Food Security: In the context of human development

Published on September 16, 2010   ·   No Comments

by Dr. Chinthaka Batawala Dr.(Mrs.) Ruwanthi Abhayagunaratne

In recent years, the actors involved in the fight against poverty have become increasingly aware of the effects of their actions. The concept of human development widens the horizons of economic development and represents a new objective for policies and action on a local and global scale. It challenges established paradigms of growth in income, top-down democratization and cultural homogenisation.

The challenge of applying the human development paradigm to action on a local as well as global scale is one of the greatest challenges that the new millennium offers. Its main objective is to fight widespread poverty in countries belonging to different geographical and economic areas throughout the world.

Although opportunities for development are important, these opportunities must be accessible to everyone in a global social and economic growth process. Action must focus on the more vulnerable categories in order to create concrete ways of escaping from perverse mechanisms such as poverty traps.

Food security

Food security is a human right, and its provision is a common responsibility. Recognition of this fundamental right by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) has been marked by a progressive evolution. After 20 years, the Global Agreement on Food Security has reiterated this common responsibility of humankind as well as the need for both moral engagement and cooperation. The World Declaration on Nutrition adopted by the 1992 International Conference on Nutrition laid out clearly problems of hunger, of malnutrition, and of nutrition-related diseases; and it highlighted the import of poverty, ignorance and lack of education as significant drivers of global hunger and malnutrition.

For the first time – on the global level – the issue of food security was addressed by national leaders during the 1996 Food Summit held in Rome. This event placed the issue within a global context by aligning its opportunities with elimination of poverty, attainment of peace, the rational and sustainable use and management of natural resources, conduct of fair trade, and the mitigation and the prevention of natural and man-made disasters. The 2008 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Global Food Crisis Summit resulted in a consensus statement and called on the international community to marshal aid to those countries and regions affected by soaring food prices. Apart from increasing global food production, the statement urged strengthening investments – both public and private sector – in agriculture, in agriculture-related business, and in rural development. Also, it called for re-evaluation of agriculture-related business restrictions, and for increased investments in bio-energy research. From this, donor nations and their international financial institutions have begun to forge a “balance of payments” response; in particular, for countries with limited capacities in food import.

Notwithstanding these high level deliberations to end food insecurity and malnutrition around the world, about 862 million people suffer, as yet in 2008. Long-term prospects foreshadow a continuation of this suffering – in fact, a worsening is seen on the horizon, in particular for Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The consequences of the collapse of the latest World Trade Organization talks on the agricultural products trade – in light of the present international tensions relating to climate change -suggest that the food security issue may not resonate with the international community, in the short term.

Currently, the food issue has re-emerged vigorously and has been placed at the highest level of national and international (political, scientific, economic, and advocacy) agendas in a context dominated by such factors as: the soaring prices of basic food products; a decrease in non-renewable energy resources; alarming scenarios of climate change; and widespread domestic and international migration. Concerns now focus on the ability of the planet to feed its 6.5 billion inhabitants, especially in some southern countries where malnutrition and food insecurity are still relevant challenges despite scientific and technological progress and the genetic revolution.

It may seem unnecessary to remember that food insecurity is a result of the combined effects of many factors such as poverty, inadequate food production, degradation of natural resources (that is, the quality of air, land, water, and biodiversity), weather hazards, low incomes of farmers, debt service, the overvalued exchange rate and inflated human population growth. All of these have amplified pressure on the environment and on available natural resources. In addition, distortion and fluctuations in international agricultural markets-in particular the concentration of agricultural production in some exporting countries recognized by their protectionist trade policies-weigh heavily on food security deficits within many countries. Finally, the liberalization of world agricultural trade is also worsening the already deteriorated situation of the poorest countries.

