Causes of Food Shortage: Identified and Explained

Causes of Food Shortage: Identified and Explained

Food security is essential to economic growth and the national interest of a particular country. The Committee on World Food Security of the United Nations defines it as a situation in which all people have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

The importance of access to quality food has also made food shortage a serious concern among national leaders and world leaders, including policymakers, researchers and research institutions, and intergovernmental and supranational organizations.

However, it is important to note that food shortage is different from food insecurity. The latter represents all problems resulting to inaccessibility of adequate and preferred food products. These problems can arise from different factors to include micro-level conditions such as household poverty and macro-level conditions such as economic downturns or sociopolitical issues.

Food shortage, on the other hand, is a situation in which current and projected food supplies are unable to meet existing and future demand for food. This is sometimes called food scarcity if food itself is seen as a finite resource or if food demand cannot be met due to scarce resources.

There are different causes of food shortage. Each can lead to widespread food security or represent a greater problem with food scarcity. Some can also lead to serious socioeconomic conditions including widespread famine, malnutrition, and even internal or cross-border conflicts. Understanding these causes is essential to promoting food security.

The Major Causes of Food Shortage: The Factors Leading to Low Food Production Output and Unsustainable Food Demand

Economics describes “shortage” as a situation in which the supply for a particular product is unable to meet the demand or that the demand for a particular product exceeds the available supply. The phenomenon stems from either failures and shortcomings in production or the unsustainability of present and future demand. Food shortage is fundamentally either a production problem or a sustainability problem. There are different reasons why food production fails or why demand for food has reached unsustainable levels.

1. Natural Calamities and Disturbances

One of the common causes of food shortage is the impact of natural calamities such as weather disturbances or seismic activities including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These events can either disturb food production or disrupt relevant supply chains needed for the transportation or distribution of raw materials and end-use food products.

Areas that regularly experience severe weather disturbances such as tropical cyclones and monsoon rains are prone to experiencing shortages in their food supply.

Consider typhoon-frequented countries in Asia as examples. Researchers M. Gatto et al. noted that typhoons contribute to shortages and greater food insecurity in countries like the Philippines because the quantities and quality of food produced for household consumption are reduced.

The ongoing climate emergency has also sparked concerns about the future of food security because of the impacts of changing weather patterns on agriculture.

Changes in precipitation patterns and more frequent extreme weather events have affected both food production and distribution systems around the world according to researchers P. Brenton, V. Chemutai, and M. Pangestu. Data showed that climate change has reduced global agricultural productivity by about 21 percent since 1961.

The impacts of climate change renders existing food production capabilities and relevant systems unsustainable in the face of growing demand for food.

It is also worth mentioning that the impacts of pestilence in food production systems fall under the natural cause of food shortage. Pests and diseases can ravage farmlands and livestocks. Note that changing weather patterns cause ecological disturbances and induce pestilence

2. Macroeconomic Crises Situations

Several macroeconomic situations or events involving national and global economies can also result in food shortages. These can range from unfavorable macroeconomic indicators such as high inflation rates and crises including recession or depression. They affect either food production output or the efficient distribution of production inputs and end-use food products.

One example of how economic events can have far-reaching effects on the supply of food is the specific global economic crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic which started in late 2019 and worsened in 2020 and throughout the first and second quarters of 2021.

Economic activities across different industries and sectors around the world slowed down after businesses were forced to cease operations to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The pandemic-triggered economic slowdown was one of the main causes of the 2021-2022 Global Supply Chain Crisis which disrupted the global food production systems.

Another example is the impact of the 2021-2022 Global Inflation Surge which was an offshoot of major global events such as the coronavirus pandemic, the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, and oil and gas price hikes in the global market.

Inflation influences the prices of food production inputs such as fertilizers and fuel. Producers that are unable to keep up with the cost resort to cutting their production output. It also leads to high interest rates which discourage farmers from accessing credit. This can further hinder their capabilities to produce food at maximum output.

