3. Pandora’s Box
The above, although slightly more detailed still only scratches the surface of the concept of food security. Yet even in this incarnation, hints as to the breadth and the true extent of the multi-dimensionality of food security issues start to emerge. With this in mind, consider then the various differing definitions used to describe this phenomenon. First off, it is worth noting that even back in 1992 a thorough study by Maxwell and Frankenberger had already identified close to 200 separate definitions [12
]. That aside, and sticking with the more widely accepted current institutional definitions, there are perhaps two major bodies whose definitions are commonly quoted; those of the United Nations (UN) and various bodies of the United States (US).
Firstly the UN’s definition which itself has had many incarnations over the years; and which incidentally is still being widely debated. Indeed as late as October 2012 the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) had attempted to, once again revise the terminology of their current definition to reflect popular progressive thinking [13
“Food and nutrition security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is safe and consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for a healthy and active life.”
Unfortunately however, these amendments were not endorsed due to being blocked by some countries. Alas despite their best efforts, the UN’s current definition remains that of the 2001 State of Food Insecurity report in which it suggested [14
“Food security (is) a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
The US on the other hand employs several definitions depending on need and the many disparate institutional bodies. In general though, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) normally focuses on national hunger issues while the US Agency for International Development (USAID) mainly operates with an international remit.
Firstly the USDA defines food security as [15
“Access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum: (1) the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (e.g., without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).”
The USAID on the other hand has several definitions depending on the particular purpose. USAID’s current general classification though is based on USAID Policy Determination #19 from 1992 which states [17
“When all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs in order to lead a healthy and productive life.”
The US also have the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, or more commonly the Public Law 480 (PL 480) program which offers a more flexible definition to allow for a range of possible interventions. Again based on Policy Determination #19 food security is determined as [18
“Access by all people at all times to sufficient food and nutrition for a healthy and productive life.”
Furthermore the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) also define the food insecure as those consuming less than 2100 kcal per day [19
There are of course others including those of the European Union and Oxfam etc.
, but the point is well made. Looking at these definitions perhaps the first thing to note is that they collectively represent the more convergent of the many definitions on offer. Yet even despite the certain striking similarities in overall conceptual design, in detail there are also many key differences. This is where food security begins to take on a complexity all of its own. For instance, both FAO and US PL480 include “all people at all times” and “safe” foods—no ambiguity there, but what of “sufficient, nutritious (FAO and USAID)” and “…nutritionally adequate (USDA)” foods [14
]? What are the nutritional needs of humans? Is it a one-size-fits-all deal or are there different nutritional needs for different people? Even when this can be agreed upon, who then determines, or sets the standards? For that matter too, what is the difference between sufficient and adequate or is there a difference?
And what of the FAO’s “physical, social and economic access” dimensions [14
]? Furthermore does the availability of food in sufficient quantity also include consideration of quality; if so, again to what or whose standards? Also what of the market mechanism itself? Is this to be governed by free trade or perhaps through government manipulation of such variables as agricultural subsidies, quota’s and import tariffs etc.
; similarly, who sets food safety standards policies? Are there sufficient market infrastructures; are they well maintained?
Moreover, while the FAO talk of “food preferences” [14
] the USDA focuses on “acceptable foods” [15
]—in this case is acceptable food, acceptable to the person (as in preference) or to the nutritional needs of the person (as in requirements)? Further while, the FAO and USDA talk of an “active and healthy life” [14
], USAID and US PL 480 consider a “healthy and productive life” [18
]; what is and how is an active, healthy or productive life determined, targeted for and measured? Lastly, one does not need to be an expert to understand that the USDA ERS’s blanket figure of less than 2100 kcal per day to represent the food insecure is somewhat potentially problematical. For some of course, such differences might merely be a matter of semantics but for others—policy makers, statisticians and the like—especially if policy is to be predicated on such concepts, such nuances need to be clarified to the nth degree.
3.1. It Just Gets Bigger
The questions are in fact ad-infinitum and yet this does not even begin to take into consideration the fact that such analysis is generated from a single viewpoint (that of the individual) and within a single dimension. In reality, if we were to factor in issues beyond this simple view we are then drawn into the realms of household and national or regional food insecurity as well as the different dimensions of temporary (temporal), chronic (continuous) or cyclical (seasonal) food insecurity. Indeed, one need only look at the conceptual ideas of the Inter-Agency Working Group (IAWG) on the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVMS), to garner a glimpse of just how exponentially complicated the subject can become. FIVIMS for instance, identify 15 “information domains” to aid in understanding the causes of poor food consumption and nutritional status [20
]. These can be seen in Figure 1
and range from the individual to the household to the national; in turn these concepts are further underpinned by several contextual factors whose understanding and interplay are the subject of much research [20
Different levels of food security. Based on ideas from the Committee on Food Security [13
] and the FIVIMS initiative [20
Different levels of food security. Based on ideas from the Committee on Food Security [13
] and the FIVIMS initiative [20
3.2. Different Things to Different People
Further compounding a full understanding of the subject is the fact that the phenomenon is often studied from a particular specialist perspective. Agriculturalists for instance might concentrate on increasing production through improved land management or through maximising crop yield potentials; prevention of disease; and pest control measures etc. This has wide implications for the agricultural community at large, for as expanding populations need to grow, so this may well require biotechnologies and other scientific disciplines to work closely with the agrarian community. In doing so further ethical questions are then brought to the debate regarding natural versus genetically modified organisms; and in such circumstances what of public perceptions and acceptance?
