Friday, February 4, 2011

Critiquing the FAO's Definition of Food Security

This is a short writing sample used for one of my applications which is apropos to my previous post:

According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 925 million people suffered from chronic hunger in 2010. Instances of rising global prices on basic food commodities like rice imply that 2011 could bring a higher number of those suffering from chronic hunger and food insecurity. A myriad of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), governments, and individuals seek to decrease food insecurity, basing their goals on those set by international programs such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Given the relatively nascent concept of food security and the inherent collective action problems of organization at the international level, much disagreement exists about how best to address and eradicate global food insecurity.

An aspect of this is embodied by the on-going debate over the actual definition of food security and insecurity. Many scholars and development practitioners utilize the definition of food security from the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) which states that, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This definition lays out a complex understanding of what constitutes food security, implying that physical access and economic ability to purchase food are only a basic part of ensuring food security. By this definition, populations with physical access and economic ability to purchase food would still experience food insecurity until consumers had access to many different choices of safe, nutritious food. Although this definition offers a solid basis for defining food security, its parameters may prove challenging in implementation of programs of action. A brief analysis of each parameter set forth in the 1996 WFS definition shows the potential for inconsistent or inappropriate prioritization of development goals.

In areas deemed food secure, the most basic assumption scholars and practitioners make is that adequate, stable access to food and capability to procure food exist. A lack of access or capability to sufficient food can occur in populations experiencing chronic food insecurity due to structural poverty, but also arises in situations of political or economic instability such as civil war or recession. The necessity for sufficient food is potentially the most achievable aspect of the 1996 WFS definition because it specifies no nutritional or cultural definition for the food supply. However, the expectation of access to a safe, diverse, and culturally appropriate food supply and the nutritional utilization of food add an additional layer of complication to the work of development practitioners.

This is not to say that food safety, nutrition, and a level of food abundance is not a desirable outcome for populations with food security concerns. One cannot observe a population reliant on grain alone and deem it a population with a secure food supply. In addition to sufficient access and capability to purchase food, it is logical to consider a population food insecure until the food supplied covers nutritional expectations. It is the assumption that a population is food insecure until the food supply is deemed safe and diverse enough to offer consumers choice through which to meet nutritional requirements. Through observing the repeated breakdown of the Doha Round trade talks in the World Trade Organization, it becomes apparent that international standards for food safety are not easily agreed upon. Food that comes in contact with a certain pesticide may be considered safe in one country, but not in another. Which standards satisfy the definition of safely produced food? Additionally, the implication that a population which is otherwise able to meet their nutritional daily values through a stable food supply suffers from food insecurity does a potential disservice to those facing structural or temporary issues of food security.

Perhaps the overarching problem with the 1996 WFS is not necessarily one of definition, but of measurement. While the WFS definition encompasses the multidimensional challenges of combatting food insecurity, its scope potentially convolutes the appropriate hierarchy of necessary action on the part of practitioners. In an ideal world, humankind would have physical and economic access to a sufficiently safe, nutritious, and diverse food supply. However, it seems inappropriate for development practitioners to focus scarce resources on areas in need of more culturally appropriate nutrition as opposed to focusing aid on populations suffering from structural inability to access nutritious food. With a measurement of the relative need resulting from each aspect of food security, perhaps development practitioners could more efficiently curb instances of food insecurity.


  1. I ruv your blog. I've always studied food (although in a different capacity from your interests, which I <3). One time I was at a party and a dude was like 'why food? who cares?' What an transcends science, art, law, politics, everything!

  2. Just saw this comment (for some reason!). You are too kind! Also I ruv you and your science-y self. :)