As a response, it is generally recognized that food production will have to increase to meet the constantly increased global demand. In these circumstances, the pressures that will be placed on agriculture to meet this demand require additional innovative solutions. In this perspective, we do not hesitate to consider sustainable agricultural development as a strategic choice to achieve food security. But the generic and cross-cutting nature of the concept of sustainable agriculture requires precaution in its use, country by country, and continent by continent. In other words, any strategy or policy development could now embrace the goal of sustainability, but the implications of such choices are numerous, particularly with regard to: food sovereignty; air, freshwater, and land use and management; biodiversity; social justice; ethics; and local or global governance. Addressing this specific cross-cutting characteristic of sustainable agriculture, therefore, is very crucial.

Differences between contextual frameworks and objectives often confuse and complicate the decision-making process. Without a clear understanding of the purposes and expected outcomes of sustainable agriculture with reference to sustainable rural development, compromises on strategies and policies to be implemented would be less productive. Although agriculture is an activity integral to human life and that of societies, and given that it marshals and consumes significant resources (that is, financial and technical, natural and human), the choices adopted at different political, socio-economic and scientific levels, there is-as yet-no consensus on the future of agricultural economy, food systems and rural areas. The current global food crisis, however, can be considered at this point as overwhelming evidence.

Rethinking of development

A focus on agriculture raises other political and scientific debates on land use, technology, redistribution mechanisms, public health, biodiversity, sovereignty and collective security. Exacerbation of the current world food and energy crises and the human and environmental impacts of globalization and climate change (especially on the world’s poor) call for a rethinking of development in an holistic manner-and agricultural and rural development in a particular way. Hence the need for a holistic approach – addressing problems with all their recognisable complexity, in a spirit of economic, social and environmental sustainability, equity and solidarity- is a must.

Having to understand the extensiveness of the evolving concept, food insecurity has several repercussions on other aspects of human security. Most significant is the fact that food insecurity threatens individuals’ survival, especially the poor and marginalised. Soaring food prices has a significant weakening impact to their purchasing power. According to some experts, there is no margin for survival in regions where food comprises from half to three quarters of household purchasing power. Asia is home to two-thirds of the world’s poor, for whom food takes up 30% to 50% of their household budget.

The problem of food insecurity should not only be seen as a matter of famine and hunger. With regard to the food utilisation, the increase prices of food are forcing people to consume cheaper foods with lower nutritional status. High food prices could also threaten to reverse the gains in poverty reduction in the Asia, and thereby, undermine the global fight against poverty. International organisations such as the ADB and FAO have noted that if high food prices persist, the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 could be jeopardised.

Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries are developing countries with large trend of urbanisation that has created wider disparities between the urban and rural population. Many of the rural households in Southeast Asia are small farmers that have become net food consumers instead of producers. Thus, they have not gain benefits from the rise of food prices.

Meanwhile, the necessary support system to improve their farming is frail. Not only would the rise in food prices have adverse impacts on the poor rural populations, but it would also raise the likelihood of increased rural-urban migration, as many flock to the cities in hope of better livelihood opportunities. Such trends are evident worldwide. According to a survey, rural families are sending their children to the cities or abroad to look for work in ever greater numbers due to the dire need to support their families and relatives.In doing so, these poor rural children may run the risk of further jeopardising their own security – such as falling prey to human traffickers, as is the case in various parts of Southeast Asia.

Food insecurity also has grave implications for public health. The lack of food would give rise to increased incidents of malnutrition, which could exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases – such as diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory diseases – especially in developing countries. This would inevitably affect the productivity levels of the populations. The need to effectively engage public health services would be essential to support efforts in addressing food insecurity, as the latter requires a multidisciplinary approach to the problem.

From the perspective of state security, food insecurity would also have implications on the political stability of states, both as a cause and effect. Food security can be jeopardised by the lack of political or social stability. Likewise, food insecurity can lead to political and social instability and, in turn, a regime’s survival. The food riots in Indonesia and the Philippines are prime examples of this. Many Asian governments nevertheless recognize food security as an essential element of their national security. This is reflected in their protectionist agricultural policies such as securing new agreements on imports, increasing the budget to boost rice production and also curbing rice exports and other policies that reflect a sense of “national vulnerability” towards the availability and access to food supplies.

