Dr John Ingram, NERC Food Security Leader and UK Global Food Security Programme Coordination Group University of Oxford, UK & Professor Tim Benton, Food Security Champion, UK Global Food Security Programme, University of Leeds, UK
Food security occurs when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO World Food Summit, 1996). Globally, food production has kept ahead of demand for many years, yet about one billion people currently do not have access to sufficient calories; a further billion do not have access to adequate nutrition. This is due to a combination of biophysical, socioeconomic and political factors.
New concepts, tools and methods are needed to understand, improve governance of, and thereby better manage the complex interactions between these factors if such food insecurity is to be overcome. This is especially the case at the regional (i.e. sub-continental) level, where many stakeholder groups and actors are involved in setting policies and taking decisions that affect food security outcomes. However, the food security challenge is accentuated by the fact that, in many parts of the world, food production is brought about by environmentally unsustainable methodologies (including those that degrade soils, poorly manage water, pollute water courses and create new agricultural land by deforestation, leading to biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions). Increasing global food production sustainably, while also increasing equitable access to food, is perhaps the biggest challenge of our times.
Food security is underpinned by food systems. The food system concept – which integrates an understanding of the activities of producing, distributing, trading and consuming food with the food security outcomes relating to access, availability and utilisation of food – provides a robust framework for food policy research and planning. Effective food security policy agendas therefore need to not only encompass all these activities and outcomes, but also note the range of biophysical, socioeconomic and political food system drivers across and along spatial, temporal and jurisdictional scales. This is because food insecurity arises from the vulnerability of the food system to combinations of stresses induced from changes in these drivers. The ability to overcome these stresses, and thereby enhance food security, would be increased if policy and technical options were considered more specifically at regional level, in addition to at local and global levels. This is however challenging, due to the diversity of stakeholder groups operating at this level (e.g. government and NGOs; researchers and research funders; and business and civil society) all of whom have their own objectives. Further, there are numerous interactions with higher and lower levels on these scales, and insufficient knowledge and awareness of actions taken at these other levels often leads to ‘scale challenges’. In particular, the overall food system is linked, across scales, by many different mechanisms. Thus agricultural management in one site can impact both locally and regionally (e.g. via downstream pollution, water extraction), contribute to overall GHGs emissions, with a longer-term global consequence, or create perturbations acting through the market that incentivise changes in management (with other knock on consequences) elsewhere.
Improved understanding of how food systems operate will help food security planning by identifying where, when and how vulnerability arises; and hence what sorts of adaptation interventions are needed, and where and when they would be most effective. Understanding can be enhanced by integrating concepts from production ecology, agroecology and human ecology with concepts of food systems and scales, to develop the notion of ‘food system ecology’. For example, the increasing recognition that the environment provides services that are societally valuable (ecosystem services) needs to inform management decisions much more than it has before hand. Loss of a forest fragment in the tropics can impact on local livelihoods by impacting on availability of not only fuel and forage, but also pollination and natural pest control, local soil erosion and soil quality, local rainfall and the emission of GHGs and loss of biodiversity, with the broad consequences these bring globally.
Thinking within the food system concept not only helps identify the many biophysical and socioeconomic interactions across the range of activities, drivers and scales that determine food security, but also provides a framework for addressing three key issues: increasing the efficiency with which inputs to the food system are used, enhancing sustainability in general, and enhancing food system governance.