Written by Sarah Kiggundu (1)
Food security is a challenge in both the developing and the developed world; the difference lies in the magnitude of the problem and the proportion of the population that is affected.(2) Within developed nations, the challenge to food security can be combated through targeted interventions, such as food aid, which can be addressed through direct food relief strategies, such as food stamps, or indirectly through subsidised food production.(3) Similar approaches have been used within developing nations, unfortunately with a smaller amount of success.(4) For food insecure regions, and particularly for developing nations – like the majority of the countries in Africa – a root cause of this can be attributed to an inability of the poor to gain access to food.(5)
This CAI paper highlights the challenges to food security in Africa and provides alternative solutions to the problem. The paper further discusses how these potential alternative solutions can be used to create space for the introduction of poverty alleviation strategies, in addition to wealth creation mechanisms.
Global progress towards achieving food security
Food security is a fluid concept that is reflected in research and policy usage.(6) It can be defined as having sufficient access, at all times, to safe, nutritious food in order to maintain an active lifestyle.(7) This concept is built on three pillars, namely (i) food availability, (ii) food access, and (iii) food usage.(8) Food availability refers to ensuring a sufficient quantity and quality of food, in addition to providing variety.(9) Food access is the ability of people to obtain food, which is influenced by factors such as infrastructure and consumer preferences.(10) Food adequacy is the appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as having adequate access to water and sanitation.(11) As a result, food security is seen as a complex issue that is linked to health, as well as sustainable economic development, environment, and trade.(12)
In 1996, the World Food Summit (WFS) set as a target, to halve, by 2015, the number of undernourished people in the world.(13) This goal was later adopted by the Millennium Summit of 2000.(14) In June 2002 at the World Food Summit: Five Years Later. progress and achievements were reviewed. The outcome, which was produced from an analysis of the latest trends, has indicated that it is unlikely that this goal will be met.(15) Food availability for direct human consumption grew by 19% between 1960 and 1996; however, availability is still uneven.(16) During the 1990s, the per capita growth of world agricultural production slowed. World cereal production, for example, dropped from 342 kilogrammes (kg) per person in the mid-1980s, to 311kg per person in 1993/95.(17) Output then rose to 323kg per person in 1996/98.(18) Global cereal production for 2012 is expected to fall by 2.7% from the 2011 crop records, but almost match the ‘second-best’ performance of 2008.(19)
Between 1995 and 1997, 820 million people were estimated to be undernourished with 96% of these living in developing countries.(20) Though this number dropped by 40 million between 1980/82 and 1995/97, this improvement is seen to be uneven owing to an overall reduction of 100 million people in 37 countries.(21) The remaining countries, on the other hand, collectively saw an increase of 60 million undernourished people.(22) This fall in absolute numbers was too low to achieve the WFS goal of reducing the numbers of undernourished individuals by half by 2015, as this would necessitate a reduction of 20 million people each year until 2015.(23)
Despite improvements in some countries, the African state of affairs concerning food security has worsened since 1970,(24) particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where the proportion of the population that is malnourished has remained at a level between 33% and 35%.(25) This figure varies from region to region, being the lowest in North Africa (at 4%) and highest in Central Africa (at 40%).(26) It is estimated that 70% of all people considered to be food insecure live in rural areas, and the remaining 30% are the urban poor.(27)
Food security indicators
There are two key food security indicators: the status quo gap and the nutrition gap. The status quo gap is a safety net criterion, which measures the difference between the projected food supplies (calculated as domestic production plus the commercial imports minus non-food uses) and a base period (e.g. 1995/97) per capita consumption.(28) The nutrition gap is a comparison of relative well-being to commercial imports, and is the difference between the projected food supplies and the amount of food needed to support the minimum per capita nutritional standards.(29)
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Committee on Food Security reviews a set of six indicators derived from observations of the global cereals market.(30) These are: (i) ratio of world cereal utilisation; (ii) ratio of supplies to requirements in the five main exporters; (iii) ratio of closing stock in the five main exporters to the domestic consumption plus exports; (iv) cereal production in the three main importers (China, India and the Commonwealth of Independent States - CIS); (v) cereal production in low-income food deficit countries (LIFDC); and (vi) production in LIFDC except China and India.(31)
A key difficulty in interpreting these indicators is that no mention is made of the ability of a country to meet increased import requirements.(32) Developing countries in general face a number of risks associated with trade.(33) The world prices of primary commodities that developing countries export fall over time, relative to the price of imported goods.(34) A related problem in this field is the unpredictability of the global prices of the primary, especially agricultural, goods that are exported.(35) These prices are determined in markets, far beyond the influence or control of developing countries. Furthermore, agricultural output goods are also susceptible to climatic weather conditions, so droughts and heavy rainfall events can damage or drastically reduce agricultural output.(36)
The challenges to food security
With more than one in four Africans being undernourished,(37) and 90% of food in SSA grown under rain-fed agriculture; food production in the region has become vulnerable to changes in weather conditions.(38) Environmental change brought about by altered weather patterns has the potential to seriously impact on food security, especially in Africa’s most vulnerable regions – SSA making up the bulk of these.
