Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

1. The concept of household food & nutrition security

1. The concept of household food & nutrition security

Access to adequate food, which is one of the fore-most basic needs of life should be the birthright of every single human being on this earth. On its part, mother nature has provided this unique planet of ours with such abundant resources and human beings with such intelligence that the global production can easily feed the present and future population of this entire world. Yet, the way human society has got organised, one fifth of the population of the developing countries i.e. about 800 million people suffer from chronic under nutrition (FAO 1992). Many of them are at the threshold of starvation, one or two poor harvests can push them into the jaws of death. These chronically undernourished millions are trapped in a vicious cycle - not getting adequate food regularly and therefore, not being able to lead a healthy and active life and without such a life, not being able to either produce or procure required food. Many more millions are mildly or moderately undernourished. In lay man's language all these millions can be said to be food insecure and others can be said to be enjoying food security.

The specific term "food security" is of recent origin, although in some form or other, adequate availability of food must have been one of the most primary concerns of the human beings since time immemorial. In recent years, most of the experts like to define food security as access by all people at all times to enough food for a healthy life. It was FAO Committee on World Food Security which, in a way, formalised the definition in 1983 and incorporated following three specific goals for food security:

The World Bank Position Paper on Poverty and Hunger (19.86) added an "activity level" concept to these goals, stating that "food security must assure access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life." In turn, food insecurity was defined as the lack of access to enough food for a healthy, active life style. It is now being increasingly appreciated that food security is primarily a matter of ensuring effective demand rather than a problem relating to food supply. With such realisation, inter-relationship between poverty, hunger and food security is gaining international recognition and serious attempts are being made to define and identify people at risk. It is, therefore, important that every household should either have capacity to produce adequate food for all the members or have purchasing power to acquire it. It has to be appreciated that a country may be food surplus but all its citizens may not be enjoying food security as some may have no purchasing power. On the other hand, a country may be food deficit but every person may be enjoying food security, with that country being able to import the required quantity of food and each person having either direct access (through the family's income) or indirect access (provided by the welfare State) to required food. In its turn, the lack of adequate access is a function of either production fluctuation or price fluctuation or a combination of both. "These two fluctuation lead directly to a fluctuation in real income within the community. These fluctuations in real income, both direct & indirect, affect the farmer, the agricultural labourer, as well as other member of the society, will ultimately have an impact on household food consumption, that of the poorer households being particularly sensitive." (Alberto Valde's, 1981) It is therefore, necessary to combat such fluctuation in order to ensure and maintain food security, for which the country must hold highly liquid assets, either in the shape of food stocks or monetary instruments. Attaining food security is therefore, a costly affair and this is why we find rich countries being food secure at any cost & poor ones food-insecure.

Household Food Security

It will be clear from the above that although national food security is important as providing a foundation, in the ultimate analysis what is more important is food security for each and every household and within it to every member of the family. Put differently, "at the household level, food security is defined as access to food that is adequate in terms of quality, quantity, safety and cultural acceptability for all household members." (Gillespie, and Mason, 1991). Reference can, at this stage, be also drawn to the concept of household food security adopted recently at the International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) held at Rome during December 1992, at which the author happened to have represented the country. "Food security is defined in its most basic form as an access by all people at all times to the food needed for a healthy life". Achieving food security has thus three dimensions. "It is necessary to ensure a safe and nutritionally adequate food supply both at the national level and at the household level. It is necessary to have a reasonable degree of stability in the supply of food, both from one year to the other and during the year. And most critical, is the need to ensure that each household has physical, social and economic access to enough food to meet its needs" (ICN Pub, 1992). This means that each household must have the knowledge and the ability to produce or resources to procure the food that it needs on a sustainable basis. The Conference went one step forward and recognised the importance of intake of balanced diets and also cautioned against over consumption or waste of nutrition as sometimes seen in developed countries. It reiterated that assuring food security should be the fundamental objective of the development strategy of countries and the extent of the attainment of this goal should be a major indicator of the success or failure of the developmental process. The Conference went on to suggest that in countries where food insecurity is quite prevalent a multi-sectoral and multi-organisational approach has to be adopted which should, inter-alia, include adoption of such appropriate developmental strategies which will encourage economic growth with a specific focus on removal of poverty. The emerging phenomenon of what is being described as "jobless growth" has also to be taken care of, especially in developing countries like India, where labour saving technologies may be inducing national growth and incomes but rate of employment generation may not, in reality, be increasing. It will, therefore, be necessary to make substantial investments in human development so as to improve the health, as also the educational and technological skills of the work force enabling them to participate gainfully in the expanding economy and earn increasingly higher incomes. If this does not happen, the poor will be crushed between unemployment on one hand and rising food price on the other. It has to be appreciated and acknowledged that investment for ensuring food security is investment in development and Food' is really a 'development input'.

