are identified, namely; fertile land, fresh water and oceans. It was established that the world’s food supply is dependent on the availability of fertile agricultural land and fresh water to grow crops. In 2017, FAO estimated that 80% of calories consumed are from crops grown in the soil.[3] Currently, 38% of the global land is used for agriculture. It was found that developing countries are expanding their agricultural land. Despite the expansion, fertile agricultural land is being affected by degradation, deforestation, population growth and urbanisation.

To alleviate land-related risks and increase land productivity and resilience; it is recommended that more trees should be planted and diversified crops be planted in different seasons. Another recommendation is that research institutions, international agencies (like FAO) should continue to provide technical assistance to farmers by identifying potential pets and diseases. This is particularly important because in 2016 and 2017, there was an outbreak of armyworm in 28 African countries. For instance, Ghana lost about 45% of its maize crop in one season.

As noted above, water is an important resource for agricultural productivity. The study found that countries using more water, such as India, Iran, Pakistan and China are exhausting their groundwater reserves. By contrast, Sub-Saharan African countries using less water perform better on the water risk indicator. The exception is South Africa because of the Cape Town water crisis.

It was established that climate change and low rainfall patterns are the main factors causing water shortages. To mitigate these challenges it is recommended that farmers should prioritise planting crops (like rice and cotton) that require less water, use of efficient irrigation technologies and allowing water use rights between water producers and farmers. The use of water rights increased resilience to drought in Australia.

In terms of ocean resources, the study found that the consumption of seafood increased resulting in overfishing and causing a decline in marine fisheries resources, particularly for coastal communities (e.g. Bangladesh and Vietnam). The global trade in fish and fish products also increased. Besides overfishing, there are management, climate change, ocean acidification, and regulatory challenges affecting ocean resources. To counter these challenges, the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, increasing coastal wetlands and providing water measurements to shellfish growers are suggested.

Furthermore, significant findings on how climate change, financial, political and social, and trade and supply chain risks affect food security were made. Regarding climate change risks it was found that rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are making it difficult for farmers to anticipate seasons and select the right crops. The most severe impact of climate change is being experienced mostly by the Gulf States, Middle East and North Africa.

The recommendations to counter food insecurity induced by climate change risks are; the participation in the Paris Agreement, agricultural planning, and crop research based on climate change scenarios and effective disaster risk reduction approaches (i.e. early warning mechanisms and national water programme).

Pertaining to financial risks, the study found that low-income households face food insecurity because of food price shocks, thus causing malnutrition and generating social unrest. An interesting feature of this finding is that financial and climate change risks are interlinked. This is because climate change results in drought which consequently translates to food supply shortages and increase in prices.

Concerning financial risks, farmers (mostly in Sub-Saharan region) have limited access to credit or crop insurance as compared to high income countries. To lessen the financial risks, food safety nets are critical to build household resilience. Further, the high cost of food may be controlled through government intervention to manage food price inflation and currency values. In addition it is proposed that affordable credit and low-cost insurance choices may be provided for farmers to improve soil health or agricultural infrastructure.

In relation to political risks, the study established that agricultural productivity, food supply and relief programme are largely dependent on political stability. In 2017, 18 countries (mostly in Africa and Middle East) experienced political instability and conflict that resulted in destruction of infrastructure and crops, blocked supply routes, displaced populations, and rising food prices.[4] The cost of corruption at the political level was also found to be a major challenge affecting food security for countries like Kenya, Bangladesh and India. 

Having noted the political and social risks, key recommendations include speedy conflict resolution and providing support to domestic producers and consumers in terms of stable and predictable market dynamics, investments in research and infrastructure, and trade facilitation and transport.

Regarding trade and supply chains the study found that global trade is increasing and enabling food security and increasing international food supply and stabilising prices. Despite the increase in global trade there are also inevitable risks associated with overreliance on trade and global supply chains. This was found to be true in countries lacking self-sufficiency.

Trade-related risks affecting food supply are protectionist policies, high tariffs for agricultural goods, export bans, inadequate storage and transport infrastructure. These factors increase costs of food for consumers. For instance, the tariffs that China imposed on United States (US) soybeans in July 2017 caused Chinese buyers to stop buying soybeans from US.