Another interested group is the sociologists whose focus on food security issues might be through the lens of cultural and societal influences of insecurity; population growth and how poverty affects malnourishment; the psychology of income growth and changing dietary habits; or perhaps the dynamics of rural-urban change among others. Also within the sociological mix, considerations are made concerning the non-food aspects of good nutrition which may consist of among others, shelter, sanitation and education. And what of health? Links have been made between poor health, malnutrition and disease. This puts primary health care into the mix along with everything else. Moreover, from the sociological perspective, what of those that cannot provide for themselves; do we once again turn to the humanitarian sector or perhaps offer myriad social safety nets?
Politicians and economists too are not to be left out. This group might attempt to affect food security outcomes through policy driven by domestic or international necessity, political ambition or even public sentiment. Although, in this regard the big caveat here are the various economic and social trade-offs between policies which aim to balance needs with objectives that reflect the prevailing economic and political sentiments of the day.
Yet even amongst all these drivers we need to ask ourselves who is responsible for humanities security of food, is it the individual; the government or state; a multilateral body or institution? Are we to work collaboratively as nations—a global collective, or are the intrinsic self interests of nation states to be put before those of the wider community? In the wider debate do we provide solutions, or simply the means to solutions?
On this, many in fact see the United Nations (UN) as assuming the lead role in global governance along with the USA, various EU agencies and other small but influential think tanks, policy analysts and charitable organisations. Yet without global consensus on a single source of stewardship it becomes difficult to navigate the phenomenon and stay abreast of the latest research or understanding. Publications, journal articles, studies and consultations all take time to filter into general discussion. Then there are the conferences and symposia which debate everything from definitions to methodologies, from concepts to targets. Multilateral and unilateral agreements are made, decisions are questioned and policy strategised and all the while the latest ideological “breakthroughs” tabled for general acceptance might include or exclude previously contended issues. In this melee it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the extant level of comprehension of the subject or to fully understand by what standards we are measuring, analysing or comparing data, ideas or current thinking.
Understanding and promoting food security then, is as much about coming to grips with its nemesis—food insecurity
. Through reverse engineering the social construct, students of the phenomenon aim to break down the problem into its component parts. Food insecurity itself is a multifaceted phenomenon involving many variables and existing on several typological planes which can and does originate from a plethora of possible causes. Moreover, understanding the notion draws on just as many disparate disciplines—from science and biotechnology to political ideology; and from social and economic developmental philosophies to environmentalism and more [5
]. For some, food security represents the ability to trade, supply or simply purchase food in a global marketplace unimpeded by barriers. For others food security is seen as the right of a country to own its food sovereignty—its ability to directly or indirectly exercise control over its own food needs. Yet others still see hunger and nutrition issues as central to an individual’s basic human rights.
On top of this, not nearly enough is known about how all these variables combine or interact to promote or deny food security. Some, like climate change might have obvious implications on the pattern of food production; or so we might think. But what of the other variables; how does the philosophy of economic development affect poverty alleviation and do we fully understand it? What of migration or urbanisation? How about natural resources or biofuels and what else might we not have considered?
From this it can be seen then that the seemingly simple notion of food security is very quickly complicated by difficult and uncomfortable realities; the salient point being that food insecurity is a multi-headed beast with many different masters [21
]. Today it seems that, in and of itself, food security is being seen less and less in isolation of a much wider societal context. On this point and in a rare introspective, the FAO suggested that people have tended to apply contrasting diopolistic significance to the food security phenomenon, suggesting on the one hand, that it has been used as [23
“…little more than a proxy for chronic poverty…”
and on the other—a tendency to apply [23
“…an all-encompassing definition, which ensures that the concept is morally unimpeachable and politically acceptable, but unrealistically broad.”
Indeed reflecting on this point, there appears to be increasing convergence of ideology whereby security of food is being viewed more and more as a constituent part of the broader concept of the social welfare construct including inter-alia
, nutrition security [1
], health care, poverty alleviation, education and human rights [24
Yet while laudable goals in and of themselves, collective progress continues to be wrapped up in the difficulties of conceptual and practical interpretation. Indeed, with such widely divergent remits, security of food continues to suffer from misunderstanding and misconception resulting in ongoing misdirection and dilution of effort and by extension—results. Indeed, until such time as the food security concept stops being all things to all people; or until such time as the international community can properly and adequately re-focus the concept into a single consensual goal, food security is likely to continue to suffer the unacceptably high recurring figures of malnutrition.