The strategy should also consciously reduce the fall-outs on account of structural adjustment programmes to a minimum and where such fall-outs become inevitable, provide for appropriate measures to alleviate the hardships for the poor. The families at risk would also need to be identified and such risk reduced by stimulating employment generation, increasing the skills of both men and women, providing improved and appropriate production technologies etc. In the rural areas, access to land and other resources would need to be improved, marketing infrastructure expanded, agriculture diversified to high value products and agro-industries promoted. It will also be necessary to stabilise food supplies and smoothen year to year and seasonal variations in food availability by maintaining required buffer stocks. Further, if, as a part of globalisation of economy, domestic cereal prices are allowed to rise and domestic market is integrated with the international market, it will have to be seen whether incomes of the poor are also moving towards international levels. Even if this positive development is taking place, short term measures like public distribution of foodgrains, food coupons etc. will have to be continued because Indian consumer with one three hundredth per capita income compared to that of the developed countries cannot be expected to pay the same price for food-grains as those in the developed countries.

International Recognition and Action

Organised international concern and concrete action in the field of food security has been of a fairly recent origin. It was at the World Food Conference, organised by the FAO at Rome in 1974, that pointed attention of the world leaders was drawn to the need for devising ways and means for ensuring food security to the millions of poor of the world who could not afford even one square meal a day. The Conference was organised against the background of a sharp decline in the world food production in the sixties and early seventies, threatening a famine at the global level. The Conference adopted a solemn declaration stating that "no child, woman or man should go to bed hungry and no human being's physical and mental capabilities should be stunted by malnutrition". A special agency under the aegis of the U.N., named the World Food Council, was also set up to coordinate production and distribution of food at the global level to realise the goal set by the Conference. It was the good luck of the millions living in the threatened countries that the global famine did not occur and the apprehended sharp decline in world food production did not take place. On the other hand, countries including India, were able to get out of the rut of stagnating food production and achieve rapid growth through adoption of a technological package, commonly called the green revolution. This silver lining apart, the declarations adopted at the World Food Conference could not really be attained in the subsequent years; may be the world community became complacent once the threatened global famine did not materialise. It is disappointing that the U.N. is presently examining the possibility of either abolishing the WFC or transferring its functions to some other U.N. agency due to resources crunch. Not that the world has become free of famines but localised famines probably do not stir the conscience of world community to that extent any more. The other side of the picture is that it is now well accepted that the specter of hunger will not vanish even if the world as a whole is able to produce every year the quantity of food required arithmetically i.e. population multiplied by per capita nutritional norms. This is also true at country level in the developing world. It is now fully realised that what is more important is to provide purchasing power to households at risk; the production and availability of food will automatically go up. This, however, is a highly elusive goal; with no immediate scope to get stable gainful employment, families cannot have any food security.

It is, therefore, no wonder that as recently as in 1990 the FAO report on the State of Food and Agriculture concedes that "no contemporary problem compared in gravity to the human devastation caused by persisting hunger and malnutrition". Recognising the grave situation at the joint FAD/WHO sponsored International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) at Rome in 1992, all the participating countries pledged, amongst other things, to eliminate, before the end of the decade (i.e. by 2000 AD), famine and famine related deaths and reduce starvation and widespread chronic hunger substantially within the same decade. The concern highlighted at these two Conferences in 1974 and 1992 has at least succeeded in putting into sharp focus the great challenge before the policy makers in ensuring food security to all in their countries and the need for concerted action at the global level. ICN-92 has, in fact, extended the concept of food security to one of nutrition security, without which an active and healthy life for all will not be possible. The unfortunate thing is that that challenge appears too big for many countries to handle, notwithstanding the efforts being made by them and such efforts being supplemented by FAO to increase food production and by World Food Programme and UNICEF to reach the food and nutrition to the needy. Much greater efforts will be required both by the concerned countries as also by the UN agencies, to achieve at least food security to all the people on this earth in foreseeable future and simultaneously work for the total nutrition security for all, though it may be achieveable only over a longer period of time.

