CSD NGO Women's Caucus
Position Papers: Sustainable Agriculture
Food Security for the Food-Insecure:
Majda Bne Saad
Centre for Development Studies, University College Dublin, Ireland,firstname.lastname@example.org
What is Food Security?
Research evidence suggests that during the last 25 years, increases in food production have successfully kept ahead of population growth. Scientists predict that this can continue for the next 25 years and beyond if appropriate research and policy action is taken. Against this reality, hunger still persists in many parts of the world. Today more than one billion are very poor and suffer from food insecurity. 800 million are chronically malnourished. Every year, 6 million children under five die of malnutrition and related preventable diseases. Millions more become blind, retarded, or suffer other disabilities that impair functioning because of lack of vitamins and minerals. Moreover, hunger and poverty are the root of much political turmoil and armed conflict, and of a growing tide of refugees and migrants. The World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996 provided an opportunity for heads of states, United Nation's agencies, the World Bank and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to put forward proposals to tackle the problem of hunger in the world.
This paper begins by exploring concepts of food security and insecurity. It goes on to examine food security indicators and methods of measuring them at national and household levels. It also provides some insights into how the poor cope during crises and disasters. Finally, it describes the three main proposals presented to the WFS, namely the WFS plan of action and the strategies of the World Bank and of the NGOs.
Concern with food security can be traced back to the world food crisis of 1972-74 - and beyond that at least to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which recognised the right to food as a core element of an adequate level of living (UN 1948). Food security as a concept emerged at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) World Food Conference in 1974. It is centred around two sub-concepts; food availability and food entitlement. The first, food availability refers to the supply of food available at local, national or international levels. The second, food entitlement refers to the capability of individuals and households to obtain food. It suggests that people do not usually starve because of an insufficient supply of food but because they have insufficient resources, including money ('entitlements'), to acquire it (Sen, 1981).
Thus, food security in a single country, or in the world as a whole, reflects the ability of food-deficit countries, or food-deficit regions within countries, or food-deficit households within them, to meet target consumption levels on a year-to-year basis.
The most widely used definition of food security is that of the World Bank: Access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life'. The term "access" here is inclusive of both the supply side (availability) and the demand side (entitlement). The Sub-Committee on Nutrition within the UN Administration Committee on Coordination (ACC/SCN 1991:80) in defining food security at the household level brings in further dimensions. A household is food secure when it has access to the food needed for a healthy life for all its members (adequate in terms of quality, quantity, safety and culturally acceptable) and when it is not at undue risk of losing such access.
Food insecurity refers to a lack of access to enough food. There are two kinds of food insecurity: chronic and transitory. Transitory food insecurity is a temporary decline in a households access to enough food. Chronic food insecurity is a continuously inadequate diet caused by the inability to acquire food. It affects households that persistently lack the ability either to buy enough food or to produce their own. Hence, poverty is considered the root cause of chronic food insecurity.
Famines are the worst form of transitory food insecurity. They can result from several causes: wars, floods, drought, crop failures, the loss of purchasing power by groups of households, and market failures including sometimes high food prices and grain hoarding. All of these types of disruptions to food supplies can trigger subsistence crises by threatening a populations access to food. They are the immediate causes of famine. But these precipitating triggers lead to famine only where particular groups of people are already vulnerable to it. The most vulnerable include: small-scale subsistence farmers, landless agricultural workers, other workers who are affected by a drop in real income in famine regions, pastoralists, female-headed households, children, and the elderly. Vulnerability is complex and usually implies processes rather than events. Underlying processes set people up for natural disasters or economic crises and, as Devereux (1993) puts it, they cause vulnerability, which is the real problem in the eradication of famine.
Food security in recent years has been seen as one dimension of the broader concept of livelihood security. Chambers (1988) defines sustainable livelihood strategies as: Adequate stocks and flows of food and cash to meet basic needs. Security refers to secure ownership of, or access to, resources and income-earning activities, including reserves and assets to offset risk, ease shocks and meet contingencies. Sustainable refers to the maintenance or enhancement of resource productivity on a long-term basis'.
