The continued high levels of malnutrition and recent food crises worldwide have highlighted the failure of the international community’s efforts to improve global food security. In an article1
, whose contents we highly recommend , IFPRI indicates that, in such environment, the very concept of “food security” must be retooled. As they underscore the limits of the current concept, the two authors––Olivier Ecker and Clemens Breisinger––suggest addressing food security in a more global and transversal manner, by including all directly or indirectly concerned sectors, and by considering it at various levels, from the individual to the national or even international system.
momagri Editorial Board
Despite considerable efforts of national governments and the international community to reduce hunger and improve nutrition in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other initiatives, the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries has been largely constant since the mid-1990s. Although some progress in hunger reduction and food security had been made until 2007, the 2008 global food price crisis and subsequent food price spikes have pushed millions of people into food insecurity. Main causes of this rise in global and national food insecurity include trade restrictions imposed by major food exporters, biofuels policies, and increased food commodity speculation combined with poor national and local governance to cope with such shocks. Besides these immediate causes, most experts agree that underlying longer-term dynamics such as climate change and mounting food demand through changing dietary patterns and growing populations will lead to further rising food prices and increasing price volatility. A broad range of policies have been proposed to reduce the vulnerability of the world’s poor to global food price spikes, including amendments in global trade rules that restrict the possibility of food exporters to impose export bans, stricter rules on biofuel production and food commodity speculation, the institutionalization of grain reserves to stabilize prices in times of crises, and the creation and expansion of national social safety mechanisms, in addition to a boost in investments to raise agricultural productivity and adapt to changing climate sustainably.
Both the causes of recent food crises and the proposed responses show a growing importance of factors that go beyond agriculture and households. Yet interventions often have focused on agriculture-based approaches, and the household often has been deemed the sole unit of focus by many international organizations concerned with food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Programme, United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF), and World Bank rely mainly on indicators measured at the household or individual levels for developing their strategies and actions. For example, progress toward almost all MDGs (with the exception of MDG8 and partly MDG7)—which influence directly or indirectly food security outcomes—is monitored via changes in household characteristics and the status of a household’s individual members. Yet the slow progress in reducing hunger and malnutrition during the past two decades and the grave impacts of the recent crises may be reasons behind the limited success of the conventional approaches and call for their fundamental reconsideration.
Over time, the concept of food security and related approaches to address food insecurity have been developed and modified in accordance with the common understanding of the nature of the food problem and the evolution of the global food system. Since the term food security entered the broader development policy debate at the 1974 World Food Conference, the concept has been revised and broadened. The most common definition today was first launched at the World Food Summit in 1996 and agreed on by most governments and leading governmental and nongovernmental development agencies. In the evolution of this definition, at least three overlapping paradigm shifts in thinking about food security can be identified: (1) from the global and the national level to the household and the individual level, (2) from a food-first perspective to a livelihood perspective, and (3) from objective indicators to subjective perception. As a consequence of the recent food crises, tendencies toward an additional paradigm shift can be observed within the expert community that may be described as moving from a sector-specific approach to a system approach integrated across sectors and levels.
Although many experts agree on the need to revise the common conceptual frameworks of food security in light of the recent food crises, little has been done in that direction so far. The most prominent frameworks such as those currently used by the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems of the FAO and United Nations partners, the Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance Project supported by the US Agency for International Development and partners, and the International Food Policy Research Institute originate from UNICEF’s framework on the causes of malnutrition and death in children and women and were adjusted following the World Food Summit definition. The general usefulness of the UNICEF framework derives from its identification of different channels through which an individual’s nutritional status might be affected and the related causes of malnutrition at different levels. The causes are structured into immediate causes, relating to the individual level; underlying causes, relating to the household level; and basic causes, relating to the societal level. These characteristics as well as the strong focus on household and intrahousehold factors have been maintained throughout the framework’s various modifications.
However, the recent food crises have exhibited three major weaknesses of these conceptual frameworks: first, they make little allowance for including macroeconomic causes of food insecurity and malnutrition including macroeconomic instability, slow economic growth, and international (food) trade failures, and they lack in specifying key economic sectors of food security. Second, they fall short of incorporating external shocks and stresses such as global economic crises, climate change, natural disasters, conflicts, and diseases and epidemics causing and amplifying food insecurity at various levels as well as options for intervention in the form of policies, investments, and programs to cope with shocks, build resilience, and improve food security in general. Third, they do not capture the adverse consequences of malnutrition on the economy as a whole and thus fall short in incorporating the reverse causality of malnutrition as a cause of underdevelopment.
To address these gaps in existing frameworks, the objective of this paper is to introduce a new conceptual framework of food security that recognizes food insecurity as a cross-sector challenge at multiple levels and as central to overall development. The new framework operationalizes the World Food Summit definition of food security in light of recent food security challenges and extends previous frameworks by (1) incorporating the macroeconomic dimension and specifying key economic sectors of food security, (2) explicitly considering external shocks and stresses to food security and counteracting and preventive intervention options, and (3) emphasizing that nutrition outcomes are both a consequence and a cause of underdevelopment. The conceptualization builds on existing literature and integrates sources from different disciplines (such as macro- and microeconomics, agriculture, and nutrition and health) that often have been regarded in isolation of each other in the past.