With the development of globalisation and the course of world history, the concept of food security has transformed and evolved. From a simple interpretation as food security (notably developed by Thomas Malthus) came a comprehensive understanding of food security, meaning not just the ability to ensure biological survival, but also the availability/affordability of food, its nutritional quality and sustainability of food systems. This is the approach taken by the UN and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” that is the second UN Sustainable Development Goal; in particular, it aims at eradicating hunger by 2030 through “access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round”.
Food security in the world
According to FAO's latest estimates, about 8.9% of the world's population is suffering from hunger (more than half of it on the African continent). Moreover, the trend is not encouraging - since 2014, the number of people suffering from hunger around the world has gradually increased. It has been noted that the world is not on track to reach the "zero hunger" objective and if things remain as they are, by 2030 the number of people suffering from hunger will exceed 840 million. In other words, the number of starving people is growing, a trend that was evident long before the coronavirus pandemic, which has certainly exacerbated the problem.
In addition to hunger, problems such as chronic malnutrition, especially among children, remain acute. On the other side of food insecurity are increasing obesity and overconsumption, and a high proportion of food waste. At the same time, on average, the world produces enough food to adequately feed the world's population.
Food security in Europe
At first glance, it might seem that the topic of food security has been superseded by others on the Western agenda. The surge in attention in Europe came at the peak of the 'first wave' of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, when border closures and the lack of an influx of seasonal workers strained production chains in agriculture and food. Second, if the origin of the coronavirus as a zoonotic infection in the Wuhan market is confirmed, this might also imply that the current pandemic is nothing more than a consequence of food insecurity.
In fact, in the European Union, food security has already become a part of the green agenda and is gaining in relevance. Firstly, the EU is in the final stages of discussions on reforming its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), focusing on sustainability, reduced farmland and “enhanced conditionality” principle; a Green Agricultural Policy Architecture is being created. In addition, one part of the Green Deal - the “Farm to Fork” (F2F) strategy – concerns the renewal of the EU agri-food system by reducing the use of pesticides and antibiotics, food waste and the introduction of nutria-score food labelling (the 'Mediterranean label' is also widely debated). In addition to this, in 2016, the European Commission launched the "Food 2030" initiative, which also aims at reforming food systems.
However, the world and Europe are at different stages of understanding food security. Countries in Africa are literally starving, i.e. for them food security is primarily about food availability. Developed countries focus on the quality and nutritional quality of food, with an emphasis on sustainable development practices. Other countries of the world, such as Russia, tend to interpret food security in terms of food independence (so-called 'food sovereignty', realised through their own food production).
Italy as protagonist of the food agenda
For Italy, the theme of food seems quite natural and goes back to the roots in history and culinary heterogeneity. Today, gastro-diplomacy is an integral part of the country's soft power, which the Italian government has successfully promoted. Throughout the course of history, food security issues have been discussed precisely in the Apennines: in 1951 the FAO headquarters moved to Rome, where declarations on world food security were subsequently adopted; in 1957 the Treaties of Rome establishing the European Communities laid the foundations, among others, for a CAP; turning to more recent events, in 2015 Milan hosted the World Universal Expo, which had the theme "Feeding the planet. Energy for Life". Subsequently, Expo 2015 gave rise to the already mentioned EU initiative "Food 2030".
In June 2020, the Italian government, chaired by then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, launched an initiative to create a Food Coalition under the aegis of FAO. According to official statements “the Food Coalition aims to mobilise financial resources, innovation and technical expertise, promote advocacy initiatives to prevent the health crisis from becoming a food crisis, and establish a neutral space for dialogue among diverse and key stakeholders”.
The initiative was adopted in the midst of a pandemic that hit Italy particularly hard. “Food Coalition is aimed at limiting the effects of Covid-19 on food systems” (Mattarella); “In the face of pandemic we need to redouble our efforts” (Conte), stressed Italian leaders in their video message on Food Coalition. Despite the grave socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, Italy has taken a step forward for the world, stressing that after a financial, migration, climate and epidemiological crisis, a global food crisis could occur and it is crucial to prevent it. A coalition of countries “United by the will to prevent the health crisis from turning into a food crisis” (Conte), betting on the so-called 'One health approach' - protecting the health of both people and planet.
This year, Italy will have many opportunities to draw attention to food security. First of all, it is one of the key topics on the agenda of the Italian Presidency of the G20; in addition, in November 2021, Italy will co-chair the UN climate change conference (COP-26); finally, there will be the UN Summit on Food Systems, and a preliminary meeting (pre-summit) will be held by the Italian government together with the UN in Rome in July 2021. "The role of food systems in achieving global goals and climate targets is expected to serve as a central priority of these other events and continue to carry forward momentum from the Food Systems Summit”, the UN press release summarizes.
The EU's focus on food is related to the fact that food security is closely linked to Sustainable Development Goals such as poverty eradication (Goal 1), health and well-being (Goal 3), clean water (Goal 6), reducing inequalities (Goal 10), responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), climate change action (Goal 13) and preserving marine and terrestrial ecosystems (Goals 14 and 15), which are all challenges facing both the global community and the European Union.
Food security and climate change
As already noted, food security is inextricably linked to other global issues of humanity. In the European dimension, the issue of food security is becoming increasingly relevant in the context of the environmental and climate change agenda. And this is not without reason.
Extreme climate change is one of the drivers of worsening food crises. As of 2019, conflicts (wars) were the main factors, but extreme weather and economic shocks are gaining weight.
Weather events, not to mention climate shocks, have a primary impact on crops and agriculture and can cause disruptions in production and consumption chains. In addition, crop failures provoke price increases, leading to socio-economic tensions - in both consumer and producer countries.
By far the biggest damage is caused by droughts and floods - and these are not sporadic natural disasters (although their number has doubled from 1990 to 2016), but are the result of climate change, which cannot be avoided, including in Europe. According to the report of the European Environment Agency, the most affected part of Europe will be Southern Europe (Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain and the south of France) which will result in reduction of land suitable for farming and production. By 2100, farmland value in these areas is predicted to fall by 60-80%, 2/3 of which will be in Italy where losses could amount to between €58bn and €120bn.
While conflicts create food insecurity, the opposite is also true - many modern conflicts are triggered by competition over food and agricultural resources (fertile land, water). Suffice it to recall the soya factor in Sino-American relations, wine in the Sino-Australian conflict; food aid to North Korea as part of the conflict and its resolution on the Korean peninsula.
On the environmental side, the reduction of agricultural land is generally in line with the European vision of a CAP. At the same time, the EU intends to increase food imports from third countries where environmental standards are not always so high; increased EU demand can only worsen the environmental situation in developing countries, where a surge in demand will provoke a surge in production. It is precisely this circumstance that becomes the subject of vociferous debate in the ratification of the agreement already signed between the EU and Mercosur.
The food crisis already exists - it hasn't perished. Food security is a global problem - one out of nine people on Earth are suffering from hunger and one out of eight from obese. The solution to food security cannot be discussed separately from other so-called global problems of humanity. Now, perhaps more than ever, the problem of food security is entwined with other challenges (primarily the triad – health, food security, social development) and has been boosted by the efforts of the Italian government, among others. In addition, food security is inextricably linked to the global green imperative.