Maxwell and Frankenberger (1992) state that within this context, food security is seen as one sub-set of objectives. Food is one of a whole range of factors that determine why the poor take decisions and spread risk and how they finally balance competing needs in order to survive. Determination to preserve assets can effect the behaviour of the poor at times of food insecurity. De Waal (1989) claims that the people of Darfur in Sudan during the famine period chose to go hungry in order to preserve their assets and thus their future livelihoods. They were quite prepared to put up with considerable levels of hunger, in order to preserve seeds for planting, or to avoid having to sell an animal. Corbett (1988) found that preservation of assets takes priority over meeting immediate food needs until the point of destitution, when all options have been exhausted. Oshaug (1985) identified three kinds of households, "enduring households", which maintain household food security on a continuous basis; "resilient households", which suffer shocks but recover quickly; and "fragile households" which become increasingly insecure because of their vulnerability to external shocks. Maxwell argues that the dilemma facing small farm households involves a trade-off between immediate subsistence and long-term sustainability.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, 1995) defined sustainability as: The management and conservation of the natural resources base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations'. It is often argued that food security is achieved at the expense of environmental degradation and that the poor do not distinguish between food entitlements and environmental entitlements. Chambers rejects this view and argues that the poor have a vested interest in conserving their natural resource base, for both food security and livelihood reasons. They will do so, he claims, if they are given the chance and the opportunity.
Women are the principle producers of food in subsistence agriculture in developing countries. Men also share in agricultural fieldwork. In addition to farm work, women are solely responsible for housework including preparing meals, taking care of children and the elderly in the family and in most cases engaging in off-farm income earning activities.
Women who are also the heads of households find it particularly difficult to satisfy household food needs from own food production only. For instance, women in Africa are central to the region's food security for the following reasons: most African farmers are women and increasing their productivity will determine agricultural performance and rural incomes. Women support children, mostly through subsistence farming and petty trade, and head many of the households most at risk of food insecurity. Women are most likely to suffer from malnutrition during pregnancy and from carrying out such arduous and time and energy consuming tasks as fetching water and firewood (Ochieng 1990). Research evidence suggests that woman's contribution to on-farm; off-farm and non-farm activities are highly acknowledged by governments, donors and NGOs, but not fully tackled at policy-making levels. Plan of actions are produced by many national governments in an attempt to improve the status of poor women, failed to achieve its objectives simply because it was either mainstreaming women's concerns or treating their issues as an added component to their development programme. Both approaches proved to be of no relevance to solving the many problems which women might face in their daily life and in trying to produce enough food to feed their families and some surplus for the market. Moreover, to ensure food security at household level. Policy makers need to identify the most vulnerable groups at community and household levels and initiate plan of action based on providing equality in access to resources both legal, material, and social.
There are a number of ways, and levels, at which food security and insecurity can be measured. These levels include: continental, regional, sub-regional and households levels.
The question arises: can household income and expenditure surveys produce indicators of food security for every member of the household? To answer this question Chen et al (1994) suggest measuring an individual's food security by food poverty indicators and by anthropometric data.
