After a period of decline, the number of undernourished people in the world is again on the rise, and famine has either returned or is threatened in Africa’s conflict areas, even though there is enough food to feed the world’s population. Food globalization and the products of agribusiness and agroindustry have transformed eating habits, with important consequences for public health.

Discussion of the fit between populations and resources began with Thomas Malthus in the early 19th century. In today’s very different context, when the quantity of food available is sufficient to feed everyone on the planet, the number of undernourished people, following a period of decline (900 million in 2000, 777 million in 2015), is rising again (815 million in 2016, i.e. 11% of the world population). In 2017, famine returned to the conflict zones of South Sudan and threatened to appear elsewhere in Africa. With the world’s population projected to grow beyond 9 billion by 2050, tackling the global food challenge involves addressing all the various forms of malnutrition, all the different kinds of actors involved and the sustainability of food production systems.

Undernourishment, 2014-2016

Source: FAO,

Comment: According to FAO estimates and calculating an average over three years (2014-2016), the prevalence of malnutrition (color shading) affects 30 to 50 % of the population in many African countries where the availability of food products and the ability to obtain them are lowest. This situation is aggravated by conflicts (explaining the absence of data for the DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, and Libya). With regard to actual numbers of undernourished individuals (squares showing proportions), the highest are to be found in India (194 million) and China (134 million), even though their proportion of the national population is not the largest.

Three types of malnutrition

Three types of malnutrition currently coexist, placing pressures on societies in different ways: caloric undernutrition; caloric overnutrition, which is rapidly increasing; and “hidden hunger,” or persistent vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which affected 2 billion people in 2015, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia, as well as among the poorest sections of the population in wealthy countries.

Overweight and underweight, 2014

Sources: World Health Organization,; United Nations, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision,

Comment: This cloud of dots combines the proportion of people who were underweight (along the horizontal axis) and the overweight (along the vertical axis) in 2014. The second is higher than the first in almost all countries. More than half the populations of America, Europe, and other countries (including Egypt and Iran) suffer from overweight compared with fewer than 5% who are underweight. The situation in Asia and certain African countries lies somewhere between the two (20-30% overweight and 5-15% underweight), whereas the Indian subcontinent has the highest levels of underweight people (more than 20%, equal to those who are overweight).

New consumption habits and a lower level of physical activity have caused obesity levels to double (affecting 600 million adults, i.e. 13% of the world adult population). In 2014, 2.2 billion people were overweight or obese – exposing them to a higher risk of death from diabetes. Among the poorest sections of society, all the different kinds of malnutrition are evident: undernutrition among children, obesity among adults, and nutritional deficiencies among everyone. Food insecurity is a factor in higher mortality rates, violence and instability, especially in societies with high levels of inequality and in weak states. Lack of food or access to healthy foods is a marker of poverty and injustice, as are a lack of public policies supporting subsistence farming, clean water provision, healthcare services and nutritional information (all of which can be exacerbated by the impacts of conflicts and climate change).

Globalization of agriculture and food

The agro-industrial modernization model of the 1970s Green Revolution, led by multinational corporations and US-based foundations (involving mechanization, hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, all features of intensive agriculture), drove higher quantities of food production, assisting the fight against famine. it proved to have destructive effects in both environmental and social terms, however.

Agricultural and food product exports, 2016

Source: UN Comtrade,

This same model, reinforced by the chemical industry and genetic innovations and corporate concentration, underpins a global market for agricultural products that is increasingly complex and diversified in terms of the products, actors and interconnected locations involved. While statistics may tell us something about the trade between states (based on tariff and non-tariff barriers), they do not reveal much about the circulations and transnational interdependencies spanning the food industry’s long and highly dispersed value chains. Although the share of agricultural products in goods trading has dropped by 20% over 50 years, down to 8% of the total, they remain a key economic, geopolitical, social and security issue for states, which have to grapple with the many private actors involved (investors, seed companies, producers, transporters, shipping companies, stock exchanges, insurers, distributors, advertisers, etc.).

International investment in agricultural land and farmland, 2000-2015

Source: Land Matrix,

Comment: The source of this map is Land Matrix, a database produced by an independent global network of researchers, decision-makers, and citizens who compile a list of international land acquisitions using multiple sources (academic research, international organizations, NGOs, private sector, etc.). The data are subject to rapid variation (new contracts, failed transactions, etc.) and the database is constantly updated. The map therefore shows a cumulative situation over 15 years: in addition to the global scale of land acquisition, it clearly shows the geographical spread of investors (companies in the North, Asia and the Gulf) as well as the regions targeted for investment (Africa, South America, South Asia, and Ukraine).

The geography of trade and investment flows reveals the emergence of new major producers like Brazil, the level of Chinese demand, and the scale of international land acquisitions. The product hierarchy is changing: cereals are decreasing, poultry and meat are increasing, palm oil is booming. Subsistence agriculture (500 million small-scale farmers worldwide), sacrificed by developmentalist policies and by the Washington Consensus, is still excluded from these trade flows.

This trade feeds into a different type of globalization: an industrial food supply comprising standardized mass-market products, low-cost and of poor nutritional quality, supplied by global corporations in the food, retail and fast-food sectors to urban consumers, including consumers in countries of the South and the poorest social groups in countries of the North.

Eating better

Globalized fast food brands, 2014

Sources: The Economist, 2015; United Nations, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision,

Comment: The large fast food brands contribute to food globalization (cheap standardized products of low nutritional quality) and the increased numbers of people who are overweight or obese. The near 140,000 sales outlets in 148 countries in 2014, according to The Economist, are very unequally distributed (size of dots). In keeping with the history of their development, half are in the United States, whereas many African countries have none at all. When these figures are linked to the population of each country (color shading), it becomes evident that the offer per inhabitant is highest in North America, Australia, and Europe, whereas in China, the country that comes second for the number of sales outlets, the offer concerns only a small share of the population.

Packaged products, soft drinks, ready-made meals, hamburgers, pizzas, sushi, kebabs, etc., adapted or not to local tastes, laden with sugar and fat, play their part in the increasing numbers of people who are overweight or obese. This food system is leading to standardization on the one hand (with a higher proportion of meat and dairy products, in particular) and to hybridization on the other.

NGOs, international organizations, networks of food researchers and health professionals, consumer associations and innovative farmers are proposing agroecology as an alternative to agro-industry. Through reports, collaborative databases, education campaigns, group initiatives and boycotts, these actors are promoting alternative ways of feeding ourselves (organic agriculture, permaculture, flexitarianism, ending animal suffering, local food, urban agriculture, urban-rural connections, fair trade, seed co-ops, labeling, traceability, environmental labeling, etc.), contributing to the emergence of a more integrated approach to questions of human security and nutrition in the glocal arena. They also highlight the absence of regulation to rein in highly speculative markets, a lack of controls on agrochemical and biotechnology research and development, and the ambiguous relationships between public and private spheres. Bound by their political choices, the influence of lobbies and private-sector standards and trade-offs, states are proving slow to respond to these calls from civil society, especially given the multitude of governance bodies in this field (club diplomacy) and the proliferation of international organizations (FAO, WFP, IFAD, WTO, UNDP, UNCTAD, UNEP).

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