Insights and Analysis

Food Security = Agricultural Productivity + Effective Governance

September 29, 2010

By V. Bruce J. Tolentino

In May 2010, the U.S. Government unveiled Feed the Future (FtF) as its global initiative to combat hunger and food security. And, at last week’s Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York, President Obama declared better agriculture production as a way to help developing nations on the long-term path to prosperity. Thus, President Barack Obama made good on the agreement made by G8 leaders in July 2009 to “act with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security.”

Workers load bags of rice at mill in Cambodia

Whether or not President Obama's Feed the Future program is a success will depend largely on whether the U.S. Administration pays close attention not only to agricultural productivity, but also effective governance, which is critical to achieving food security. Photo by Karl Grobl.

President Obama’s pledge of at least $3.5 billion for agricultural development and food security over three years helped to leverage some $18.5 billion from other donors in support of a common approach to achieve sustainable food security – an approach that builds upon the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action. Such investments embody international commitment to improve aid harmonization, alignment, and management in order to achieve long-lasting, high-impact development results.

However, Feed the Future’s success will depend largely on whether the U.S. Administration pays close attention not only to agricultural productivity, but also effective governance, which is critical to achieving food security. A key lesson that has emerged from decades of attention and donor assistance on food security, and again painfully re-emphasized from the food price crisis of 2008-09, is that food security is not just a matter of maintaining food and agricultural productivity.

We now know all too well that hunger, malnutrition, deprivation, and want can persist alongside an abundance of agricultural resources. Indeed, it is worth reiterating what all member-nations of the UN agreed upon at the World Food Summit of 1996, that food security must be understood as having been achieved only when “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

The FtF program expects to support the governments and technical agencies of some 20 “focus countries,” including Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Nepal in Asia, in programs focused on:

  1. Production technology: R&D to enhance the availability of high and optimum-yielding germplasm (seeds, varieties, and breeds), extension of improved production practices, pest control, and soil and water management;
  2. Irrigation and water use improvement, such as rehabilitation and construction of new structures and wells;
  3. Post-harvest technology, including primary processing, handling, drying, and storage; and
  4. Extension (training and communication) of agricultural extension workers and farmers in the above topics.

But these productivity-focused approaches neglect daunting impediments to achieving food security, such as persistent policy and regulatory constraints to food trade, (including the continued prevalence of inefficient state enterprises accorded with exclusive controls over key food commodities). Indeed, the efficiency and productivity of the food and agriculture sector has immense bearing on the welfare of entire populations – thus necessitating governance that promotes the interests of the whole, not just the few.

In this globalized age, effective governance must recognize cross-border interdependencies in food supply chains that demand collaboration and cooperation among countries for mutual benefit. Open global trade is crucial for shared food security across nations with different natural resources and endowments that determine their agricultural production capacities. Unnecessary and unexpected constraints on trade disrupt food supply chains and cause price spirals that hurt either consumers or producers.

Thus, the stalled Doha multilateral talks on international agricultural trade should be revived, and regional associations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should be mobilized as platforms for sharing crucial intelligence, including food stocks and production forecasts.

Inclusive and participatory governance is crucial to effective agricultural sector planning and resource allocation. Organized producers need to be able to participate in sector development planning and budget allocation processes at the local and national levels. Inclusive governance also promotes market access for the rural poor, particularly when small entrepreneurs, producers, and other agriculture-based groups collaborate on structured activities to assess demand, supply, and value chains of various agricultural inputs and products.

Moreover, inclusive governance enables appropriate attention to the important role of women in all facets of food security: production, delivery of support services, and nutrition. Across Asia, women perform a significant proportion of field tasks, comprise at least half of all extension workers, and serve as a crucial bridge in transforming agricultural commodities into nutrition, particularly for the young.

Good governance is also necessary for the rational allocation and management of land and other natural resources. Producers, especially small-scale producers, can only focus on high-productivity agriculture when their continued access to farmland is assured, particularly when they cultivate long-gestating and high-value crops. Producers whose security of land tenure is assured tend to take better and longer-term care of their land, contributing to long-term farm productivity and thereby sustained food security for all.

V. Bruce J. Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s director for Economic Reform and Development Programs. He can be reached at [email protected]. On Thursday, September 30, Tolentino will moderate the West Coast release of the long-anticipated IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) Task Force Report on Food Security and Sustainability in Asia. Co-hosted by The Asia Foundation, Give2Asia, and The Asia Society, who sponsored the IRRI report, the event – “Never an Empty Bowl” – will include Peter Timmer, Duncan Macintosh, and Jeremy Zwinger, in discussion with Tolentino. Register for the event.

Related locations: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal
Related programs: Economic Opportunity


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