A food poverty indicator shows the number of individuals living in a household whose access to food is sufficient to provide a dietary intake adequate for growth, activity and good health. The anthropometric measure refers to nutritional status at individual level. Thus, individual food security implies an intake of food and absorption of nutrients sufficient to meet an individual's needs for activity, health, growth and development. The individuals age, gender, body size, health status and level of physical activity determine the level of need.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in its annual Human Development Reports, uses the following indicators to measure food security at national level: food production per head, agricultural production as a percent of gross domestic product, food consumption as a percent of total consumption, daily calorie supply per head, food supply from fish and seafood, food imports, cereal imports, and food aid in cereals. Of course, UNDP data measuring food security at national level are estimated averages and do not reflect food security at household level. Moreover, they do not indicate an individuals differential access to sufficient food and to a nutritionally balanced diet. For example, the data do not distinguish between pregnant and non-pregnant women, between female and male children, or between elderly women and men, and so on. Averages are never very helpful for policy formulation designed to eliminate food insecurity and malnutrition at sub-regional and household levels
Data produced by the FAO (Table 1) suggest that in the period 1979 to 1992, the very high levels of chronic undernutrition actually increased in Africa, while they declined significantly in Asia and Latin America. The increasing food insecurity in Africa has been associated with low per capita food availability and high fluctuations in food supply as well as high food prices arising from the liberalisation of agricultural prices on the one hand and removal of subsidies on the other. Africa is the only region in the world where food production, with a few notable exceptions, has declined in per capita terms since the early 1960s. Where developing countries are food-deficit and very poor, they usually have to rely on food imports and/or food aid to offset shortfalls in domestic food production. FAO forecasts of undernutrition suggest that 30 percent of sub-Saharan African countries will still suffer from undernutrition in 2010. At the same time, the FAO suggests that rates in all other regions of the developing world will have fallen to 12 percent or less.
Table 1. Estimates and forecasts of the incidence of chronic undernutrition by world region
A great deal of research has been undertaken in recent years which is aimed at identifying the numbers and types of people who suffer from chronic undernutrition. Such research is vital if the food insecure are to be properly targeted both in situations of crises (when they need food aid) and to help them achieve long-term food security (through, for example improvements in food production, access to land, inputs and water, and better roads and communications). Researchers collect both quantitative and qualitative data to help national governments, donors, and NGOs to identify the vulnerability of poor households to all types of shocks and disasters.
For purposes of quantitative analysis, researchers disaggregate existing data that were collected from groups of households and classify them by gender, age, access to resources, control over assets, and income. If the existing data are unreliable, researchers survey levels of vulnerability of households to external and internal shocks, by using household food security indicators (FSIs). For the qualitative analysis, researchers often use an approach called participatory rural appraisal (PRA) or participatory learning action (PLA) which was developed by Chambers and Conway in the early 1980s (Chambers 1994). Box 1 shows a conceptual framework for FSIs.
Box 1. Food Security Indicators
Sources: Adapted from Webb, Richardson, and von Braun (1993), Conceptual framework for famine analysis: A household income approach, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and Chung, Haddad, Ramakrishna and Reily (1997), Identifying the Food Insecure: The application of mixed-method approaches in India. Washington DC, IFPRI.
For purposes of quantitative analysis, researchers disaggregate existing data that was collected from groups of households and classify it by gender, age, access to resources, control over assets, and income. If the existing data are unreliable, researchers survey levels of vulnerability of households to external and internal shocks, by using household food security indicators (FSIs). For the qualitative analysis, researchers often use an approach called participatory rural appraisal (PRA) or participatory learning action (PLA) which was developed by Chambers and Conway in the early 1980s (Chambers 1994). Box 1 shows a conceptual framework for FSIs.
India is an example of a country that suffered from famines in the past but has now succeeded in implementing famine prevention policies. However, the government still spends around US$100 million annually in providing food to food-insecure areas of the country. There is a widespread belief that current levels of food security in India could be achieved with less strain on the public finances if programmes were better targeted at the under-nourished. Box 2 shows how the search for better targeting methods is crucial if food security is to be attained.
Food-insecure people neither consistently produce enough food for themselves nor have they the purchasing power to buy food from markets. The same can be true at national levels. Some countries have the capacity to achieve food security by promoting food production nationally. However, others, especially poor food-deficit countries, are not well endowed in terms of resources, institutions and technology, and will always need to import food, unless new research findings and technology enable them to mobilise their resources to achieve food security in the long run. There are two main strategic approaches that can be followed in order to feed a global population that may exceed seven billion by 2010.
