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Multiple actions are required to attain food security

By Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi
Secretary-General, UNCTAD

Food security means that the nutritional needs of a country or population are met consistently. According to the 1996 World Food Summit, ‘food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels, exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life.’*

Food security, therefore, has four major dimensions: availability of food, access to food (both physical and economic access), the stability of such access, and food utilisation. Limited access to basic food items leads to food insecurity. This could be caused by skewness of food availability, the depletion of stocks in certain regions, and low productivity as observed in some areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. As regards economic access, although the current commodity price boom has been associated with high levels of GDP growth in commodity-exporting countries, the fuel and food price hikes may have undermined efforts to reduce poverty rates and food insecurity. Commodity price spikes, the financial crisis, and the financialisation of commodities markets have inflated developing countries’ food import bills, increasing domestic food prices. This situation has damaged the ability of many developing countries to maintain or achieve food security, leading to higher poverty levels, and in some instances fuelling social unrest and riots.

food-unctad-1Food crises result from many factors, such as climate change, population growth, low productivity, or commodity price volatility. These factors are interconnected, and are rarely confined to a specific country. The food crisis of 2007–2008, for example, was caused by a number of interacting factors, such as rising oil prices, demand for a more varied diet, supply shocks in a context of low food stocks, and greater demand for biofuels, and was exacerbated by knee-jerk export restrictions. Moreover, experience has shown that food availability does not always translate into food security. For example, the proportion of wheat that was available for food purposes increased from 65% to 68% of total production between 1990 and 2012. Furthermore, the production of commodities has generally exhibited a rising trend over the last three decades. Wheat production has steadily increased since 1990, with an average growth rate of 0.8% per year. World maize production has increased sharply since 1990, with an average growth rate of 3.8% per year. Indeed, as articulated by the World Hunger Education Service, the world produces enough food to feed everyone. Yet, about one billion people eat far too little, while another billion people eat far too much. Seen from this perspective, food insecurity is an issue of distribution, and of entitlements.

The recent food crisis has been a wake-up call, to refocus attention on world food systems in order to avoid a similar crisis in the future. Thus, food security has become a prominent issue on the policy agenda across the world. Unlike developed countries, where food security is more of a mismatch between demand and supply, developing countries face a more complex situation that goes beyond a mere balance sheet. Therefore, policies to ensure food security in developing countries need to adopt a more holistic approach that takes into account a range of different dimensions, including social protection, the right to food, and human rights, as well as broader developmental concerns such as the role that smallholders can play in agricultural development and their access to international markets.

A number of options exist for both developing and developed countries to foster world food security. Developing countries may draw many benefits from WTO-compatible policy options – for example, Special and Differential Treatment, green box subsidies, and de minimis input subsidies – to ensure a good price for producers while providing financial support to targeted consumers such as those on a low income. There is also a real need for strengthening regional integration, establishing rules that foster co-operative behaviour among developing countries, and ensuring that these rules play their expected role in food crisis management. Furthermore, developing countries need to provide support to domestic producers in order to increase their capacity to cope with shocks to their production. Such support could include agricultural research, especially on sustainable agriculture practices, pest and disease control, and marketing. Public policy is essential in creating an enabling environment that encourages technology uptake, innovation, and development. Vulnerable countries could also consider making food security stocks an integral part of their food security strategies. Such stocks would help them to minimise the negative effect of international food market price hikes on local consumers. Last but not the least, the international community should come together to ensure the multilateral harmonisation of standards, in order to eliminate disguised protectionism and dumping practised by large net food exporters. International organisations must also continue to play their crucial role by formulating trade rules that treat food-scarce and food-abundant countries differently, as they have different needs.

* Food and Agriculture Organisation (1996). Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action. World Food Summit. 13-17 November.


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