Informative & Scope

The food problem

by WIEF Foundation

The global famine is not due to global food shortages but our inability to distribute food supplies to problem areas in a timely and sustainable manner. How can governments, multinational food companies and SMEs help close the gap between demand and supply for food worldwide?

A hungry world
Globally, the number of undernourished people has fallen from one billion in the 1990s to about 800 million in 2014-2016. However, when viewed by region, undernourishment rates appear very uneven.

‘One third of global [food] production are lost and wasted.’

– Prof Dr Achmad Suryana, Senior Researcher at the Indonesian Center for Agriculture Socio-Economic & Policy Studies (ICASEPS) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Indonesia.

The African region, for example, has seen an increase in its level of undernourishment from 181 million 25 years ago to 230 million in 2014-2016; and while Asia has improved generally, undernourishment in Southern Asia has fallen from 291 million to 281 million in 25 years while in Western Asia it has increased from eight million to 19 million.

Of these regions, the 57 member-countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are home to a significant number of undernourished people, rising from 180 million to 250 million in 25 years— equivalent to almost one-fifth of the global total.

Undernourishment is a serious public health problem: it increases child mortality, lowers life expectancy and increases the risk of illnesses—rates of tuberculosis are much higher in the Islamic world compared to other countries—and it creates a perpetual cycle of lower productivity that in turn increases poverty, leading to poor health and nutrition.

Undernourishment is caused by several factors, including poverty, lack of investment in agriculture, climate change (excessive drought or rainfall), war and displacement, unstable markets and food wastage.

Increased demand and wastage
Several factors contribute to the increased demand for food. The first is population growth—the world’s population will grow to an estimated eight or nine billion people in 2030, and although Gross Domestic Product per capita is expected to rise, food demand will depend more on population and less on income.

In terms of the Islamic world, the bulk of the population increase will occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa regions. Muslim populations will face specific problems with food supplies as two-thirds of the Islamic world will become more dependent on food imports and must overcome additional obstacles posed by the lack of available halal food.

Food demand does not only increase in terms of net quantity but also in terms of diversity, quality, nutrition and safety. On the supply side, it is expected that food output will increase around 60 per cent to 70 per cent by 2050 due to higher land use and farming activity, especially with greater use of technology. However, this growth is lower that of demand due to land conversion, degradation of land and water, and climate change.

At the same time, supply does not always meet demand as a large part of food output is used for non-consumption purposes—maize (corn), for instance, is used to produce biofuel while other grains are used as animal feed—and there are also issues of wastage: the one-third of output that is edible is also subject to pre-harvest, harvest and post-harvest losses.

Pre-harvest wastage occurs because poorer farmers do not have the technology or know-how to sow or store their supplies well. Post-harvest losses occur when farmers do not have the technology to store their harvested crops properly, and food losses also occur along the processing and distribution chain.

These logistical issues mostly affect developing countries while consumption waste is a problem that affects Western countries, where half the food produced is wasted at
the table.

Food distribution and logistics
A key element in ensuring sustainable food security is the distribution and logistics within and among regions, as well as from producers to consumers. Countries face several logistical challenges when exporting food: the food trade depends on efficient transportation networks and is governed by strict food safety regulations—food exporters must prove traceability and sustainability, for instance through halal or organic certification.

Large multinational companies command a larger share of the food distribution network because they control the global logistics market and have the resources to invest in infrastructure such as machinery and systems technology, leaving small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) disadvantaged and confined to niche roles in local markets.

Finally, governments have a role to play in ensuring sustainable food security, such as through subsidised food programmes or partnerships with farm smallholdings. These initiatives can help lift farmers out of poverty and increase their productivity with the goal of increasing overall food supply.


This is based on a session from the 11th WIEF in 2015.

27 Oct 2017
Last modified: 27 Oct 2017
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