Food security

Food security is a crucial aspect of life, both for a population and a household. By “food security” specialists often mean two different things: the capacity of a typical poor household to secure sufficient food over a twelve-month period (through farm work, day labor, government entitlements, etc.); and the capacity of a poor country to satisfy the food needs of its whole population (through direct production, foreign trade, and food stocks). This involves both food availability and the ability to gain access to food (through entitlements).

A representative description of food security is offered by Shlomo Reutlinger in Malnutrition and Poverty: Magnitude and Policy Options:

Food security … is defined here as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Its essential elements are the availability of food and the ability to acquire it. Conversely, food insecurity is the lack of access to sufficient food and can be either chronic or transitory.  Chronic food insecurity is a continuously inadequate diet resulting from the lack of resources to produce or acquire food.  Transitory food insecurity, however, is a temporary decline in a household’s access to enough food.  It results from instability in food production and prices or in household incomes.  The worst form of transitory food insecurity is famine.

Here is how Sen formulates his “capabilities” understanding (developed, for example, in Hunger and Public Action):

The standard of adequacy is best understood functionally: a person, household, or population has food security if it has sufficient access to food to permit full, robust human development and realization of human capacities.

There is an obvious connection between the two definitions at the household and country levels; but from a human point of view it seems more useful to focus on household food security rather than national food security.  A country may in principle have more than sufficient resources to satisfy the food needs of its population, but fail to do so because of internal inequalities.  Thus achieving household food security in the less‑developed world requires both equity and growth.  Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have made major contributions on hunger and famine in the developing world, and their work can almost always be linked back to the household level.  Here is a good source on their writings: The Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze Omnibus: (comprising) Poverty and Famines; Hunger and Public Action; India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity.

Michael Lipton has also been an important voice on this set of topics.  His central task in Poverty, Undernutrition, and Hunger is an attempt to provide criteria for distinguishing between the poor and the ultra-poor.  The ultra-poor have incomes and entitlements that are absolutely below that required to gain access to 80% of 1973 FAO/WHO caloric requirements.  Below this level is likely to lead to undernutrition (the failure of food security).  Lipton constructs a “food adequacy standard” as a way of measuring the incidence in a given country of absolute poverty.  Here is his statement of a food adequacy standard:

Income or outlay, just sufficient on this assumption to command the average caloric requirement for one’s age, sex and activity group (ASAG) in a given climatic and work environment, will be taken as meeting the poverty FAS; this is income or outlay on the borderline of poverty, indicating a risk of hunger. Income or outlay, just sufficient to command 80% of this average requirement, will be taken as meeting the ultra-poverty FAS; this is income or outlay at the borderline between poverty and ultra-poverty, indicating a risk of undernutrition and a severe risk of important anthropometric shortfalls. (Lipton 1983): 7.)

Food security can be put at risk in a variety of ways. Natural conditions can lead to a shortfall of grain production — flood, drought, or other natural disasters can reduce or destroy the crop across a wide region, leading to a shortfall of supply. Population increase can gradually reduce the grain-to-population ratio to the point where nutrition falls below the minimum required by the population or household. And, perhaps most importantly, prices can shift rapidly in the market for staple foods, leaving poor families without the ability to purchase a sufficient supply to assure the nutritional minimum. It is this aspect of the system that Amartya Sen highlights in his study of famine (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). And it is the circumstance that is most urgent in developing countries today in face of the steep and rapid rise in grain prices over the past year.

The results of a failure of food security are dire. Chronic malnutrition, sustained over months and years, has drastic effects on the health status of a population. Infant and child mortality increases sharply. Often the gender differences in health and mortality statistics widen. And economic productivity falls, as working families lack the strength and energy needed to labor productively. Famine is a more acute circumstance that arises when food shortfalls begin to result in widespread deaths in a region. The Great Bengal famine, the Ethiopian famine, the Great Leap Forward famine, and the famines in North Korea offer vivid and terrible examples of hunger in the twentieth century.