In developing countries, agriculture remains the largest economic sector, and international agricultural agreements are therefore crucial to maintaining a country’s food security objectives.(39) Concerns have led the World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states to recommend trade negotiations on agricultural agreements, allowing for developing nations to re-evaluate and raise tariffs on key products, in order to protect national security and employment.(40)
Globalisation allows countries to benefit from capital flows, technology transfer, cheaper imports and larger export markets in the long term.(41) The effect of globalisation depends on the level of economic development, the structures in place during the implementation stage of globalisation and the flexibility of the economy. With globalisation comes the liberalisation of markets.(42)
Access to fertiliser, within the context of the agricultural sector, can be constrained by market liberalisation and trade policies that increase fertiliser prices relative to commodity prices. In Africa, some of the causes for soil fertility depletion includes limited adoption of fertiliser replenishment strategies, in addition to soil and water conservation measures.(43)
Smallholder farmers produce more than 90% of the continent’s food supplies.(44) In the developing world, agriculture accounts for 9% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and more than half of total employment.(45) In countries where over 34% of the population is considered to be under-nourished, agriculture can account for as much as 30% of the GDP.(46) In a country such as Yemen, it is estimated that two thirds of the population rely on agriculture,
both crop and livestock production, to sustain their livelihoods.(47) The rural population also accounts for 85% of the total population.(48) It is also estimated that less than 3% of the country has arable land, and this small fraction of arable land is fast becoming depleted due to over use, land erosion, and human expansion, which in turn has placed additional pressure on the already impoverished and vulnerable communities.(49) Factors such as climate change, water scarcity, unemployment, low levels of education, high levels of food insecurity, and malnutrition have served to exacerbate the current situation in Yemen.(50)
It is not possible to sustainably reduce food insecurity without transforming the quality of life. One of the solutions to this problem is to increase agricultural productivity, in addition to creating rural off-farm employment opportunities.(51)
Issues relating to food security can be directly linked to poverty.(52) The first step towards a holistic approach is to obtain an understanding of the manner in which the community as a whole functions and the characteristics of different household types.(53)
Within the context of the poor – whether the urban or rural setting – it is recommended to: (i) have nutritional interventions; (ii) facilitate market access; (iii) allow for capacity-building; (iv) encourage gender sensitive development; (v) build on coping strategies; (vi) create off-farm opportunities; and (vii) have good governance strategies in place.(54)
To address nutritional interventions and coping strategies, an important argument to consider is that it is completely unnecessary for a country to grow all its own food, it simply needs to be able to acquire the food it needs. This means the ability to earn enough money to export goods to pay for comestible imports.(55) This principle is defined as ‘self-reliance’. It can also be argued that a country must be self-sufficient in order to meet the domestic production needs. Measures can and should include protecting domestic farmers.(56)
Not all countries can expect to be self-sufficient or self-reliant, especially if there are limited export opportunities and high food prices, relative to local production. This is the case with many small island economies.(57) For this reason, governments should establish a capable agricultural sector and identify if the food needs can be met.(58) Agricultural reforms have widespread benefits, and can increase productivity through improving the profit margins and ensuring that food prices lower, in real time.(59)
Investment in long-term strategies such as dietary diversification, food sufficiency and bio-fortification is recommended.(60) Such interventions have lower maintenance costs and a higher probability of reaching the poor. Additionally, establishing facilitative tools to effectively implement intervention strategies is essential. Capacity building can facilitate the development of the agricultural sector and furthermore, input from research and development institutions can aid the achievement of nutritional intervention strategies that can benefit the poor.