Note that the depreciation of a particular currency due to enduring high inflation rates can leave a country struggling to import food from other countries. This can lead to shortages of certain types of food that are not produced domestically.

Factors affecting demand, including demand shifters, as well as supply shifters can also result in food shortages. Examples of demand shifters include number of consumers, consumer income, price of complements and substitutes, and expectations. Supply shifters include production costs, seller expectations, technology and innovation, and government intervention.

3. Negative Impacts of Globalization

The examples above also exhibit how economic globalization can contribute to food shortage due to the exposure of countries to global and even localized economic downturns. It also illustrates the offshoots from dependence on international food markets.

Globalization and shortages in food are linked in several ways. The first is through the globalization of activities related to food production

Countries have become more interconnected. This translates to reliance on international markets due to trade policies and trade agreements. Other countries also forego food self-sufficiency to focus on their comparative advantages.

Globalization also concentrates food production in certain regions or countries. This can increase the risk of food shortages if there are disruptions in those areas.

A major food-producing region that experiences a drought or other natural disaster could have a ripple effect on global food supplies and prices. Countries that are extremely dependent on this producer would certainly experience shortages in food.

Food shortage becomes a demand-driven and sustainability problem if an affected country becomes too dependent on food imports or has lost its food self-sufficiency.

4. Food Shortage Due to Market Failure

The economic theory of market failure can also explain instances of food shortage and general incidents food insecurity in specific areas of the world.

Market failure is a theory from neoclassical economics defined as a situation characterized by an inefficient distribution of goods and services in the free market. It is more specifically defined as the inefficient allocation of resources in the free market occurring when individuals acting in rational self-interest produce a less-than-optimal outcome.

Economist Cecilia Rocha viewed food insecurity as a market failure. Her paper argued and concluded that specific market failure concepts such as public goods and externalities can be used for analyzing and criticizing the present food system.

Food security is a public good according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Failure in the food market emerges when individuals or groups consume resources needed for food production without providing payment or some sort of economic value in return.

Processes in the production and consumption of food also produce externalities or external costs. These costs include environmental degradation resulting from agricultural activities, unsustainable farming practices that result in faster resource depletion, and pollution and waste generation arising from both production and consumption.

Information asymmetry can cause food shortage. This happens when food producers do not have enough market information needed to time and match production with demand.

5. Government Regulations and Policies

Another possible cause of food shortage is the specific misdirected regulations and policies of a particular government and the economic agreements between countries or among members of a supranational organization. These initiatives can affect either domestic food production or the capability of a particular country to access and secure food supplies.

Numerous instances in the past have proven how well-meaning government initiatives can have a negative impact on food security.

A prime example is the 2007-2008 World Food Price Crisis. Several theorists across different fields and disciplines partly blamed this incident on the economic and environmental policies developed and implemented in several countries.

One prevailing theory is the effects of trade liberalization. For example, in his book, economist and journalist Martin Khor highlighted how several developing countries switched from self-sufficient agricultural economies to net food importing countries since the 1970s and 1970s due to the liberalization of trade with developed countries in the West.

Another theorized systemic cause of the aforesaid food price crisis was the diversion of agricultural resources from food production to biofuel production after several countries rolled out programs intended to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

Food and biofuels are dependent on the same albeit limited production inputs: land, water, and energy. Promoting biofuel production means reducing food production activities.

The food shortage in Sri Lanka during the 2021 Sri Lankan Economic Crisis also stemmed from the ill-conceived agricultural reforms under the administration of then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. These reforms centered on shifting to organic farming. It included specific policies that banned the importation of inorganic fertilizers and other chemicals.

Sri Lanka had a productive and stable agricultural sector prior to 2021. It is even a food exporter. However, because of the abrupt shift to organic farming, food production output collapsed within the first six months since the reforms were enacted. Rice production dropped by 20 percent alongside the production of agricultural exports such as tea and spices.

6. Localized and Cross-Border Conflicts

Conflicts can also have a significant impact on food security and result in food shortages. Food production, distribution, and access can all be disrupted during times of conflict.

