22 June 2022

The downsides of posing individualistic solutions to the global problem of food security

Rebecca Fernandes examines how to combat food insecurity.

Masters student blog series: Ideas and practice in International Development

By Rebecca Fernandes

Rebecca is currently a student on our MSc Environmental Change and International Development. Connect with Rebecca on LinkedIn.


October 16th marks the United Nations (UN) ‘World Food Day’ which recognises the creation of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), aiming to combat global hunger. This year the FAO called for UN countries to come together to combat the adverse effects of climate change, conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic which have pushed 118 million more people into chronic hunger in 2020 compared to 2019.  

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Sustainable Development Goal 2. 

Source: Asian Development Bank. Creative commons licence. Creator and Trust Copyright: © Asian Development Bank.


The pandemic has hindered the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 to achieve ‘zero hunger’ globally by 2030. The SDGs have been critiqued for their lack of transformative action, instead of advocating for a traditional approach to align environmental, economic and social wellbeing. Two years on, the widespread effects of COVID-19 are still prominent in low-income countries where food insecurity was already rife such as Yemen and Haiti, but also within societies in high-income countries such as the UK and USA

The World Food Summit of 1996 (FAO, 1996) characterised food security as having: 

  • Enough food to meet the needs of people
  • Adequate access to a variety of food
  • Stable and consistent food prices
  • High-quality food with sufficient nutrition 

Africa Food Security 3

Staple foods and grains which are essential for food security.

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Creative commons licence. Creator and Trust Copyright: © Kate Holt.


Although the SDGs and FAO aim to reduce global food insecurity, they are not addressing the underlying causes of the issue. Hunger is more than just having access to sufficient, nutritious and reasonably priced food. It interlinks to many other areas such as gender, poverty and climate change. These challenges are often only addressed with temporary economic fixes and do not look at fundamental and systemic problems.

Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, has published many books such as ‘Development as Freedom’ (1999). Different from traditional economic measures of poverty and hunger, Sen proposed the idea of a ‘capabilities approach’. It moves beyond solely examining a person’s needs and centres around evaluating the freedom people have to live the life they want.

Food insecurity should not be thought of as a singular issue. Rather, it should be thought of within a wider social, economic, environmental and political context where each element intertwines. Burchi and De Muro (2012) explore this through the use of the capabilities approach within the context of food security, through examining different characterises of food security such as access to food, through measuring individual’s food entitlements, basic capabilities and levels of security. 

Sen’s capabilities approach challenges famines as a lack of food availability, instead understanding them as ‘entitlement failures’. Entitlements are the range of access to services and goods that individuals have, which vary depending on their circumstances. Governments and international organisations can prevent food insecurity by strengthening the entitlements people have, such as access to minimum wage, unemployment benefits and education. This empowers individuals and addresses the systemic problems rather than providing short-term solutions.  

Despite the benefits of using the capabilities approach, it remains extremely individualistic. Not only does this make it difficult to measure but when discussing issues such as food security, the ‘freedoms’ of an individual are very different compared to those across a society. However, many top-down government policies to improve security have major flaws due to their one-size-fits-all framework which doesn’t allow for changes depending on individual circumstances. Therefore, the critique of the capabilities approach being individualistic can be seen by many as one of its major strengths. So isn’t it time to use the capabilities approach when exploring food security, rather than focusing on short-term economic fixes?

Reference List

Burchi, F. and De Muro, P. (2012). A human development and capability approach to food security: Conceptual framework and informational basis. Italy: United Nations Development Programme.

Food and Agriculture Organization. (1996). Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action: World Food Summit 13-17 November 1996. Rome, Italy: FAO.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York: Anchor Books.