Africa as a whole should focus on education, research and development. Education is not only beneficial in terms of acquiring the needed reading and writing abilities, it also allows one to communicate.(61)
The focus of many African governments has been to open up markets. However, the projected gains of world trade liberalisation have so far been minimal in Sub-Saharan Africa. Income gains from trade liberalisation have been reaped by countries with a competitive advantage.(62)
In the developing world, the stereotype still exists that women run the household unit, and are therefore ultimately responsible for nutrition at a basic level within the family unit. The task of empowering rural woman can be complicated, as care must be taken to ensure that whilst empowering women the male figures are not left outside of the learning curve. It must also be understood that certain Western interventions can go against the cultural practices within the household unit, thereby offending the male counterpart.
Rural livelihoods are not limited to income generated from agriculture, but can be obtained from diverse sources.(63) This is often referred to as rural off-farm opportunities/employment. Rural off-farm employment makes a significant contribution towards rural livelihoods.(64) Studies have shown that the income generated off farm contributes towards a large share of the household income.(65) Employment creation or the availability of off-farm opportunities can therefore restrict rural to urban migration.(66)
Part of the role of good governance includes the provision of safety nets to vulnerable groups. It is also important to allow for participation in decision-making regarding outputs that will affect their overall quality of life.(67) Safety net programmes address risks to vulnerability and social exclusion.(68) These types of programmes assist vulnerable households to be protected against risks to their livelihoods and to maintain an adequate level of food consumption, in addition to improving overall food security.(69) These programmes also assist vulnerable households in adopting negative coping strategies that can deplete their assets. Within the context of agriculture, safety nets can also alleviate liquidity constraints for smallholders, boost demands for farm products, foster income-generating strategies, and create multiplier effects throughout the local economy.(70) The rural poor often have strong social links and seek guidance from leadership structures in the community. Additionally, in times of need, it is not uncommon for communities to pool resources.(71)
Emergency food security interventions are not without a set of associated disadvantages.(72) Food aid has typically been imported from donor countries, but in recent times, it is not uncommon to find food being purchased locally within the affected country, or from a neighbouring country – also referred to as local/regional purchase (LRP) or ‘triangular transactions’.(73)
Based on the definition of food security, which is described as having sufficient access, at all times, to safe, nutritious food to maintain an active life, African nations will have to find sustainable ways to feed ‘at-risk’ households. The knowledge for closing the food security shortfall is available through exploiting alternatives such as technology and resources,(74) which can be used to disseminate information to ‘at-risk’ households, as economic growth alone cannot solve the food security issue. With countries that are engaged in civil war, not only is the economy affected by internal conflict, but vulnerable people are displaced.
An effective response, therefore, to an issue this broad can only be tackled effectively through governmental and institutional commitment, as well as targeted responses across all relevant sectors. The importance of donor countries in providing food aid cannot be overlooked.
The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Human Development Report for 2012. states that “food security should be leveraged by building reliance in the face of shocks.”(75) People should therefore be empowered to make informed decisions and essentially foresee any obstacles in the path to securing basic entitlements, such as access to food, income, healthcare and education.(76)
(2) Mwaniki, A. ‘Food security in Africa: Challenges and issues’, United Nations, 22 October 2012, http://www.un.org .
(6) ‘Food security’, World Health Organisation, 22 October 2012, http://www.who.int.
(13) ‘Trade reform and food security: Conceptualizing the linkages’, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2003, ftp://ftp.fao.org .
(19) ‘FAO cereal supply and demand brief’, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 8 October 2012, http://www.fao.org.
(20) ‘Trade reform and food security: Conceptualizing the linkages’, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2003, ftp://ftp.fao.org .
(28) ‘Trade reform and food security: Conceptualizing the linkages’, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2003, ftp://ftp.fao.org .