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Understanding world hunger

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


In his World Food Day 2000 message, the Director of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation said:

The scourges of hunger and poverty are morally unacceptable and have to be defeated. Hunger and chronic malnutrition diminish human life. The lack of physical or economic access to safe, nutritious and healthy food at all times leads to negative consequences for peoples and nations.

Source: Diouf, J. (2000) World Food Day message.

The focus of the module is on the concept of ‘food security’ and strategies through which this may be attained. As such, the module acts as an introduction to the study of sustainable agriculture in Module 15.

The new understanding about population discussed in Module 13 indicated that older traditional views about ‘over-population’ need to be reviewed. Uncritical views about overpopulation are often associated with images of ‘famine’, ‘world hunger’ and ‘the starving millions’. While these images can be tragically real in times of severe drought, repression and war, they tend to create images of dependency that are not always correct.

The relationship between hunger and population levels is not a simple one. For example, population densities in the Netherlands and Singapore are among the highest in the world but few people would say they are over-populated.

As a result, many people are asking questions like “What criteria should be used to define overpopulation – and overpopulated in relation to what?” “Why are we growing food for export when local people are hungry?” These questions indicate that we need to take more account of the processes that cause hunger and famine. These processes are also explained in this module.


  • To distinguish between the symptoms and the root causes of hunger and population pressure on food resources;
  • To better understand perspectives from the South on issues related to population, hunger and food security; and
  • To appreciate issues and dilemmas in teaching about population and hunger.


  1. Hunger and malnutrition in the world
  2. The root causes of hunger
  3. Food First Fundamentals
  4. Towards food security for all
  5. Reflection


Boucher, D. (ed) (1999) Paradox of Plenty: Hunger in a Bountiful World, Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, San Francisco.

Brown, L.R. (2005) Outgrowing the Earth. The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures, Earthscan, London.

Delpeuch, F., Maire, B., Monnier, E. and Holdsworth, M. (2009) Globesity. A Planet Out of Control? Earthscan

DeRose, L.F., Messer, E. and Millman, S. (1999) Who’s Hungry? and How Do We Know?: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation, United Nations University Press.

Gardner, G. and Halweil, B. (2000) Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition, Worldwatch Paper No.150, Worldwatch Institute.

Ingram, J., Ericksen, P. and Liverman, D. (eds) (2010) Food Security and Global Environmental Change, Earthscan, London.

Lappe, F.M., Collins J., Rosset, P. and Esparza, L. (1998) World Hunger: Twelve Myths, 2nd edition, Grove Press, New York.

Lawrence, G., Lyons, K. and Wallington, T. (eds) (2009) Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainability, Earthscan, London.

Moorhead, A. (2009) Climate, agriculture and food security: A strategy for change, CGIAR.

Runge, C.F., Senauer, B., Pardey, P.G. and Rosegrant, M.W. (eds) (2003) Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization, International Food Policy Research Institute and John Hopkins Universty Press.

United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (2008) The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008, Food and Agricultural Organisation, Rome.

von Grebmer, K. et al. (eds) (2009) 2009 Global Hunger Index, International Food Policy Research Institute.

Wright, J. (2008) Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity, Earthscan, London.

Internet Sites

Feeding Minds, Fighting Hunger: A World Free From Hunger

Food and Agricultural Organisation: Sustainable Development

Institute for Food and Development Policy | Food First

New Agriculturalist On-line

Sustainable Food Security: Policies, Strategies and Case Studies

United Nations World Food Summit


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien and Margaret Calder using material originally written by John Fien for Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).

Hunger and malnutrition in the world

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

To be healthy and active, we must have food in adequate quantity, quality and variety to meet our energy and nutrient requirements. Without adequate nutrition, children cannot develop their potential to the fullest, and adults will experience difficulty in maintaining or expanding theirs.

Not everyone has adequate access to the food they need, and this has lead to large-scale hunger and malnutrition in the world. In 2009, more than one billion people worldwide were considered to be undernourished; this means that one in every six persons suffers from hunger every day. Around a quarter of all children under 5 years of age suffer from acute or chronic symptoms of malnutrition; during seasonal food shortages and in times of famine and social unrest, this number increases. According to some estimates, malnutrition is an important factor among the children who die from preventable diseases and infections, such as measles, diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia.

The vast majority of the undernourished people live in Asia and the Pacific. This region, which is home to 70% of the total population of the developing world, accounts for almost two-thirds of the undernourished people. A quarter of the undernourished are in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is also the region with the highest proportion of its population undernourished.

The Hunger Problem

The world produces more than enough food to provide everyone on Earth with a healthy and nutritious diet.

Indeed, over-eating and obesity are now so common that, according to the Worldwatch Institute report, the 1.1 billion people in the world who are over-nourished and over-weight now almost rival the number who are under-nourished and under-weight.

So, why is there such hunger in a world of plenty?

Many people believe that over-population is the major cause of hunger.

Q1: Do you think that over-population is a cause of hunger in the world today? What evidence supports your view?

Q2: Do other people you know still believe that over-population is a cause of hunger? What evidence do they use to support their views?

People around the world have many different views about the causes and effects of population on food supply:

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Q3: How many of these people do you agree with? Classify their views in your learning journal.

The contrasts between these views mean that teachers could face problems when teaching about population and food issues: How can all viewpoints be presented fairly? What should the teacher do when confronted with conflicting viewpoints on controversial issues such as population and world hunger? Despite these questions, many teachers think the reasons for teaching this topic far outweigh the problems.

