What is Food Security?

There are two common definitions of food security:

  1. United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO): food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life; and
  2. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.

The USDA’s definition includes minimally:

  1. The ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods; and
  2. An assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.

‘Food security’ cannot be delineated into a simple definition because it comprises many dimensions. It is not sufficient to just examine the quantity of the food without considering the nutritional quality or whether it is fit for the household’s purposes.

For instance, there are often food donation drives where staples, canned food and oil are delivered to those in need. It is imperative to evaluate whether the donations provide adequate food security to beneficiaries because for example, older folks with kidney or hypertensive problems may not be able to take so much canned food or cup noodles which are higher in sodium. 

Different Definitions, Different Policy Implications

The way we define food security determines the policy thinking and governmental actions that seek to ensure it.

“Although global agriculture produces one third more calories than necessary to feed all the people in the world, one person in nine goes to bed hungry.” Watch this video to understand the different facets of global food security.

Breaking down the definitions above, these are the following dimensions of food security:

  1. Food availability: Availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality;
  2. Food access: Access to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet (this would include food stamps and bartering systems);
  3. Utilization: Utilization of food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation and health-care to reach a state of nutritional well-being (non-food inputs like whether there is sufficient clean water to wash grains and vegetables for hygiene); and
  4. Stability: Household’s or population’s access to adequate food at all times (not to be susceptible to sudden shocks like economic crisis, etc). 

The initial focus of the World Food Summit organised by FAO in 1974 was on food availability, i.e. that there would be sufficient volume and stability of food supplies. Thus efforts were directed on managing the supply chains and implementing macroeconomic policies which minimised severe fluctuation in production and prices.

It was only in 1983 that FAO expanded its definition to include securing access to available supplies, thus drawing attention to the demand side of the food security equation. Even if there is adequate food production, looking at the demand side means asking whether the people on the ground are able to obtain such food supplies.

Later, in the 1990s, the expanded definition of food access included the sufficiency of food nutrition. In particular, there was a concern over whether people were getting nutritional balance or sufficient protein energy. For instance, if I only had money for instant noodles, I may suffer from food insecurity because of the inadequate nutrition I am getting.

The Example of Australia

Although Australia produces much of its own food (93%), agriculture in Australia is still threatened by significant environmental and economic factors linked to climate change. For instance, the desertification of the agricultural landscape due to severe droughts makes the ground arid and thus unsuitable for agriculture. Natural disasters like floods and bushfires also threaten to devastate livelihoods and significant food supplies.

The Australian government needs to be ready to develop the nation’s resilience against both climate change as well as natural disasters. They may also benefit from the Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre, which seeks to protect both agricultural crops and food logistics networks, as well as to develop food science in high-value industries.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. What do you think are some of the policies that we can implement in Singapore to combat food insecurity? Do you even think there is food insecurity in Singapore?
  2. Whose responsibility is it to address food insecurity? The government, the local community, NGOs or individual households? Why?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. delineated’: describe or portray something precisely
  2. imperative’: of vital importance, crucial

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. The Business Times: How Singapore’s Urban Farming Contributes to Food Security

“Urban agriculture should not be expected to eliminate food insecurity, but that should not be the only metric,” said study co-author Matei Georgescu, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University.

“It can build social cohesion among residents, improve economic prospects for growers, and have nutritional benefits. In addition, greening cities can help to transition away from traditional concrete jungles,” he said.

Local production is a core component of the food security roadmap, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) of Singapore, a state agency that helps farmers upgrade with technical know-how, research and overseas study tours.

Given its land constraints, AVA has also been looking to unlock more spaces, including underutilised or alternative spaces, and harness technological innovations to “grow more with less”, a spokeswoman said.


  1. ChannelNewsAsia: New laws and statutory board to protect Singapore’s food security

“”We are introducing requirements for importers of key food items to adopt plans, including preventive strategies, to mitigate the impact of supply disruptions,” said a Ministry of National Development (MND) spokesman.

[The Singapore Food Agency] will take over food-related responsibilities from AVA, the Health Sciences Authority and the National Environment Agency, including those related to food safety, hygiene regulations and food supply.