The first strategy suggests that food-deficit developing countries should maximize the efficiency and output of their export sectors, and then use the resulting foreign exchange earnings to import food. According to this strategy, continued growth in world trade will allow them to produce and export other primary products, industrial goods, and services that should enable them to purchase significant quantities of food from food-surplus countries in both the North and the South. For this food to reach the food-insecure in poor countries, the development of effective national food security policies is required. The FAO suggests that these policies must ensure higher food entitlements for both the rural and urban poor through sufficient access to food made possible by income generation and employment.
The second strategy thought to be more realistic by many analysts, suggests that food deficit countries in the South should re-orient their development strategies toward increased investment in their agricultural sectors. They need to increase their own food production significantly and adopt specific policies to alleviate food insecurity at national, regional and household levels.
The proportion of undernourished people in the world fell from 27 percent in 1979 to 20 percent 1992. In global terms, food production has outpaced population growth. This has come about from a combination of improved farming methods, dissemination of new technology, and more intensive use of inputs such as high yielding varieties (HYVs) of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. Moreover, closer integration of markets has sustained the growth in production in many developing countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America. However, per capita food production has not increased in many poor low-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Famines, on the other hand, have tended to be confined to conflict situations. The draught-related crises particularly affecting pastoralists in marginal environments in Africa, such as in western Darfur, Sudan or Turkana, Kenya, were largely alleviated by post-1974 food security arrangements. This containment of famine is, to a significant degree, the real achievement of the process of international negotiations which followed from the first World Food Summit held in 1974 (Overseas Development Institute (ODI) 1997). Following that conference, new institutional arrangements were put in place and a fresh conceptual framework for analysing international food problems was established. But much remains to be done if the ambitious targets are to be met in a sustainable way. The second WFS was held in Rome in 1996. Attendance included 185 countries, the European Union, 24 UN agencies, 55 other inter-governmental organisations and 457 NGOs. Box 3 shows the Declaration and Plan of Action that was unanimously adopted on the Summit by all national representatives. It reaffirmed 'the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger'. The Summit set what was regarded as an attainable target of reducing the number of undernourished people to half of its present level by no later than 2015. A mid-term review is to be carried out by 2006 to ascertain the level of progress that is being made. The emphasis has been placed on national action, supported by international co-operation. National representatives put forward seven commitments. The implementation of these commitments is to be monitored at national, sub-regional, regional and international levels through the FAO committee on World Food Security. Box 3 sets out these national commitments while Box 4 presents the World Bank approach.
Box 3. World Food Summit Plan of Action: the seven commitments
Box 4. The World Bank Approach: Food Security Strategy for the World
The NGOs at the WFS presented their own set of proposals for achieving food security for the food insecure. Their approach called into question the existing approaches, policies and practices to achieve food security for all. Box 5 shows their collective statement Profit for the Few or Food for All..
Box 5. The NGOs approach: Profit for the Few or Food for All
The FAO's Committee on the World Food Summit (CFS) was established by the Summit and is responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and consulting on the international food security situation. It analyses food needs, assesses food availability, and monitors and disseminates information on food stock levels. The CFS also provides recommendations on policies designed to ensure adequate cereal supplies. It undertakes food security surveillance and monitors current and prospective levels of food supply and demand. The monitoring and reporting on implementation of the Summit's Plan of Action is done in cooperation with national governments, UN agencies (on follow-up and inter-agency coordination), and other relevant international institutions. The most recent session of the CFS was held in June 1999. It took two practical steps towards improving the feasibility of attaining the 1996 World Food Summit's over-riding goal. It endorsed moves to improve assessment of the number and characteristics of food insecure and vulnerable people who are the target of the Summit's follow-up actions. It also agreed to provide an improved structure for monitoring and reporting at all levels, and suggested a number of improvements in the indicators to be used.