So what is needed to maintain food security in a poor nation? Some developing countries have aimed at food self-sufficiency — to enact policies in agriculture that assure that the country will produce enough staples to feed its population. Other countries have relied on a strategy of purchasing large amounts of staple foods on international markets. Here the strategy is to generate enough national income through exported manufactured goods to be able to purchase the internationally traded grain. This is the strategy recommended by neoliberal trade theory. If agriculture is a low value-added industry and the manufacture of electronic components is high value-added, neoliberals reason, then surely it makes sense for the country to generate the larger volume of income through the latter and purchase food with the proceeds.

This logic has given rise to several important problems, however. First is the vulnerability it creates for the nation in face of sharp price shocks. This is what we have seen in many countries over the past year. And the second is the reality of extensive income inequalities in most developing countries — with the result that the “gains of trade” may not be sufficiently shared in the incomes of the poorest 40% to permit them to maintain household food security.

These considerations suggest the wisdom for developing countries to expend more resources on agricultural development (which often has an income-inequality narrowing effect) and a greater emphasis on national and regional food self-sufficiency.

Farms in historical materialism


Materialist explanations in history generally attempt to discover fundamental features of technology and labor that impose a very deep imprint on the rest of society. Farming is almost always fundamental in this respect; the forces and relations of production are particularly visible, and the products of the farm system are fundamental to the survival of society. The standard of living of a traditional society is largely determined by agricultural productivity and the nature of the farming system — nutrition, for example, is essentially determined by the ratio of total grain output to population. Finally, virtually all traditional economies are primarily rural; so farm life defines the conditions of ordinary social existence for the majority of the population. So let us consider a brief analysis of the farm. (A. V. Chayanov’s classic treatment of the peasant economy, The Theory of Peasant Economy, written in the 1920s, remains highly valuable. Robert Allen’s lifetime of research on the English farm economy is highly insightful (Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands, 1450-1850), as is Bozhong Li’s work on the farm economy of the Lower Yangzi (Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).)

A farm is the basic unit of agricultural production. It represents the coordinated application of diverse factors of production in order to produce crops. The factors of production include labor; land; tools, implements, and machinery; fertilizers; and water resources and irrigation techniques. Crops include both foods (e.g., rice, wheat, millet) and raw materials (e.g., cotton, soya beans). And farms may be organized for a variety of purposes: to satisfy a family’s subsistence needs, to create a profit within a market system, or to provide employment for the greatest number of rural people.

Farms in different agrarian regimes may be characterized in terms of a set of technical and social features. On the technical side we need to know what the scale of cultivation is (farm size); what techniques of cultivation are employed; what varieties of crops and seeds are available; what types of farm tools and machines are used; what types of irrigation, if any, are in use; what varieties and skills of labor are employed; what types of fertilizers are used; and what forms of agronomic knowledge are available to the farmer. (We might reduce this variety of technical features to a spectrum ranging from low-technology to high-technology farming systems.) On the social side we need to know the purpose of cultivation (family subsistence or commercial profitability); the form of land tenure in place (fixed rent, sharecropping, smallholding, etc.); the forms of labor employed (slave, serf, family labor, hired labor); the forms of supervision employed; and the processes of income distribution embodied in the agricultural system.

These features are the primary subject of research for agricultural historians such as Allen and Li. These features essentially determine the most important economic characteristics of the agricultural system. First, they determine the productivity of the farming system, whether measured in terms of land efficiency (output per hectare) or labor efficiency (output per man-day). For once we know the techniques of cultivation in a given ecological setting, it is possible to form relatively accurate estimates of output for a given input of land, labor, and capital. This set of considerations also determines what we might describe as the net rural product–the total agricultural product over and above the replacement cost of the factors of production. On this basis, Chinese historians such as Dwight Perkins attempt to estimate the overall wealth and income of late Imperial China, including estimates of quality of life for the majority of rural people (Agricultural development in China, 1368-1968).

