If food insecurity is not about global food shortages, what is it?  Following the a vast body of literature and experience addressing food insecurity, it is the outcome of a complex interplay between:

  • locally-accessible food production
  • local livelihoods options that might provide sufficient, reliable income or sources of food
  • local social relations (which mobilize and create social divisions by gender, class, age, etc.) which shape access to both livelihoods opportunities and available food within communities and even households
  • structures of governance and markets in which that production takes place
  • global markets for food and other commodities that can impinge on local pricing.

Changes in the natural environment play into this mix in that they generally impinge upon locally-accessible production and on global markets. The experience of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) provides evidence to this effect.  FEWS-NET builds its forecasts through a consideration of all of these factors, and as it has gained resolution on things like local livelihoods activities and market pricing and functions, its predictive resolution has increased.

Despite decades of literature and body of experience to the contrary, it seems that the policy world, and indeed much development implementation, continues to view issues of hunger as the relatively straightforward outcome of production shortfalls that can be addressed through equally straightforward technical fixes ranging from changed farming techniques to new agricultural technologies such as GMOs.  This view is frustrating, given its persistence in the face of roughly five decades of project failures and ephemeral results that evaporated at the end of “successful” projects. More nuanced work has started to think about issues of production in concert with the distribution function of markets.  However, the bulk of policy and implementation along these lines couples the simplistic “technical fix” mentality of earlier work on food security with a sort of naïve market triumphalism that tends to focus on the possible benefits of market engagement with little mention or reasonable understanding of likely problematic outcomes.  Put another way, most of this thinking can be reduced to:

increased agricultural production = increased economic productivity = increased food security and decreased poverty

The problem with this equation is that the connection between agricultural productivity and economic growth is pretty variable/shaky in most places, and the connection between economic growth and any specific development outcome is shaky/nonexistent pretty much everywhere unless there has been careful work done to make sure that new income is mobilized in a specific manner that addresses the challenge at hand.  Most of the time, the food security via economic growth crowd has not done this last bit of legwork. In short, the mantra of “better technology and more markets” as currently manifest in policy circles is unlikely to advance the cause of food security and address global hunger any more effectively than prior interventions based on a version of the same mantra.

These issues present us with several key points about the problem we are trying to solve that should shape a general approach to food insecurity:

1)   Because food insecurity is the outcome of the complex interplay of many factors, sectoral approaches are doomed to failure.  At best, they will address a necessary but insufficient cause of the particular food insecurity issue at hand.  However, in leaving other key causes unaddressed, these partial solutions nearly always succumb to problems in the unaddressed causes.

2)   Production-led solutions will rarely, if ever, address enough significant causes of food insecurity to succeed.  Simply put, while production is a necessary part of understanding food insecurity, it is insufficient for explaining the causes of particular food insecurity situations, or identifying appropriate solutions for those situations.

3)   Increased production is not guaranteed to lead to economic growth. The crops at hand, who consumes them, the infrastructure for their transport, and national/global market conditions all shape this particular outcome, which can shift from season to season.

4)   Economic growth does not solve things magically. Even if you can generate economic growth through increased agricultural production, this does not mean you will be addressing food insecurity. Programs must think carefully about where the proceeds from this new economic growth will go in the economy and society at hand, and if/how those pathways will result in greater opportunity for the food insecurity.

5)   Embrace the fact complexity takes different forms in different places. In some places, markets will be a major cause of insecurity. In other places, environmental degradation might play this role. In still other places, failed governance will be the biggest issue driving food outcomes.  In nearly all cases, though, all three of these factors will be present, and accompanied by others.  Further, the form this insecurity takes will be highly variable within countries, provinces, districts, communities and even households, depending on the roles people play and the places in which they play them.  There is no good template in which to fit a particular case of food insecurity, just a lot of causal factors that require extensive teasing out if one hopes to explain food outcomes and therefore address the problem.