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Addressing inequalities in food security and nutrition

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In a context where the world is facing significant inequalities in both opportunities and outcomes, on the 15th of June, the CFS High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) launched its 18th report on “Reducing inequalities for food security and nutrition”. The report presents an exhaustive analysis of inequalities in food systems, tackling the drivers and how they affect food security and nutrition (FSN) outcomes.

Today’s food systems are highly unequal, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition around the world and hampering any successful transformative change. When food systems are unequal, it leads to a poor quality of life, low productivity, and perpetuated poverty, limiting people’s opportunities and economic growth. Climate change and conflicts further exacerbate these disparities. Even in rich countries, these inequalities systematically strike certain groups of people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, and these populations often face compounded disadvantages. In addition, inequalities in FSN fuel instability at large, such as sparking protests, food riots, and political unrest.

If we don’t act now, then we are genuinely in trouble”, Bhavani Shankar, HLPE-FSN project team leader.

Intersectional inequalities in the food system

Inequalities are happening at different levels and vary based on the socioeconomic, political, sociocultural, technological, demographical and environmental context. Smallholder farmers, migrants, informal workers, persons with disability, women, youth, indigenous peoples and local communities are often minorities and subject to inequalities. These cohorts often cope with inequalities that overlay, strengthening disparities as outlined by Bernard Lehmann, HLPE-FSN Chairperson.

Since 1990, countries in the lowest income quartile have encountered an important growth in double-burden malnutrition (DBM) compared to the higher incomes quartiles with low DBM, highlighting inequalities between low and high-income countries. In many cases, policies are not designed with the needs of the most marginalised in mind, which can worsen their difficulties and increase their vulnerabilities. For example, the blockade in Yemen has caused acute and chronic hunger, mainly driven by violence and conflict.

Sociocultural drivers are rooted in contemporary and historical contexts and will persist unless they are confronted. These drivers can intersect with economic class structures, minoritised social groups and unequal distribution, recognition and representation. Frequently, gender intersects with conflict as evidenced in the post-conflict setting of Colombia, where 50% of rural women were food insecure against 40% in the general population.

Developments in science and technology can create and/or heighten inequalities as seen in the green revolution which favoured wealthier and larger farmers. Urbanisation and natural growth are complex and have multiple effects. They can increase the total demand, changing people’s ability to buy and their food preferences. Additionally, they can lead to the formalisation and more complex supply chains, as well as changes to land use. All of these factors can contribute to inequality and have an impact on FSN outcomes. The impact of our food systems on the environment and people is unevenly distributed, and strengthen existing inequalities.

Right-based approach to reduce inequalities

Tackling inequalities is at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is grounded on the human rights approach and the pledge to “Leave no one behind”. States have pledged to decrease inequalities as part of their obligations under human rights covenants. In that sense, numerous international conventions stipulate that all human beings “have the right to adequate food and the right to be free from hunger and inequality that impedes this right is a violation of human rights. Thus, states have a legal obligation to tackle these inequalities. Moreover, many countries recognised and incorporated the right to food in their national law legally, binding them to ensure this right is upheld.

The status of equity is an intrinsic component of “rights” which means that discrimination against certain groups of people is prohibited. Therefore, adopting human rights-based approaches to ensure food security for all aligns with the principle of equity as stressed by Bhavani Shankar.

Women often face disadvantages in agriculture, especially with credits and other financial services, productivity, knowledge, livelihoods, land access, and ultimately to food security. Inclusive actions such as Ethiopia’s rural land certification programme and Rwanda’s land regularisation programme, can trigger powerful impacts to valorise their rights and reach gender equality and food security.

Elements to move forward

As Bhavani Shankar mentioned, an incremental change is not sufficient, we need to implement a transformative change while considering rights-based approaches. He emphasised the need for leveraging human rights instruments such as the right to food, and the voluntary guidelines of CFS. It is also prominent to strengthen inclusive spaces for multisector dialogue, participation of all involved stakeholders and coordinated action to talk. Both of these initiatives will reinforce the equity sensitivity policy.

To systematically quantify and monitor FSN inequalities, it is essential to strive for more qualitative, context-specific and adequately disaggregated data along gender, location, economic status, ethnicity, social groups and physical ability, as pinpointed by Bhavani Shankar.

When addressing inequalities, intersectionality and potential trade-offs must be born in mind to find the appropriate balance. As such, technologies must not develop through unique and universal access but rather through tailored access since it embeds inequalities. Thereby, a holistic approach is required to tackle the full spectrum of inequalities as expressed by Bernard Lehmann.

Inequalities exist in the entire food system and have been clustered in food production; food supply chains; food environment and consumption; enabling environment, broader context and governance. It is highly recommended to take cross-sector and multi-stakeholder actions to address these issues, as they can negatively impact the entire food system.


  • Climate change increases inequalities, and urgent transformative actions must be taken towards its mitigation and adaptation.
  • Agency is key to reducing inequalities in food security and nutrition.
  • Intersectional analysis and initiatives must be implemented.
  • Adopting a right-based approach is significant and aligned with the pledge to leave no one behind.
  • All policies across governments must be equity-sensitive, considering redistribution, recognition and representation.

“Together we can make a lasting difference in reducing inequalities and forging a more sustainable future for the generation to come.“  Ismahane Elouafi, FAO Chief Scientist.


Written by David Mingasson, SIANI reporter.