At global level, in addition to supply-side indicators, other suggestions included undertaking research on: dietary composition, a poverty index, income distribution and purchasing power, trade position, terms of trade, external debt, private capital flows, and overseas development aid. Various recommendations were also made for improving monitoring of food availability and accessibility at national, household and even individuals levels. The Committee decided to take up the question 'who are the food insecure?' as a major theme at its 26th session to be held in 2000.
The CFS reports on some 20 countries that have incorporated the "right to food" in their constitutions since 1996. In collaboration with other UN agencies, national institutions and NGOs, and as specified in the Summit Plan of Action, progress has been made in establishing the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Mapping System (FIVMS). FIVMS involves the gradual development and establishment of the system at national and international levels, building upon existing information systems and mechanisms.
Despite the level of consensus reached at the 1996 World Food Summit, a number of concerns remain. Sen (1997) has stated that the WFS succeeded in emphasising and drawing attention to the enormity of the so-called food problem, but failed to take a sufficiently differentiated view of distinct types of food deprivation and their diverse causations. The summit focused much more on the production of food rather than on the determination of who gets how much of it and how they get it. While acknowledging that food production is indeed an important component of solving the problem of world hunger, Sen claims that much more attention needs to be paid to issues relating to: economic growth; employment, and decent pay; diversification of production; provision of medical and health care; arrangements for special access to food on the part of vulnerable people (including deprived mothers and small children; spread of basic education and literacy; strengthening of democracy and news media; and reduction of gender-based inequality.
The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) claims that what was achieved at the WFS represents only a restatement of commitments acceptable to every government and rephrased in the sustainable, participatory, gender-sensitive, anti-poverty, environmentally friendly terms of the moment. The ODI (1997) makes the point that, in common with most other UN conferences, the agreements reached are not binding. No fresh aid or other commitments were made amid much reference to working with available resources. Implementation of the recommendations contained in the Plan of Action is to be the sovereign right and responsibility of each State.
One of the few new and specific proposals is the commitment of governments to monitor progress in reducing chronic hunger. Its implementation involves the production of hunger maps for use in identifying vulnerable populations, and monitoring hunger-reduction strategies. Another Summit achievement was to achieve a near-consensus on the need to tackle the inter-related problems of hunger and poverty. However, like all other single issue conferences, it failed to address the difficult international and inter-agency institutional issues. Coordination of the work of various UN specialised agencies, other international organisations and the FAO committee on World Food Security (CFS) is essential if the CFS is to meet the challenges of the WFS.
The world has the knowledge and expertise to achieve the objectives of the WFS to solve the problems of world hunger and food insecurity. What is needed the political will and commitment of both national governments and international organisations, to put that knowledge to work.
Box 6. Further Reading
Chen et al (1994), "World Food Security: Prospects and Trends". Food Policy, 19 (2), pp. 192-208.
Chung K Haddad L Ramakrishna J and Reily F (1997), Identifying the food insecure: The application of mixed-method approaches in India. Washington DC, IFPRI.
Devereux S (1993), Theories of Famine. London, Harvester-Wheatsheaf.
FAO (1996-1999), The WFS Plan of Action, http://www.foa.org.
Maxwell S and Frankenberger T R (1992), Household food Security: Concepts, Indicators, Measurements: A Technical Review, IFAD and UNICEF.
ODI (1997), Global Hunger and Food Security after the World Food Summit, Briefing Paper, Overseas Development Institute, UK.
O'Neill H and Toye J (eds) (1998), A World without Famine? New Approaches to Aid and Development, (ed.), London, Macmillan and New York, St Martins Press.
Salih A (1995), Food Security in Africa. UN/WIDER, Helsinki.
Sen A (1981), Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Sen A (1997), Hunger in the World, UK, the Suntory Centre.
Webb P, Richardson D and von Braun J (1993), 'Conceptual framework for famine analysis: A household income approach' in a Report for the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, IFPRI.
The author wishes to thank Professor Helen ONeill, Director of the Centre for Development Studies, for comments and editorial advice on earlier drafts of this paper.