In The News

‘Food Security’ Merges with Mainstream Security Concerns

February 9, 2011

In the aftermath of the global food price crisis of 2007-08, world food prices have been steadily rising, reaching an all-time high in January since the United Nations began recording in 1990. Coupled with cries from the Arab world for “bread and freedom!” food security has at last penetrated mainstream debate and high-level policy making. While food security has until recently been classified as a “non-traditional security” topic, current discussions have been prominent, loud, and often vehement enough to take on the visibility and attention usually accorded to the “traditional” security issues – particularly transnational crime and terrorism.

Cambodia market

The huge spike in food prices in 2008, accompanied by food riots in several of the hard-hit countries, has re-awakened interest in food-related issues. Photo by Karl Grobl.

No longer is food security the province of the usually sleepy, backwater agricultural ministries – it has acquired a new prominence. Now, more often than not, food security involves ministries of trade, foreign affairs, and the agencies concerned with national security and defense.

This development has both positive and negative results, of course.

Food security is now being paid the greater attention it deserves, along with agricultural productivity and competitiveness. Over the past two to three decades, with the success of the green revolution, agricultural concerns have receded into the background and worldwide hunger seemed to have been brought under control. Agricultural investment declined, and the media reported far less frequently on starvation as a major global problem.

But the huge spike in food prices in 2008, accompanied by food riots in several of the hard-hit countries, has re-awakened interest in food-related issues. More recently, the turbulent political upheavals and street protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan, which analysts say have at least partly been due to volatile food prices, have highlighted the connection between food costs and political stability.

Nature is also contributing to the current food price increase. The cyclical La Niña phenomenon is unfolding over the Pacific, playing havoc on productivity in several important food-exporting countries, notably Australia and Brazil. Moreover, birth rates in several countries such as the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and the rural swathes of India remain relatively high, contributing to increasing demand and ever-increasing pressures on food production. Yesterday, the UN released an alert that a severe drought was threatening China’s wheat crop – the world’s largest – further adding to rising food price concerns.

The key problem with the “securitization” of food policy is the emphasis on defensive actions as part of food policy. Traditional approaches to food security concerns have tended to emphasize trade restrictions and increased regulation, whereas the more appropriate policy stance is expansive support for increased production and open exchange. Treating food as a strategic asset often leads to hoarding and government control of supplies.

Growth in agricultural productivity and food production, regardless of location, increases the total supply of food and helps lower prices everywhere – especially when public transport facilities are adequate and trade is open and unimpeded by excessive regulatory controls and tariffs. The key challenge faced by nations is assuring that citizens have access to food regardless of where the food is grown, rather than relying solely on domestic production.

Overall, food security efforts must enable the international community to grow plenty of food and, through open trade, to share excess supplies across borders. In this way, countries suffering shortages are assured access to the excess production of other countries. Food security for all becomes truly a global, shared responsibility.

International experts have already identified the key actions necessary to push international food production, while enabling lagging countries to catch up. Transport infrastructure, irrigation, and good seeds are the basics. This seems quite obvious: less than 5 percent of African cropland is irrigated, and poor roads do not allow fertilizers, pesticides, and high-quality seeds and machinery to reach farmers. Food often spoils or is lost before it reaches the markets.

Researchers estimate that with the world’s second-largest supply of arable land, India can by itself make up for all the world’s current food shortages. But it can’t, because just to meet the needs of its current population, India’s production needs to grow by at least 4 percent annually (it is now growing at less than 2 percent).

The hang-ups are largely political, and exacerbated by security fears. Nations tend to resist foreign investments into agriculture, sometimes labelling them as “land grabbing.” Food “self-sufficiency” is seen as a national security imperative, when in fact, this is a short-sighted approach. If other countries can produce plentiful food cheaply, why not take advantage of it?

V. Bruce J. Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s director for Economic Reform and Development Programs. He can be reached at btolentino@asiafound.org.

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