Food security:



What is food security ?

The concept of food security has been defined on numerous occasions by the international community and it has evolved considerably over time. One of the most fundamental shifts has been the change from an initial concept in which food security was considered equivalent to the reliable availability of food towards the contemporary notion in which food is one of the elements of a complex social context that determines livelihoods. This social context and the relative balance of power that exists amongst the different interest groups that constitute it, are key determinants of the food security situation.

The consensus that has emerged from the global debate is that:

‘‘Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] 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 and healthy life’’.

Food security is a concept that encompasses four main dimensions:

  1. ·Availability in sufficient quantity of food of an appropriate nature and quality in all parts of the national territory, irrespective of its origin (local production, imports or food aid)

  2. ·Access by all people to the resources required to be able to acquire the food needed by them for an nutritionally adequate diet. These resources include not only financial resources, but also rights of access to the resources required to produce food or to receive it from others

  3. ·Stability of access to food, i.e. the assurance of access by people to food even in the face of natural or economic shocks

  4. ·A satisfactory utilisation of food by people that is not inhibited by health or hygiene problems (safe drinking water, sanitation or medical services, etc.).

For an individual to be in a situation of food security, all these conditions must be respected simultaneously.

Food insecurity can best be measured by anthropometric data that can help detect undernourishment and differentiate chronic from temporary undernourishment.

The concept of nutrition security complements the concept of food security by adding a health dimension that encompasses the availability of health services and the knowledge of good food preparation and eating practices required for the health of their family members and indispensable for achieving their full development potential. Nutrition security also implies eliminating any major deficits in minerals and vitamins which often affect the same people who suffer from food deprivation.

As noted above, food security can be defined at various levels: individual, household, community or population group, regional, national or groups of countries. It is obvious that achieving food security at one of these levels does not necessarily mean that it is also achieved at other levels. For example, a country that is in a situation of food insecurity will almost always have some population groups whose food needs are fulfilled. Similarly many countries who are in a situation of national food security include some who people who do not eat sufficiently. A food-insecure household may also include some members who fully meet their food needs.

Caution: do not mix up food security with food safety!

Food requirements and consumption

The amount of energy and nutrients required for healthy individuals to grow to their full potential and to lead a normal life, constitutes their food requirements. These requirements are usually expressed on a daily basis and they vary according to the category of persons (age, weight, physiological stage - e.g. growing, pregnant or lactating - and level of activity).

Food consumption is the quantity of food consumed by a given individual. It also includes wastage of food within the household after it has been acquired. The volume and the composition of this consumption depends on the level of disposable income of the individual (and of the household of which he/she is a member), the population group of which he/she is a member (rural or urban) as well as on a number of social and cultural factors – including knowledge of how to eat healthily -  that determine the nature of food consumed. For example, as income increases, basic food products (cereals, roots and tubers) tend to constitute a decreasing part of food consumption, while products such as meat, fish, fruits and vegetables see their share grow. In the case of China, the traditional diet was essentially based on cereals, vegetables and a small quantity of meat. But the consumption of meat and fish have increased strongly as household income has grown, urbanisation has occurred and markets have developed. More generally, the share of food consumption in total consumption decreases as income increases. For the poorest categories of people in a poor country, expenditure on food may represent as much as 80% of their total budget, while for richer categories this proportion may fall to below 10%. The following diagram illustrates the variation of the share of food expenditure in total household budgets according to the GDP per caput of selected countries in 1990, the latest year for which comparable data for a large number of countries are available.

Share of food expenditure  in total household expenditure according to the level of GDP/caput

(in $‘000) (around year 1990)

Sources : FAO, World Bank

Whereas food requirements are determined mainly by by physiological factors, consumption depends on economic, social and cultural factors. Levels of consumption (also sometimes called food demand) can be influenced by policies, especially those that affect prices.

Poverty and food security

Because income affects food consumption, poverty is one of the main causes of food insecurity.

Poverty is often defined using a poverty line which is fixed as the level of income below which it is possible to say that a person is poor (World Bank). In contrast with this simplistic definition, Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen defines poverty by the absence of a sufficient level of fundamental entitlements such as the right of access to essential goods which may be either the right on what is being produced, or a right of access to goods and services acquired through exchange on markets - including through sale of one’s own labour. He also recognizes extended rights - based on social relations, gifts and counter-gifts and public goods - which can be exchanged by an individual. The amount of goods available to an individual - ‘‘exchange entitlement set’’- can therefore be modified either through a variation in the entitlements of individuals or through a variation of his/her real rights to exchange. Poverty is therefore above all a heavily contextualised complex and multidimensional concept linked to the low (or unequal) capacity of choice that individuals have. Thus income is only one of the dimensions, alongside social, institutional and even cultural dimensions. The concept is related to a multidimensional view of development which has been the basis for the Human Development Report which has been produced annually by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) since 1990.

