A future without hunger?

3 March 2015

Food insecurity persists in parts of the world that have been historically prone to hunger and famine – especially Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Although the Millennium Development Goal on halving hunger is close to being achieved, Africa is the only region where the number of hungry people is still rising. So there is no doubt that understanding the causes of hunger and exploring possible solutions are more necessary than ever. With that in mind, ‘Global Food Insecurity’ was the title of my keynote speech at the Rural Futures Mini Colloquium – ‘Rural Futures? Issues, Pathways, Provocations’ last month.

Food security at IDS

IDS has a long and illustrious history in food security, from its establishment in the 1960s to the present. Highlights include Michael Lipton’s research on the Green Revolution in India, Robert Chambers’ and Richard Longhurst’s pioneering work on seasonality in tropical countries (pdf), Hans Singer’s assessment of the pros and cons of food aid, and the creation of a food security unit at IDS. In the early 2000s, as agriculture and food security slipped down the development agenda, so too did IDS work in these areas, until the establishment of the Future Agricultures Consortium, led by Ian Scoones and later by John Thompson. Recently, the Centre for Social Protection has worked on bringing together the food security and social protection policy agendas. 

Four pillars of food insecurity

Understanding the drivers of persistent hunger remains critical as IDS continues to explore the rural dimensions of development. The four pillars of food insecurity can guide our thinking about the complexities of hunger and its relationship to rural livelihoods and agriculture.

  1. Availability: Crop yields remain extremely low in Africa, because of the dominance of low-input, low-output family farming and limited access to fertilisers and high-yielding varieties. This has been exacerbated by liberalisation policies since the 1980s that led to under-investment in agricultural research and extension services, and the neglect of women despite their dominant role in food production and trade.
  2. Access: Food security does not require self-sufficiency – countries like Japan import more than half their consumption needs. But price volatility, such as the world food price crisis of 2007/08 which added tens of millions to the world’s hungry people, undermines national food security for low-income countries and household food security for market-dependent poor individuals.
  3. Stability: Seasonal hunger persists in unimodal rainfall systems (areas with one significant rainy season each year), where food supplies are highest after harvest and lowest pre-harvest, but food prices are lowest post-harvest (when granaries are full) and highest pre-harvest (when granaries are empty). Since 2000, famines have occurred in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger and Somalia, following disruptions to food systems triggered by weather shocks and civil insecurity.
  4. Utilisation: Food intake is not the only determinant of nutrition status. Biological drivers of malnutrition include poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, infant feeding practices, water quality and food safety. Sluggish improvements in these aspects might explain why rapid economic growth and poverty reduction in many countries have not translated into proportionate improvements in child nutrition status.

What does the future hold?

Food security has re-emerged as a development policy concern in various guises in recent years. What does this mean for food insecurity? I suggest that four relevant agendas are on the horizon.

  1. The ‘new productivist agenda’: The belief that food insecurity can be solved by increasing food production remains powerful. In 2014, for instance, the African Union’s ‘Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth’ committed African governments to increase public funding of agriculture to 10 per cent per annum, in an effort to double agricultural productivity and thereby reduce stunting in children to 10 per cent by 2025.
  2. The ‘new nutrition agenda’ recognises the ‘triple burden of malnutrition’: inadequate food intake (hunger); excessive food intake (obesity); and micronutrient deficiencies (‘hidden hunger’). The ‘Scaling Up Nutrition’ (SUN) movement promotes good feeding practices, fortification of foods, effective treatment of acute malnutrition, and access to clean water and sanitation.
  3. The ‘new social protection agenda’ applies approaches such as conditional cash transfers, home-grown school feeding (using local purchase rather than food aid) and weather-indexed crop insurance to address food insecurity. A comprehensive social protection system for food security would combine safety nets and resilience-building against shocks, with targeted support to food production such as pro-poor agricultural input subsidies.
  4. The ‘new governance agenda’ recognises that the persistence of hunger is largely due to failures of accountability at local, national and global levels. The Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index measures political commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition. Several countries, including Brazil, India and South Africa, have legislated for food and nutrition security or have a justiciable right to food in their Constitution.

It will take a combined and coordinated effort linking all of these agendas if the global community is to have any hope of achieving the proposed Sustainable Development Goal to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”. It is tragic but true that, in 2015, ending hunger persists as a basic development imperative. Nelson Mandela put it succinctly: “Freedom is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs”.

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