To respond to the trade-related risks, the study recommended three resilience mechanisms. Firstly, it is suggested that more open trade policies will result in higher production and exports and reduce food prices. Secondly, regional trade agreements supported by efficient transport and logistics are also essential. Thirdly, infrastructure development will reduce losses and enable longer-term storage of reserves builds.

After establishing the main risks and resilience mechanisms, the 113 countries were ranked according to their food security status using three indicators namely, food affordability, availability and quality and safety. It was that the over 70% of the 113 countries improved their score as compared to the 2017 GFSI. Middle and lower income countries recorded the highest improvement as compared to higher income countries. However, the overall 2018 GFSI recorded slight progress.

For the first time, Singapore scored the highest food security score (89.0/100) followed by Ireland, United Kingdom and United States scoring 85.5; 85.0 and 85.0 respectively. The main contributors to Singapore’s high performance are its high-income economy, increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP), lower household expenditure on food is the (second-lowest after the US) and low agricultural import tariffs. In spite of the remarkable food security status, Singapore is also the most vulnerable to climate and natural resources risks. It is also exposed to trade and food supply chain risks because of overdependence on food imports which make up over 90% of its food supply.

The top three African countries are South Africa, Botswana and Egypt, scoring 65.5, 60.8 and 56.3, respectively (the study did not include all African countries). The overall worst performing countries of the 113 surveyed are Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi whose score is less than 30/100.

When contrasted with the 2017 food security status to determine progress or decline, the 2018 GFSI findings indicate that Burkina Faso (with 3.7) and Columbia (3.0) were the most improved countries from their last year’s score. On the other hand Uganda (-2.7) and Venezuela (-2.7) recorded the largest decline in the overall performance. The factors influencing Venezuela’s decline are economic and political crisis. Its failing economy also led to a decline in the GDP per capita and the health of Venezuelans, particularly children.

In terms of the natural resources and resilience rankings, six indicators (exposure, land, water, oceans, sensitivity, adaptive capacity and demographic stresses) were used to ascertain the ability of countries to absorb shocks natural resources shocks and adapt to climate change. The top 3 countries are Slovakia, Denmark and Czech Republic, scoring 81.7; 81.5 and 80.9 respectively. The least performing countries are United Arab Emirates, Peru and Indonesia all scoring less than 45/100. Factors that contributed to Slovakia’s high score were found to be the development and implementation of early-warning mechanisms for climate risks and a water valuation programme to prevent and mitigate the effects drought.

An interesting finding is that in comparison to lower income countries, higher-income countries are the most exposed and vulnerable to climate change and natural resources risks. The top performing African countries on this plane are; Uganda, Malawi and Burkina Faso scoring 70.0; 69.2 and 68.5 respectively. The overall performance of African countries in natural resources and resilience ranking is above average.

Another noteworthy finding is that the US was the top performing country between 2012 and 2016. In 2017, it fell to second position and further dropped to third in 2018. The reason for drop is attributed to its highly polarised political environment and rising protectionist policies.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that all countries face diverse and interlinked food security risks. As such there is need for concerted efforts by all countries to improve food security and build resilience in the face of rising political, financial, climate change and trade and supply chain risks.


[1] World Food Summit 1996, Rome Declaration on World Food Security.

[2] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). 2018. ‘How we work: Resilience’. Available at: http://www.fao.org/emergencies/how-we-work/resilience/en/

[3] UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 2017. ‘Healthy soils are a key component of climate action’. Available at: https://unfccc.int/news/healthy-soils-are-a-key-component-of-climate-action

[4] Food Security Information Network (FSIN). 2017. Global Report on Food Crises 2017. Available at: http://www.fao.org/emergencies/resources/documents/resources-detail/en/c/876564/

About the Author(s)

Obert Bore

Obert Bore

Obert Bore is a legal researcher at the Centre for Applied Legal Research in Harare. He holds a Master of Laws (LLM) degree (cum laude) in International Trade Law from the University of Cape Town and a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree (cum laude) from the University of Venda. His research areas include international trade law, regional integration, competition law, Sino-African investments and regional dispute settlement. Obert is also a tralac alumnus.

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