Q4: What do you think? Make a list of the reasons for and against teaching about this topic.

The root causes of hunger

Some people say that population growth is the major cause of world hunger. Others say it is population density not the actual numbers or growth rate that causes food shortages. Some say that it is a shortage of land or not enough fertilizer that is the problem. Sometimes, environmental disasters such as floods and drought are the cause.

Read some case studies about cash crops being grown in the South for export to markets in the North: coffee, and cocoa. These case studies provide an explanation of the root causes of hunger in terms of world trade patterns. But world trade patterns are only one of many possible explanations.

Depending upon our viewpoints, we will either agree or disagree with these different explanations.

Analyse these ten explanations of hunger in the world. Do you think they are true or false?

Food First Fundamentals

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The statements in Activity 2 have been analysed by many people. Two United States researchers, Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, have tested the statements and the evidence about them – and came to the startling conclusion that every one of them is false: that they are all myths of world hunger.

Lappe and Collins, continued their analysis of these issues and developed a set of ‘Food First Fundamentals’ or principles to guide solutions to many of the world’s hunger problems. Indeed, they argue that these principles provide the basis for agricultural policies that would guarantee an adequate and nutritional diet for everyone in the world.

Each of the ‘Food First Fundamentals’ is matched to a myth. For example, from the first myth, “People are hungry because of scarcity – both of food and land”, they developed the Food First Fundamental: “Every country in the world has the resources necessary for its people to free themselves from hunger”.

Match the Food First Fundamentals to their opposing myths.

Q5: Identify one Food First Fundamental that you would like to see implemented in your country – and give your reason.

Q6: Identify one Food First Fundamental that you think would be very difficult to implement in your country – and give your reason.

Towards food security for all

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Over the last century, remarkable progress was made in increasing the quantity and quality of global food supplies and in improving the nutritional status of populations. As global food supplies have kept pace with population growth, and health, education and social services have improved throughout the world, the number of hungry and malnourished has declined significantly. And yet, access to sufficient supplies of a variety of safe, good-quality food remains a serious problem in many countries, even where food supplies are adequate at the national level. In every country, some form of hunger and malnutrition continues to exist.

Putting an end to hunger necessarily starts with ensuring that enough food is produced and available for everyone. However, simply growing enough food does not guarantee the elimination of hunger. Access by all people at all times to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food for an active and healthy life – food security – must be guaranteed.

However, rapid population growth makes it difficult for agricultural production to keep pace with the rising demand for food. Most developing countries are already cultivating virtually all their arable land and are bringing ever more marginal land under cultivation.

“Unfortunately, population growth continues to outstrip food availability in many countries,” reported Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. For example, between 1985 and 1995, food production fell behind population growth in 64 of 105 developing countries studied by FAO. Among regions, Africa fared the worst. Food production per person fell in 31 of 46 African countries and Africa now produces nearly 30% less food per person than in 1967.

A 2002 FAO study into food production and population growth reported,

Globally there will be enough food for a growing world population by the year 2030, but hundreds of millions of people in developing countries will remain hungry and many of the environmental problems caused by agriculture will remain serious.

Source: FAO (2002) World agriculture: towards 2015/2030, Rome.

Satisfying the demand for food around the world requires a coordinated approach – increasing agricultural production, improving food distribution, managing resources and providing family planning. Education and health care are also essential to improve people’s well-being and thus promote productivity and sustainable resource use.

Concerns about shortfalls in agricultural production and inadequate food distribution systems have focused attention on the concept of ‘food security’. According to FAO:

Food security is a state of affairs where all people at all times have access to safe and nutritious food to maintain healthy and active life.

By this definition, about two billion people, or one person in every three, lack food security. Either they cannot grow enough food for themselves, or they cannot afford to purchase enough in the domestic marketplace. As a result, many people go hungry and in severe cases, are starving. Many also suffer from nutritional deficiencies in their diets.

The global economy produces enough food to feed the almost 7 billion people in this world and even more, if it were distributed equitably. However, this food is not readily available to many millions of people. Some countries produce more food than they need for domestic use, while others do not produce enough to assure access to an adequate diet for all of their people. Others may be very capable of doing so, but their economies are locked into export agriculture as we saw in the case studies of bananas, coffee and cocoa in Activity 2.

Thus, better distribution of food – both within and between countries – is an essential component of food security.

Other strategies for improving food security were discussed at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. Progress since this 1996 conference has been closely monitored by the FAO.

Explore the four dimensions of the FAO programme for Sustainable Food Security: People, Institutions, Knowledge and Environment.

Q7: Make notes on these four dimensions in your learning journal.

According to FAO, there are many strategies for ensuring food security, including:

  • Fair trade
  • Peace
  • Environmental protection
  • Sharing the wealth
  • Appropriate agriculture
  • Building community
  • Equal rights for women
  • Rediscovering forgotten foods
  • Land reform
  • A ‘blue revolution’.

Analyse the five strategies that you think would be most successful in helping to ensure food security for everyone in the world?


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q8: What have been the most useful parts of this module for you? Why?

Q9: Think of a class you teach. How could some of the ideas in this module be used with this class?

Q10: Analyse how you could use a Feeding Minds, Fighting Hunger teaching unit for a primary, intermediate or secondary class you teach.

Q11: Identify any issues you might face in teaching about world hunger and food security. How would you handle them? (Principles for teaching about controversial issues are explored in Module 22.)