Second, the full description of the farming system as indicated above will allow us to infer the system of surplus extraction in place; it will be possible to indicate with adequate precision how much surplus is generated and where it goes. Victor Lippit attempts to arrive at such an estimate for traditional China (Land Reform and Economic Development in China: A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance). This in turn permits us to describe the system of rural class relations that correspond to a given farming regime.

Within this framework we can now indicate a variety of types of farms; and as a working premise, we may postulate that agrarian regimes in which different farm types are dominant will have distinctive patterns of organization and development. The following are advanced as ideal types; variants and mixed examples are possible as well. However, these types are selected as being particularly central in the development of both Asian and European traditional economies. And, significantly for the historian of social change, each farming system creates a distinctive pattern of incentives, barriers, social relations, and modes of behavior that have important consequences for historical change.

  • The peasant farm. The peasant farm is small (1-10 hectares), and is organized to satisfy consumption needs of the family. It is managed and run by a peasant family using family labor. Cultivation is divided between subsistence crops and commercial crops with some risk-aversive preference for subsistence crops. There is a very low level of capital available to the peasant farmer, and cultivation is oriented towards labor-intensive techniques. Low-cost traditional techniques and tools are employed in cultivation. The peasant cultivator typically pays rent on the land he cultivates, though smallholding with clear title to the land is also possible.
  • The manor. This farm is of medium size (100 hectares). It is managed by a resident lord whose aims are (1) to satisfy the consumption needs of his household, and (2) to produce a marketable surplus to generate cash income. The manor employs a sizable number of bonded laborers (serfs or slaves); it uses traditional techniques of cultivation but benefits from some economies of scale; and it employs foremen as supervisors. Part of the estate is farmed by individual families in circumstances of peasant farming.
  • The capitalist farm. This farm is medium to large (50-150 hectares) and is organized to produce a profit. It is therefore located within a commercialized rural economy within which crops may be readily marketed. The farm is organized and directed by the capitalist farmer, who may either own or rent the land. The capitalist farmer has the fiscal resources needed to make capital investments in the process of cultivation; and he is oriented towards cost-cutting in considering various alternative techniques. The capitalist farm employs wage labor, where the wage is determined by local economic circumstances and the minimal cost of subsistence. The capitalist farm represents a rationalization of available techniques aimed at maximizing the profitability of the unit.
  • The cooperative farm. The cooperative farm is a large unit (100-400 hectares) owned by the cultivators (75 families). This farm is oriented towards profitability; it uses the labor of the cultivators; and it is organized by a council of the cultivators. The collective has access to investment funds, and is therefore able to invest in new techniques; moreover, the collective farm benefits from economies of scale.

Significantly, this typology of farming units corresponds broadly to the classical Marxist taxonomy of modes of production: feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The peasant farm, however, represents a form of organization of the productive forces of rural society that is overlooked in Marxist theory: call it the “peasant mode of production.” The peasant mode of production may be defined as a system in which agriculture is performed on peasant farms; the bulk of the population consists of free peasant cultivators; and agricultural surpluses are extracted through rent, interest, and taxation.

In short, careful analysis of the circumstances of farming is crucial for large-scale history, including especially the history of economic development, the history of urbanization, and the history of human well-being. And, of course, the twentieth century demonstrated the centrality of peasants in the great political movements of revolution and anti-colonialism.

Comparative life satisfaction


We tend to think of the past century as being a time of great progress when it comes to the quality of life — for ordinary people as well as the privileged. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have made life more secure, predictable, productive, educated, and healthy. But in what specific ways is ordinary life happier or more satisfying for ordinary people in 2000 compared to their counterparts in 1900 or 1800 — or 200, for that matter?

There are a couple of things that are pretty obvious. Nutrition is one place to start: the mass population of France, Canada, or the United States is not subject to periodic hunger, malnutrition, or famine. This is painfully not true for many poor parts of the world — Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, for example. But for the countries of the affluent world, the OECD countries, hunger has been largely conquered for most citizens.

