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3.1 - Different concepts of food security and their objectives
3.2 - Implications of the choice of concepts for food security action

3.1 - Different concepts of food security and their objectives

There is no one single universal concept of food security. The notion has developed considerably since it emerged in the ‘70s. More than thirty definitions were found between 1975 and 1991 (Maxwell & Frankenberge, 1995), showing the many different approaches that exist to the issue. It would seem to have shifted from highly economic and quantitative considerations in a more humanistic and qualitative direction.

All the definitions emphasize four types of development:

A few definitions of food security:

Over these years, most of the definitions have converged towards a number of key words: satisfaction, access, risk, sustainability.

Food requirements must be met in both quantitative and qualitative terms. The concept of sufficient food can be defined in terms of a given number of calories, the quantity needed for to survive or to lead an active and healthy life, by measuring the consequences of undernourishment (genetic, physiological or behavioural changes), or in terms of an estimated need by household or by individual. Qualitative satisfaction presupposes a nutritional balance in the diet (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) but also a sufficient intake of micronutrients. Furthermore, food must meet certain satisfactory health and hygiene standards. There is therefore some ambiguity about what constitutes the optimum level of satisfaction.

Access to food depends on food security. At this level a distinction should be drawn between availability and accessibility. Availability refers to the short term, and may be limited by insecurity in the area, or the fact that a village is inaccessible, or food prices. Availability is necessary for accessibility to food, but is not in itself sufficient. For example, a region may have food stocks, but a particular village in that region may be suffering from food insecurity between seasons because of its isolation. Again, even though the village market may be is well stocked, a particular family may suffer from food insecurity due to unemployment or if it cannot afford the pay market prices. Accessibility to food is a medium term concept. More often than not, it is a combination of production, trade and social mechanisms. In the countryside, the people mainly reply on what they themselves produce, supplemented by food trading on the market. In the towns, the people’s food requirements are mainly met by the market. In the latter case, social mechanisms (mutual aid, family support, food aid, loans) will be used in order to maintain access by the people to the available food and to guarantee their food security.

The notion of adaptation risks and mechanisms lies at the heart of food security. The level of risk for a household or a community depends on the modalities of access to food and on available capital. To minimize the risks, the people use adaptation mechanisms or reactions mechanisms at three levels:

When these adaptation mechanisms are inadequate and threaten the household’s food security, various things are done to deal with this unfavourable situation, in three stages:

The vulnerability of a population in a region suffering from crises depends both on measures that can be implemented in a given context and the capacity of households to respond to these events. The vulnerability of a population may be estimated by analysing the adaptation and reaction mechanisms implemented and the way they respond to a difficult situation. When the mechanisms are not effective, the household becomes chronically vulnerable.

Sustainability: insecurity is temporary when the household is temporarily incapable of meeting the food requirements of the members of the family. This may be due to unexpected events occurring (insecurity for political reasons) or it may be seasonal because of logistical difficulties or high prices.

Chronic insecurity may be the result of a series of temporary situations of food insecurity which have exhausted all the response capabilities.

The measures required will depend on whether insecurity is temporary or chronic.

3.2 - Implications of the choice of concepts for food security action

The basic choice between galvanizing the system upstream of the food chain or downstream of it in order to create food security is a non-starter. Today most researchers and practitioners agree that a balance must be struck by considering food availability and food access to be of equal importance. (Pinstrup Andersen, 1995). At the present time, the concept of food security is approached from different points of view, as shown in the following tables. These tables indicate the factors to be taken into account in a food security strategy, grouped in terms of timeframe and level.

They show that food security can be approached in different ways, and that it is a multi-disciplinary concept which takes account of technical, economic, social, cultural and political dimensions. Global food security, as recommended by the FAO World Food Summit, would require the consistent simultaneous implementation of all of these measures. Lastly, the concept of food security must form part of the broader concept of food strategy, which itself forms part of a socio-economic development strategy. Figure 1 recalls the main components of a food strategy that is able to meet these objectives and refers to both macroeconomic and sectoral policies (Ghersi & Martin, 1996).

Figure 1
The main components of a food strategy

Source: Ghersi & Martin, 1996
Universal food security presupposes permanent security (short, medium and long term) at all levels (macro, meso and micro). Depending upon the choices of the authorities, certain food strategy elements must be given particular emphasis as the following tables show:

Table 2

Short term

Food crisis early warning:

floods and drought;
badly distributed rainfall;
increased food prices;
sale of livestock;
food deficits;
Food crisis management:
use of security stocks;
supplementary food imports;
food aid distribution
Medium term

Favourable macroeconomic conditions:

per capita income growth;
employment level;
price stability;
exchange rate to avoid over-evaluation and permit foreign exchange access;
Intersectoral balance to avoid penalizing agriculture:
investment in agriculture;
curbing the rural exodus and urbanization;
development of agrifood industry sources of supply and incomes.
Attention to the impact of government policy on food security

Long term (TEXT MISSING)

Table 3

Short term

Liberalization of legislation on food marketing;
Guarantee not to exceed a ceiling price by acting on stocks, imports and food aid;
Medium term
Reduction of formal and informal transaction costs by simplifying commercial procedures,

Standardization of measurements and setting quality standards, and combating corruption;

Improving information given to traders on prices and selling and purchasing opportunities on different markets;

Improving competition by removing unjustified public and private monopolies and ensuring competition between oligopolies;

Liberalization of prices.

Long term


Improving access to credit by producers, traders, processing SMEs; improving the understanding of the operation of markets and channels, the behaviour of the parties involved, the impact of food security programmes

Table 4

Short term

Medium term

Long term

Malnutrition indicators linked to the health, and economic (prices, purchasing power, food availability) context.

Household strategy:

  • work by women and children;
  • changing the diet;
  • changing the allocation of food within the household;
  • reducing the number of meals.

Chronic malnutrition indicators linked to the health context (prevalence of illness, fresh water access, household health practices, health and medical services);

in conjunction with socio-cultural practices (role distribution, the rights of men and women, beliefs and taboos);

linked to the economic context (poverty, activities, resources, vocational training).

Household strategies:

  • using famine food;
  • borrowing within the household;
  • temporary migration of some members of the household;
  • borrowing from moneylenders.

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