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Food security

September 9, 2008

“Food security” is a crucial aspect of life, both for a population and a household. It can be defined in a variety of ways, but most fundamentally, it amounts to this: the existence of a set of economic and social arrangements on the basis of which a population or household is assured of a sufficient supply of foodstuffs to sustain a minimum but adequate nutrition level over a twelve-month period.

Food security can be put at risk in a variety of ways. Natural conditions can lead to a shortfall of grain production — flood, drought, or other natural disasters can reduce or destroy the crop across a wide region, leading to a shortfall of supply. Population increase can gradually reduce the grain-to-population ratio to the point where nutrition falls below the minimum required by the population or household. And, perhaps most importantly, prices can shift rapidly in the market for staple foods, leaving poor families without the ability to purchase a sufficient supply to assure the nutritional minimum. It is this aspect of the system that Amartya Sen highlights in his study of famine. And it is the circumstance that is most urgent in developing countries today in face of the steep and rapid rise in grain prices over the past year.

The results of a failure of food security are dire. Chronic malnutrition, sustained over months and years, has drastic effects on the health status of a population. Infant and child mortality increases sharply. Often the gender differences in health and mortality statistics widen. And economic productivity falls, as working families lack the strength and energy needed to labor productively. Famine is a more acute circumstance that arises when food shortfalls begin to result in widespread deaths in a region. The Great Bengal famine, the Ethiopian famine, the Great Leap Forward famine, and the famines in North Korea offer vivid and terrible examples of hunger in the twentieth century.

So what is needed to maintain food security in a poor nation? Some developing countries have aimed at food self-sufficiency — to enact policies in agriculture that assure that the country will produce enough staples to feed its population. Other countries have relied on a strategy of purchasing large amounts of staple foods on international markets. Here the strategy is to generate enough national income through exported manufactured goods to be able to purchase the internationally traded grain. This is the strategy recommended by neoliberal trade theory. If agriculture is a low value-added industry and the manufacture of electronic components is high value-added, neoliberals reason, then surely it makes sense for the country to generate the larger volume of income through the latter and purchase food with the proceeds.

This logic has given rise to several important problems, however. First is the vulnerability it creates for the nation in face of sharp price shocks. This is what we have seen in many countroes over the past year. And the second is the reality of extensive income inequalities in most developing countries — with the result that the “gains of trade” may not be sufficiently shared in the incomes of the poorest 40% to permit them to maintain household food security.

These considerations suggest the wisdom for developing countries to expend more resources on agricultural development (which often has an income-inequality narrowing effect) and a greater emphasis on national and regional food self-sufficiency.

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