Second, major advances in health preservation and the treatment of illness have taken place. We know how to prevent cholera, and we know how to treat staph infections with antibiotics. Terrible diseases such as polio have been eradicated, and we have effective treatments for some kinds of previously incurable cancers. So the basic health status of people in the affluent 21st-century world is substantially better than that of previous centuries — with obvious consequences for our ability to find satisfaction in life activities.

These advances in food security and public health provision have resulted in a major enhancement to quality of life — life expectancy in France, Germany, or Costa Rica has increased sharply. And many of the factors underlying much of this improvement is not high-tech, but rather takes the form of things like improvement of urban sanitation and relatively low-cost treatment (antibiotics for children’s ear infections, for example).

So living longer and more healthily is certainly an advantage in our quality of life relative to conditions one or two centuries ago.

Improvements in labor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing have resulted in another kind of enhancement of modern quality of life. It is no longer necessary for a large percentage of humanity to perform endless and exhausting labor in order to feed the rest of us. And because of new technologies and high labor productivity, almost everyone has access to goods that extend the enjoyment of life and our creative talents. Personal computing and communications, access to the world’s knowledge and culture through the Internet, and ability to travel widely all represent opportunities that even the most privileged could not match one or two centuries ago.

But the question of life satisfaction doesn’t reduce to an inventory of the gadgets we can use. Beyond the minimum required for sustaining a healthy human body, the question of satisfaction comes down to the issue of what we do with the tools and resources available to us and the quality of our human relationships. How do we organize our lives in such a way as to succeed in achieving goals that really matter?

Amartya Sen’s economic theory of “capabilities and realizations” supports a pretty good answer to these questions about life satisfaction (Development as Freedom). Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshalled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill’s theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism.)

By this standard, it’s not so clear that life in the twenty-first century is inherently more satisfying than that in the eighteenth or the second centuries. When basic needs were satisfied — nutrition, shelter, health — the opportunities for realizing one’s talents in meaningful effort were no less extensive than they are today. This is true for the creative classes — obviously. The creative product of Mill’s or Hugo’s generation was no less substantial or satisfying than our own. But perhaps it is true across the board. The farmer-gardener who shapes his/her land over the course of a lifetime has created something of great personal value and satisfaction. The mason or smith may have taken more pride and satisfaction in his life’s work than does the programmer or airline flight attendant. The parent who succeeded in nurturing a family in 1800 County Cork may have found the satisfactions as great or greater than parents in Boston or Seattle today.

So we might say that the only unmistakeable improvement in quality of life in the past century is in the basics — secure nutrition, decent education, and improved health during the course of a human life. And the challenge of the present is to make something meaningful and sustaining of the resources we are given.

The world food system


Here is one very concrete way in which we live in a global world: the most basic need that we have — food — is satisfied on the basis of a system with global reach and global price and production interconnections. The planet’s 6+ billion people need a daily diet of grains, oils, and protein, and the most important of these foods are produced within the context of a global trading system. Current estimates of malnutrition indicate that a significant percentage of the world’s population live in hunger (Facts about Hunger, PRB). And, after a decade or so of relative stability in this system, changes in the world market are threatening major disruptions of food supplies. (See an earlier posting on the recent sharp rise in rice and wheat prices.)

Consider grain production and consumption. Here are a few websites with useful information about the world grain trade in the past decade: USDA, providing a lot of data on grain production and consumption; UC-Davis, a simple introduction to the global and US rice markets; UNCTAD, a thumbnail of the basics of the global rice trade over the past two decades; FAO, a compendium of data on food production; and IRRI, a compendium of data about rice production. One thing that becomes clear in reviewing some of this data is that the current crisis in grain prices should not have been a surprise. The forecast provided in the USDA report is based on 2006-07 data — and it gives a clear indication of the supply and price crisis that the world is facing today.

