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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September/October 2008

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Food Security: Achieving the Potential

This June, amid skyrocketing global food prices and a few months following riots that ousted Haiti’s prime minister and fomented unrest in several other countries around the world, representatives from more than 180 countries met in Rome at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security, declaring at its conclusion, “We commit to eliminating hunger and to securing food for all today and tomorrow.” Despite similar commitments made over the last three decades, including the 1974 World Food Conference’s declaration, the 1996 World Food Summit objectives, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000, the world has made only modest progress in improving food security. As in the past, rhetoric and short-term actions alone will not suffice to fix the problem. Part of the problem lies in the actions being taken or lack thereof, but a substantial difficulty lies in how we have defined food security.

More than 20 years ago, in a chapter entitled, “Food Security: Sustaining the Potential,” the World Commission on Environment and Development (often referred to as the Brundtland Commission) stated that despite an abundance of food, “more than 730 million people did not eat enough to lead fully productive working lives.” Using the same definition of food security, by 2002–2004, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there were 861 million food insecure people, up from 855 million a year earlier—although the percentage of food insecure individuals had declined. About 830 million people experiencing food insecurity in this three-year period lived in developing countries, 10 million more than in 2001–2003. Some of the developing countries, notably China, Vietnam, and Botswana, have made great improvements in food security, but with business as usual, the world will have more food insecure people in 2015 (the end of the 25-year period during which both the World Food Summit goal and the MDG should be achieved) than it had at the time of the Brundtland report. Using different metrics of food security more in line with current understanding—accounting for not only caloric availability but food access and balanced nutrition as well—the number of food insecure would increase.

A continuation of business as usual does not bode well for either the undernourished or the environment. In addition to the rise in the number of people who are food insecure, it is still true, as it was in 1987, that “there are broad areas of the Earth, in both industrial and developing nations, where increases in food production are undermining the base for future production.” Continued widespread soil degradation and inappropriate water management illustrate that the commission’s conclusion is still valid. Continued widespread rural poverty, the inability of poor farmers to get access to appropriate knowledge and technology to expand productivity on existing agricultural lands, and inappropriate use of chemical inputs and water in some locations conspire to push agriculture into areas that cannot support sustainable production. Soil erosion, lowering of ground water levels, waterlogging and salinization, reduced habitat for wildlife, and declines in biodiversity are but some of the negative effects on the ecology. More severe climatic fluctuations and increasing temperatures add to the problems.

However, as the Brundtland Commission also noted, “the world produces more food per head of population today than ever before in human history”; since the report, global food production has increased faster than the population. And in spite of the large increases in food prices during 2006–2008, the indications are that the world’s farmers will be able to produce enough food to meet the dietary energy and nutrient needs of the 9 billion people that are likely to inhabit the Earth by 2050 at real prices that are likely to be no higher than they are today. The 2006–2008 food price increases do not appear to be a sign that the Earth has reached its productive capacity limits or that we are on the brink of a massive Malthusian global food shortage.

The problem, then, is not primarily one of overall production but rather one of income generation among the rural poor, who to a great extent depend on increasing productivity in food production for such additional income. Nor is it one only of food availability on the global level, which, as its choice of phrase (“food per head of population”) indicates, was a focus of the Brundtland report and others at the time. Today, “food security” is used largely to describe household-level access to food, which focuses on the ability of the household to acquire the food needed by all its members to support a healthy and productive life. The Brundtland Commission alluded to a more individually oriented perspective on food access (“Global food security also depends on ensuring that all people, even the poorest of the poor, can get food”), but in its policy recommendations, the report focuses on the food supply side, failing to encompass the strong interaction between poverty and household food insecurity on the one hand and unsustainable natural resource management on the other.

Poverty and food insecurity, which are disproportionately rural problems, often cause degradation of natural resources, and degraded natural resources contribute to poverty and food insecurity. Interventions are called for to solve these problems jointly. Moreover, as mentioned in the Brundtland report, as much of the world grows wealthier and eats higher on the food chain, changing food demands affect food security for the less wealthy by affecting the amount and prices of staple crops and land. Unfortunately, even today this interaction between poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and food security is not fully appreciated. Much of the current debate is still about whether the productive capacity of the Earth’s natural resources is sufficient to feed future generations rather than how to achieve current as well as future food security goals sustainably.

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