Poverty is one of the main causes of food insecurity. For poor households, once   expenditures on basic necessities (energy, clothes, shelter and others) have been deducted, there are not sufficient resources left to meet other family needs, including food.  Poverty itself is both a cause and a consequence of undernourishment resulting from chronic food insecurity. Numerous studies have demonstrated that chronic undernourishment is a factor in the perpetuation of poverty. An undernourished person attains a lower level of physical and intellectual development, and his/her capacity to work is constrained, especially by lack of available energy. He/she is also more likely to be sick and therefore not to be able to work at all. Undernourishment is also a vector for the inter-generational inheritance of poverty, as women weakened by an inadequate diet during their pregnancy, give birth to small and fragile infants who will have some kind of physical or even intellectual handicap from the moment of their birth. Similarly, an undernourished child will not do well at school, both as a result of reduced concentration - because of hunger - and also in many cases because of insufficient intellectual development. Finally, poverty is often the enemy of risk: a poor person will hesitate to embark on risky economic activities which often offer the highest potential profits.

Food security, food self-sufficiency, food sovereignty and food safety

People often mix up food security with ‘‘food self-sufficiency’’ and ‘‘food sovereignty’’. It may therefore be useful to distinguish between these three concepts.

a. Food self-sufficiency

Food self-sufficiency is the capacity of a country to satisfy all the food requirements of its population from its national production alone. Self-sufficiency is a central element in the food policies of countries which seek total economic and political independence, as had been the case at one stage of  the USSR in its cold war struggle with the US. But the pursuit of self-sufficiency has been shown to be dangerous for a country,  as it makes it especially vulnerable to any hazard, weather-related or other, that may impact negatively on its production. There are two main characteristics that differentiate these two concepts:

    1. 1) Food security is a broader concept than self-sufficiency, to the extent that it encompasses the possibility of a country using its capacity to import food and not depend just its national production capacity to meet its food needs.

    2. 2) Food security and food self-sufficiency do not have the same goal: while the sole objective of food security is to satisfy all the food requirements of the population, regardless of the source, self-sufficiency gives at least the same level of priority to achieving political and economic independence. This gives this latter concept a stronger political meaning. It is this second point that constitutes the main difference between the two concepts.

  1. From an economic point of view, food security relies heavily on international trade, selling goods that the country produces efficiently and importing goods that it is not so good at producing, following the principle of ‘‘comparative advantage’’. Food security can therefore be achieved by a country that does not produce sufficient food for itself but has the money required, by exporting other products, to purchase food on the world market. Food security therefore may, in some cases, depend heavily on the terms of trade between exported goods and food, and on world food market conditions. This dependence on the market has been felt strongly since the recent food crisis and the increase of global food prices and has encouraged some countries to aspire to higher levels of self-sufficiency.

b. Food sovereignty

Food sovereignty is a concept that was developed and presented for the first time by ‘‘Via Campesina’’ at the World Food Summit organised by FAO in Rome in 1996. 

It is presented as ‘‘the RIGHT of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labor, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies’’.

Food sovereignty includes:

  1. ‘‘Prioritising local agricultural production in order to feed the people, access of peasants and landless people to land, water, seeds, and credit. Hence the need for land reforms, for fighting against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), for free access to seeds, and for safeguarding water as a public good to be sustainably distributed.

  2. The right of farmers, peasants to produce food and the right of consumers to be able to decide what they consume, and how and by whom it is produced.

  3. The right of Countries to protect themselves from too low priced agricultural and food imports.

  4. Agricultural prices linked to production costs : they can be achieved if the Countries or Unions of States are entitled to impose taxes on excessively cheap imports, if they commit themselves in favour of a sustainable farm production, and if they control production on the inner market so as to avoid structural surpluses.

  5. The populations taking part in the agricultural policy choices.

  6. The recognition of women farmers' rights, who play a major role in agricultural production and in food’’.

Food sovereignty has a much more political content than food security as it is inspired by several aspects of the Right to Food.

Origins of the concept: while the concept of food sovereignty was created and first promoted by the international Via Campesina movement in 1996, it has since then been adopted by various anti-globalisation organisations that use it to get their message across. The rights underpinning the concept are not yet formally recognised by international law or international organisations.

Meaning and implications of the concept
: food sovereignty is in essence political as it must result, according to its creators, in the recognition of the right of a country to adopt agricultural policies that are better suited to the needs of its population.

According to its promoters, the objective is to facilitate the revival of a local agriculture that aims in the first instance to supply local, regional and national markets and which has, according to the anti-globalisation movement, a greater economic, social and environmental efficiency than industrial agriculture and large-scale plantations.

Although this concept sometimes appears in official speeches, it remains very much linked to the anti-globalisation movement and  therefore carries a strong political message.

c. Food safety

Finally,it is also important to note that there is often confusion between the terms “food security” and “food safety”, especially when translations are being made. Food safety is concerned  especially with the assurance that food is not damaging to the health of consumers because of contamination by harmful organisms or toxic products. [read more on food quality and safety]

Materne Maetz

(June 2011 - updated in December 2013)


Last update:    February 2018

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