This system is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it provides a nice example of a complex and causally interlinked social system that invites careful analysis. And it is a system that has the potential for stimulating explosive social upheaval — given the political volatility that food prices and hunger have had historically.

We ought to ask a whole series of questions about how the food system works:

  • Technology — how extensive and widespread are the forms of technology innovation that are changing the food system? Is there a Green Revolution 2.0 underway?
  • Productivity — what are the trends in productivity in agriculture? Output per hectare, output per unit of input, output per labor-day
  • International trading institutions — corporations, commodity and futures markets, flow of incomes to stakeholders. What effect have free-trade agreements had on grain production and prices — WTO, NAFTA?
  • Social institutions of farming. What are the various institutions through which grain is produced — peasant farming, family farming, large-scale corporate farming
  • Social effects of agrarian change — how do rural conditions and quality of life change as a result of technology change in agriculture?
  • Macro-stability — does growth in food supply match growth in population?

If we want to know how the global world works as a system, then we need to understand agriculture and agricultural trade better than we currently realize.

(Here is another New York Times story on the subject, highlighting the tension between food production and greenhouse gas emission reduction. See my earlier post on sustainable agriculture as well.)

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?

The world’s food system depends largely on a farming system with post-green-revolution techniques: new seed varieties, substantial use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large-scale irrigation, machine-based cultivation, production for large markets, and separation of production from consumption by long distances. This system shows the highest productivity the world has ever seen, whether measured in terms of labor, land, or cost. And the system does a fairly good job of producing enough food for the world’s 6 billion people.

But is this system sustainable?

Several large issues arise. First, the system is energy-intensive, so it poses significant demands on the petroleum economy. The use of petroleum and energy pervades the process: fuel for cultivation and transport, energy and inputs into the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, energy consumed in irrigation. So a part of the sustainability question has to do with the energy challenge the globe faces.

Second, industrial agriculture has massive environmental effects. Fertilizer and animal waste runoffs lead to groundwater and river pollution (extending into the Gulf of Mexico). Degradation and loss of topsoil is another large and longterm environmental effect with serious consequences for future agricultural productivity. And methane produced by large-scale cattle- and swine-rearing represents a measurable component of global warming. So the environmental effects of industrial agriculture are very large–once again raising the question of global sustainability.

Finally, industrial agriculture, and the integrated global commodity markets from which this system is inseparable, have large and destructive consequences for traditional agriculture and the communities built around traditional farming. The effect of NAFTA and the export of US corn to Mexico has been massive in its disruption of maize-based culture and communities in Mexico.

Three questions are central. First, is this system sustainable in the narrow sense, or will it collapse of its own burden of soil, water, and air pollution in the next 50 years? Second, is it a potential part of a larger sustainable global system of production and consumption from an environmental point of view? Or does global sustainability require radical change in agriculture? And finally, are there feasible alternative systems that would be less environmentally harmful, more sustainable, and less disruptive of agrarian communities? Are these alternatives scaleable to the needs of mass societies, large cities, and a global population of 6-8 billion? Can alternative systems achieve the productivity needed to feed the world’s population?

Environmentalists, global justice activists, and food activists have argued that there are alternatives. The Fair Trade movement is trying to get first-world consumers to favor fair-trade-certified products in their consumption–giving greater security and income to third-world farmers. Organic farming advocates argue that a system of smaller farms, organic fertilizers, innovative pest control, and farming techniques more suited to the local environment would have a smaller environmental footprint. “Local food” activists support the idea of shifting consumption towards products that can be grown locally–thus reducing transport and refrigeration and giving more of a market for small farmers.

So there are alternatives in technique and policy that could result in different farm characteristics that are more favorable from the points of view of justice, sustainability, and community. The hard question is whether these alternatives could be scaled to the volume needed to feed a mass population. And this is a question that demands careful scientific analysis.

(An excellent current critique of industrial agriculture is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.)

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