By Ken Jackson

Honorary academic Ken Jackson explores whether food security is currently in a state of flux.

As someone who has been involved in research on poverty, shelter, food, health, and well-being in society for a number of decades, I am well aware that questions of food security have a long history, especially with respect to aggregate availability of food to nations or societies at particular times. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN FAO) formalised food security in 1974, with its description of food security as, “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”. It was also estimated that in the scientific literature there were literally hundreds of “definitions” of food security, reflecting the situation that it is easy to say and difficult to really pin down in a manner that will either satisfy all parties or lead to satisfactory solutions of the multitude of difficulties in ensuring the achievement of food security for all, or the eradication of food insecurity.

The analysis most commonly related to resource use and distribution approach contains a widespread literature on food security issues. This relates to how much food is produced, by whom, how it is distributed and accessed by consumers. Historically the literature contains studies of periods of famines and shortages. The Economics literature has approached this through some generalised food availability studies, including the bleak: increasing population threat of the Neo-Malthusian outlook, the more optimistic approach of technological change underpinning the work of Ester Boserup and the contrasting entitlement approach of Amartya Sen. The latter focuses on the access to food and distribution, through markets, self-production, and transfers through state or private activity.

Food production was an early focus of those seeking to eliminate famine. The mid-nineteenth century Irish famine, as analysed by Sen, was not, however, merely a case of no food production, with Irish grain exports continuing through the 1840s. Food availability to all members of the population through entitlements to it or the “right to food and sustenance” was not automatically ensured through a nation’s food production.

Definitions of what constitutes and contributes to food security, continue to multiply. Some believe that getting the right measure is essential to eradicating food insecurity, so that policy measures and actions are effective and can be judged as effective. Claims as to the vast reduction in the relative number of those suffering hunger by the time of the end of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, along with those in extreme poverty, are taken as evidence that all is moving in the right direction. The amount of resources devoted to developing measures and definitions, debating and refining them, lead to issues and questions in themselves. The post 1974 expansion in the number of definitions of food security reflect the arguments and diversity of those working in the field.

It is now a matter of not looking for a too narrow definition which is linked too poverty measurement and moves to eradicate that. Nor is a broad definition necessarily either practically useful or satisfactory.  If it is all encompassing and politically acceptable, it may be operationally impossible, a source of criticism of the entitlements approach. Thus, in more recent times the FAO has come to consider food security as, “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”.

Food production is added to by availability, access to not just enough energy, but that the food should be not harmful, and reflect quality as well as quantity. Food safety is less concerned with how much food can be produced or consumed and more with how it is grown, processed, distributed, and cooked so that a reliable, quality, safe to consume product arrives on the consumer’s plate. There is a long history of concern with regulations, knowledge, and education involved in ensuring this is the case. We have come a long way with issues of food security. It is an area which needs a collaboration of many disciplines. The multiplicity of definitions needs to be taken as an indication of the breadth of enquiry needed rather than the imposing of any disciplinary dominance. Less poverty less hunger certainly should be the outcome, but also the chance of a better quality of life for as many as possible.

Ken Jackson is an Honorary Academic in Development Studies at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in food security. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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