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The 5 steps from food security to famine

A look at the phases ranging from having sufficient food right through to the most extreme form of hunger
, Mert Er
famine
45 million people globally are on the brink of famine. Photo: WFP/Marwa Awad

As you read this, 45 million people around the world stand on the brink of famine, as conflict, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic instability combine to create a hunger crisis. Afghanistan is becoming the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, while other worst-hit countries include Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

But how do we define famine, and what stages are there before people reach such a catastrophic level of hunger? The global standard for measuring food insecurity, what we might see as the "Richter scale" of hunger, is the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). Here's a closer look at the different stages of hunger it defines:

1) Food security (IPC Phase 1)

a boy is carrying a WFP package
A man carries WFP food assistance from a distribution site in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: WFP/Alessio Romenzi

People are "food secure" when they have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs for an active and healthy life. The priority of the World Food Programme (WFP) is to achieve this phase globally, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 2, to end hunger. In this phase, less than 5 percent of the population is malnourished and people have a stable income. There is consistent quantity and quality of food for most people, more than 2,100 calories per day.

2) Food insecurity (IPC Phase 2)

A distribution point in Akobo country, Jonglei. Climate shocks are compounding an already fragile food security situation in  South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Theresa Piorr
A distribution point in Akobo country, Jonglei. Climate shocks are compounding an already fragile food security situation in  South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Theresa Piorr

This phase relates to when people have trouble meeting their basic needs and have to make significant changes to support their non-food needs. They have unsustainable incomes, and 5-10 percent of the population is acutely malnourished. In this phase, a person takes 2,100 calories per day, meaning they have barely an adequate diet to meet their food needs. 

3) Acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3)

madagascar
Every month, WFP provides food assistance to 750,000 people in southern Madagascar. Photo: WFP/Krystyna Kovalenko

Acute food insecurity is when some people can meet their minimal food needs only by selling essential possessions, and when others are using up essential resources to support a limited diet. There are limited food choices and people must go to extreme lengths to get the calories they need. A total 10-15 percent of the population is acutely malnourished and there is a serious interruption to people’s incomes. 

4) Humanitarian emergency (IPC Phase 4)

a woman with her child
Lydia Yakubu and her daughter Victoria wait to fill their jerrycans at the borehole in northeast Nigeria. Photo: WFP/Patrick Fuller

Sadly, we often see the phrase "humanitarian emergency" in the news these days. This stage is defined by people facing extreme food shortages, where acute malnutrition levels are high and the risk of hunger-related deaths is rapidly increasing. Loss of income at this stage is irreversible, and between 15 and 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished. People have access to three or fewer food groups like fruits, grains and vegetables, and take in less than 2,100 calories per day. 

5) Famine (IPC Phase 5)

Yemen: A woman whose 10-month-old boy is suffering malnutrition at a WFP-supported clinic in Al Dhale. Photo: Saleh Bin Haiyan
Yemen: A woman whose 10-month-old boy is suffering malnutrition, at a WFP-supported clinic in Al Dhale. Photo: Saleh Bin Haiyan

The most severe phase of hunger. It is shameful that, in a world of plenty, famine still exists. It means a complete lack of access to food and other basic needs. At least two out of every 10,000 people die of starvation or disease in famine conditions. More than 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished, and there is total loss of income. People just have access to one or two food groups and there is an extreme shortage of calories per person, per day. A total 20 percent of families face extreme food shortages. WFP uses emergency food assistance to save lives in the face of famine, while longer term and more complex work, such as processes to prevent further emergencies, includes strengthening education, nutrition, livelihood resilience and social protection systems.

Learn more about what WFP is doing to fight famine

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