In the Philippines, for example, the government mobilised the military to guard the distribution of cheap rice to rice distribution stations and poorer areas of Manila and ordered authorities to charge rice hoarders with economic sabotage, a crime that carries a life sentence. Similar form of forced control of market also happened in Bangladesh. (Also it almost took place in Sri Lanka when traders demanded higher prices for rice.) One of the measures taken under the state of emergency in January 2007 was to have the Rapid Action Battalion of the armed forces to patrol and intervene markets in order to prevent irregularities by traders. This clearly reflects the significance of food security as a political issue, and to a further extent, as a matter of regime survival.

Development goals

Apart from its implications on domestic stability, food insecurity could destabilise regional security. The policy to curb food export in order to secure national food supply in one country could have a negative impact on other countries. The restriction on rice exports by Asian rice exporters such as India and Vietnam sparked panic to other importing countries in the region and farther afield. Another example was the public announcement of Thailand’s former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on 30 April 2008 to form an Organisation of Rice Exporting Countries was seen as a political threat to the region as it might hamper the economic cooperation built among regional countries.

The most effective strategy for making steady, sustainable progress on the Millennium Development Goals is to serve all the goals in an integrated way. However, each goal will need a well-defined package of technologies and services for success at the field level. The Task Force on Hunger (which advises on how to meet the target of cutting hunger in half by 2015) is providing appropriate guidance for developing these packages in the case of hunger. Pursuing each goal separately without acknowledging its inter-linkages with others will reduce the complex process of human and economic development to a series of fragmented, conflicting, and unsustainable interventions. A comprehensive and harmonious development approach is much needed.

Given that the majority of poor people live in villages or rely on agriculture, and that agriculture paves the way for economic growth in the poorer nations, agricultural, human and rural development will underlie progress on the broad array of economic and social indicators that the MDGs emphasize. In pursuing the MDGs, we should seek ultimately the elimination of hunger, poverty, and maternal and child malnutrition. In this regard, particular attention should be paid to averting maternal and fetal under- and malnutrition, which lead to the low birth weight that damages health, reduces cognitive ability, and robs nations of healthy and productive adults. Micronutrient malnutrition is a part of these larger, devastating “hunger” problems.

An emphasis on healthy, productive individuals means that we must attend not simply to food security at the aggregate level, but to nutrition security (economic, physical, social, and environmental access to a balanced diet and clean drinking water) at the individual level of child, woman, and man. Our interpretation of the MDGs must therefore be modified to promote a reduction in the absolute number of people living in unsuitable conditions across all countries, rather than a reduction in global proportions. The World Food Summit goal, for example, aims to reduce the absolute number, rather than the proportion, of people suffering from hunger. Despite these limitations in framing the task at hand, the MDGs can be used to set a powerful agenda for developing countries and the international community, because they offer a guide for planning and implementing a broad range of development efforts.

The agriculture-hunger-poverty nexus

Eradicating hunger and poverty requires an understanding of the ways in which these two injustices interconnect. Hunger and the malnourishment that accompanies it, prevents poor people from escaping poverty because it diminishes their ability to learn, work, and care for themselves and their family members.

If left unaddressed, hunger sets in motion an array of outcomes that perpetuates malnutrition, reduces the ability of adults to work and to give birth to healthy children, and erodes children’s ability to learn and lead productive, healthy, and happy lives. This truncation of human development undermines a country’s potential for economic development for generations to come. There are strong, direct relationships between agricultural productivity, hunger, and poverty. .

Increased agricultural productivity enables farmers to grow more food, which translates into better diets and, under market conditions that offer a level playing field, into higher farm incomes. With more money, farmers are more likely to diversify production and grow higher-value crops, benefiting not only themselves but the economy as a whole.

By increasing food availability and incomes and contributing to asset diversity and economic growth, higher agricultural productivity and supportive pro-poor policies allow people to break out of the poverty- hunger-malnutrition trap.

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