Availability of Food at the Global Level

At the global level, there is adequate food available for every human being and enough food can be produced for the world's growing population. However, the World is characterised by a limited number of surplus food producers with the potential to export food and a very large number of food deficit countries, which cannot afford to import the required quantities of food, are developing countries with serious balance of payments problems. Such countries, even those facing chronic food shortages, cannot depend on food aid and when it is made available it can sometimes carry its own hidden price. "The distribution of food aid, predominantly itself a result of domestic need to dispose off surplus production in ways which do not depress the world food prices has often been political" (Tarrant, 1980). To make matters even more difficult for underfed, the aid is often tied to specific projects with a part of the aid, sometimes substantial, getting back to the donor countries in the shape of purchase of machines and payments to experts. At the other end of the spectrum, there are situations when "aid is used by elites in the receiving countries to entrench themselves and continue with their exploitation of poor in other own countries." (Jon Bennet, 1987). If only the food aid could be delinked from all extraneous politico-rnilitary consideration, there would be no need for millions to go hungry to bed and breed more numbers in the false hope of fighting off poverty and hunger. It is unfortunate that such a situation prevails notwithstanding mountains of accumulated foodgrains with a few countries. If fact, some of these countries have to make incentive payments to their farmers to keep their fields fallow so that food prices are maintained at high levels. In the most recent past, while people in the starvation hit sub-Saharan countries could be saved by sending a few million tons of food there, the developed countries carried a closing stock of something like 273 million tones of foodgrains at the end of 1992-93 (International Wheat Council Report No. 214, London, 1994). The global production and consumption pattern for foodgrains is itself very skewed. It is estimated that the developing countries having 70% of the world's population, produce only 45% of the foodgrains. While a substantial part of the grains produced in the developed countries is fed to the animals, it is estimated that "as compared to an average requirement of 2250 calories, about 5000 calories are used on per capita basis in the developed countries. (Bapna, 1990). A paper distributed at the PrepCom meeting for the International Conference on Population & Dev. in Cairo (Robert Sessone, 1994) also echoed similar sentiments and tried to explode the myth that the problem of developing countries are their own creation due to burgeoning population they have. It observed that "the 20 countries having the worst food situation are low population countries and 18 of the 20 have low population densities; that since 1961, the percentage of people living in developing countries with a diet averaging less than 2000 calories per day has decreased from 74 to 6%; that since 1961, the percentage of people living in developing countries with a diet averaging more than 2600 calories per day, has increased from 2 to 50%; that since 1947, food production per person has increased by more than 40% in developing countries; that more of earth is covered by forest than is used for farming and that most of the earth's potential farming land is not used for farming." The situation is compounded by the fact that most of the developing countries neither have the financial resources to purchase the required foodgrains from the international market nor have been able to get out of the rut of shortage of food from their own indigoes production due to a number of factors - historical as well as the inequalities imposed by the modern market economy. In her introduction to the book "The Hunger Machine", Susan George says "This book, because it is about hunger, is primarily about inequalities. Sometimes these inequalities are quite straightforward, like the obvious disparity between the rich nations and the poor. Sometimes they are hidden one inside another, like Russian dolls. But always everywhere they are reasons for deep seated, persistent hunger, simply another name of injustice." (Jon Bennet, 1987). Distortion in aid policies continues even today. "Donors send only one third of development assistance to the 10 most populous countries, which have two thirds of the world's poor. The richer developing countries of W.Asia get US$ 21 per capita against US$ 6 per capita for the poorer countries of South Asia" (UNDP, 1994 Edn). The availability of food in different countries, therefore, varies greatly. Such availability can be assessed on the basis of dietary energy supply (DES), which generally measures availability in terms of calories per capita per day. DES for some selected developing and developed countries is given in Table I below (FAO Annual Reprot, 1992)












































































DES in 1986-88 was thus as low as 1925 calories in Bangladesh and as high as 3901 in Belgium. It is certainly a huge disparity, even after discounting the varying calorie requirements of people in different climatic regions. The disparity is substantial even within the developing world, the DES to an average Chinese was almost 25% more than to an average Indian. Another point to be noted is that while DES for the developed countries has been continuously rising since 1972-74, and has also been increasing for some developing countries like China, Brazil, Egypt and Mexico; for many poor countries, it has been more or less stagnating at prevailing levels, showing even negative growth once in a while. This clearly brings out the inter play between food security and poverty in many of the developing countries. It is, therefore, no wonder that in the FAO Report, 1990 Mr. Edward Saouma, Director General of FAO stated "I must express once again my deep concern that one out of five persons of the population of nearly 100 developing countries remain under-nourished. Also, we cannot be oblivious of, nor indifferent to, the fate of the millions of people who are threatened by starvation as soon as a season of insufficient rainfall or any other natural or man made event, disrupts the normal supply of food or hinders their access to it", it also has to be appreciated that no less than 30% and up to 75% of total calorie supply in developing countries is cereal based. Therefore, as the first step toward food security, the availability of cereals itself is the major problem for millions of poor people in these countries. The problem is most serious in some of the African and South Asian countries. However, availability of cereals is only the first and in fact, preliminary step. Such availability may only prevent the human being from dying of hunger. Human beings, unlike animals, cannot just live at survival threshold. The human mind goads him to indulge in physical and mental activities that will make human life easier and richer. For this, one must have a healthy body and mind. In order to reach such a stage of healthy body and mind and maintain oneself at that stage, intake of not only cereals but other food items like milk, fruits. vegetables, pulses, fish, egg etc. is required so that the human body can get various nutrients (including micronutrients) that will make the body active and healthy both physically and mentally. The availability of all these has to be, therefore, looked into. In other words, the entire food and nutrition security is what that must interest us. In the next Chapter, we will examine the requirements of various foodstuffs and nutrients that experts recommend for consumption in India.

Previous PageTop Of PageTable Of ContentsNext Page