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Defining food security

Defining food security

The interpretation of the term "food security" has changed substantially over the years. Initially the preoccupation was with international supplies of food, when it became apparent that national availability and international supply adequacy were not synonymous, the emphasis shifted to national production and food reserves and the pre-occupation with self-sufficiency. That adequate national supplies and household food insecurity could often go together, was apparent, however, and the emphasis shifted to the household level, as well as to the idea that food security was intrinsically bound up with a variety of inter-related livelihood strategies where: "food security must be treated as a multi-objective phenomenon, where the identification and weighting of objectives can only be decided by the food-insecure themselves" (Maxwell, 1996:160). The emphasis here is on the diversity of objectives and experiences which characterise and shape the outlook of the individual and on the avoidance of pre-conceived or structured responses to perceived needs. Starting from here, policy prognostication is difficult, although there is an implied conclusion that targeting and implementation should be "participatory" exercises, with an emphasis on decentralisation of control, and that any food security strategy should be context-specific, always taking account of local circumstances (Maxwell, 1996:161-166).

At the same time, the concept of food security is widely used as a means of approaching the problems of poverty, i.e. as part of an organising framework, and in terms of a programming tool, as a focus for the transfer of assistance. In these circumstances, it has often been defined as "access by all people at all times to the food required for a healthy life" (von Braun, 1995a:1). The emphasis on the word '`access" is significant, this relates to the concept of "entitlement" discussed below. For our purposes, we are concerned with household food security: this describes the availability of food to the household, it does not say anything concerning how, by whom, or to what extent, that food is utilised.

It is also useful to distinguish between chronic and transitory food insecurity. Structural or chronic household food security implies a persistent inability on the part of the household to provision itself adequately with access to food. It is likely that this arises through inadequate access to resources, and is therefore structural in character. Transitory household food security, on the other hand, refers to a temporary phenomenon caused, for example, through drought or a short-term disruption in supplies. It is apparent that chronic and transitory food insecurity may both have different causes and require different responses or programme solutions, but a frequent objective of governments will be to prevent a transitory problem from becoming permanent, as households are unable to replenish their resources.

A significant problem for agencies and government alike, is whether to respond to perceived local food insecurity as a structural or transitory phenomenon. A response to structural insecurity should attempt to facilitate the provision of resources through which households can eventually provide for their own food security in a sustainable fashion. Addressing transitory insecurity, on the hand, implies greater emphasis on making food available at affordable prices. The situation becomes more obscure when the source of the "temporary" insecurity becomes persistent and difficult to anticipate: for example, as a result of persistent drought or civil unrest.

The problem is exemplified by the fact that in some circumstances the supply of low-price or free food to "affected" areas can simultaneously solve the immediate problems for households unable to meet food requirements (due, for example, to crop failure or to a breakdown in the traditional supply routes); while, at the same time, reducing local capacity to produce through creating a psychological dependency on outside sources and/or removing the incentive for local production through depressing local prices. This dilemma lies behind the concern increasingly expressed by donors to channel resources as far as possible into projects which can directly or indirectly promote a greater degree of self-sustainable progress in meeting household food requirements, rather than concentrating efforts overwhelmingly on providing immediate relief to vulnerable families.

It must be remembered that food security is a very ubiquitous subject, one which impinges on a wide range of issues. It is a also a separate concept from others with which it is often associated, such as health and, more particularly nutrition. We are concerned here with a conjuncture of events post the AoA, and post the World Food Summit. If, in this context, food security is to be given the emphasis it merits, it must be approached in a way which will organise both thinking and action around a systematic theme. Failure to do this may result in actions designed to address the issue being haphazard, overlapping or inadequate.

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