One way that conflicts can affect food security is through the destruction of assets relevant to food production. These include farmlands and irrigation infrastructure. Furthermore, during armed conflicts, roads, bridges, and other transportation systems may be damaged or destroyed, making it difficult to transport food production inputs and production outputs.

Another way conflicts shape food security is through the displacement of people. When people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict, they may leave behind their farms, livestock, and other sources of food.

Displacement also upsets the ability of individuals to generate income. This renders them unable to afford food. The migration and concentration of displaced people to a particular area can also create an unbalanced and unsustainable demand for food supplies.

The escalation of the Russian-Ukraine Conflict in February 2022 and the longstanding Israel-Palestine Conflict have demonstrated how conflicts can result in food shortages.

Ukraine is one of the biggest producers and exporters of some of the most important food products in the world. These include grains such as corn and wheat, sunflower oil used in cooking, beet sugar and cane sugar, and meat and dairy products.

The invasion of the Russian Armed Forces in several Ukrainian territories forced affected farmers to abandon their farmlands. Some farms have also been damaged. Logistics within and outside the country have also been disrupted and have delayed the transportation of production inputs and end-use production outputs.

7. Overpopulation and Unsustainable Growth

The unsustainable rate at which the human population grows can also be a cause of food shortage. Overpopulation strains the resources needed to produce food. These include land, water, and other food production inputs.

A growing population equates to a growing demand for food. However, because production inputs or resources are limited, and in considering the fact that food production requires recuperation time, current and future supplies would be insufficient if existing and projected demands grow at an unsustainable rate.

Overpopulation also means increased human settlements and activities. Both require the exploitation of natural resources. Lands are converted to real estate for residential, commercial, and industrial developments while the demand for water increases as the population grows.

Remember that land and water are critical resources needed for producing food. Human population strains and pollutes water resources while also degrading land resources.

The present leaning toward a linear economic system creates numerous environmental problems due to pollutions and wastes. These factors can degrade a particular environment and its capability to produce and provide food or relevant resources.

Overpopulation also disturbs economic and social systems. A country with a rapidly growing population might not be able to keep up with the demand for food if it lacks the infrastructure, technology, capabilities, and other resources or the means to acquire these resources needed for adequate production and distribution of food.


  • Brenton, P., Chemutai, V., and Pangestu, M. 2022. “Trade and Food Security in Climate Change‐Impacted World.” Agricultural Economics. 53(4): 580-591. DOI: 1111/agec.12727
  • Gatto, M., Naziri, D., San Pedro, J., and Béné, C. 2021. “Crop Resistance and Household Resilience – The Case of Cassava and Sweetpotato During Super-Typhoon Ompong in the Philippines.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. 62: 102392. DOI: 1016/j.ijdrr.2021.102392
  • Khor, M. 2008. The Impact of Trade Liberalisation on Agriculture in Developing Countries: The Experience of Ghana. Third World Network. ISBN: 978-983-2729-31-0
  • Lin, T. K., Kafri, R., Hammoudeh, W., Mitwalli, S., Jamaluddine, Z., Ghattas, H., Giacaman, R., and Leone, T. 2022. “Pathways to Food Insecurity in the Context of Conflict: The Case of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Conflict and Health. 16(1). DOI: 1186/s13031-022-00470-0
  • Rocha, C. 2008. “Food Insecurity as Market Failure: A Contribution from Economics.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 1(4): 5-22. DOI: 1300/J477v01n04_02
  • Singh, R., Srivastava, P., Singh, P., Upadhyay, S., and Raghubanshi, A. S. 2017. “Human Overpopulation and Food Security.” Advances in Environmental Engineering and Green Technologies. DOI: 4018/978-1-5225-1683-5.ch002
  • Tenenbaum, D. J. 2008. “Food vs Fuel: Diversion of Crops Could Cause More Hunger.” Environmental Health Perspectives. 116(6): A254-A257. DOI: 1289/ehp.116-a254