Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Why food security still matters

Time (GMT +01) 00:00 23:59


Simon Maxwell


Stephen Devereux, Institute of Development Studies
Chris Stevens, Institute of Development Studies
Tim Lang, Thames Valley University
Simon Maxwell, Overseas Development Institute

1. In this fourth meeting of the series, attention turned to food security. The meeting also marked the launch of a new book, Food Security in sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Stephen Devereux and Simon Maxwell, and dedicated to Sir Hans Singer (ISBN 1-85339-523-4, ITDG Publishing, London).

2. Simon Maxwell opened the discussion by setting out three propositions. First, food security had been through a quiet period, but was undergoing a revival, largely stimulated by the forthcoming meeting in Rome (in November 2001) to mark the fifth anniversary of the 1996 World Food Summit. Second, the food security agenda had changed substantially since 1996, because of the much greater international commitment to poverty reduction - with a new strategy laid down in the World Bank's World Development Report for 2000/1, and realisation of that strategy being achieved through the preparation of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers at country level. For example, Maxwell argued, it might not be necessary to worry about measuring food insecurity at household level, since new models and methods for measuring poverty would yield similar results. By the same token, food security at national level was probably best-measured by the overall health of the Balance of Payments. Third, however, this did not mean that food security policy was no longer important. There were both old issues (like food production and stock management) and new issues (like the impact of urbanisation, the industrialisation of the food system and food safety). As UK experience showed, food policy was a topic of urgent public interest.

3. Tim Lang developed this last point. His main concern was that the food system in the North and internationally should be addressed in its totality, and understood as an industrial sector which was managed to maximise profits - 'adding value, not adding nutrition'. The consequences for consumers were often adverse, whether environmentally, or through the impact on food safety, waste, public health, and generally inappropriate consumption. Lang referred to the 'indignities' of the food system, and reminded the audience that poor consumption habits were leading to an explosion of chronic dietary diseases in developed (and increasingly in developing) countries. The problem was certainly not confined to the North. Policy decisions taken in the North (for example, to subsidise European agriculture through the Common Agricultural Policy) had immediate and negative effects on producers in the South; and the buying practices of supermarkets and others were spreading Northern models of supply into developing countries.

4. There were alternatives. Lang talked about the importance of food rights, about food democracy, and about tackling issues of control and regulation through the food system. A recent article on these issues by Lang (with Erik Millstone) can be found on the website of the Guardian Newspaper.

5. Stephen Devereux brought the discussion back to the developing world, with a video interview with Sir Hans Singer. Three points were taken up. First, though poverty reduction remains the dominant discourse in development, hunger is central to the experience of poverty, and policy which deals with the availability and price of food is central to the reduction of poverty - food security is by no means an empty project. Second, it is true that the food security agenda is changing, and that food policy, particularly in Africa, faces new challenges, for example as a result of urbanisation, HIV/AIDS, conflict, and globalisation. Globalisation presented both opportunities and risks, but Singer noted that Africa was largely marginalised from the world economy and thus excluded from both. He proposed a new Marshall Plan for Africa to change the situation. Third, even though the food security agenda was changing, many 'old' issues did remain important. In particular, Africa badly needed a Green Revolution comparable to that in Asia, in order to increase production, create employment and lower food prices. This could reverse the vicious circle of decline, and replace it with a virtuous circle of growth and poverty reduction that would re-integrate Africa into the world economy.

6. Chris Stevens addressed the trade agenda, basing his remarks on a new Briefing Paper on food security and the WTO. Using a sustainable livelihoods framework, he pointed out that prices and terms of trade were only one of many influences on livelihood opportunities and outcomes; and that tariffs and other trade policy interventions were only one of many influences on prices. It was important, therefore, to keep trade policy in perspective. Nevertheless, precisely because of these complex linkages trade policy decisions at the WTO could have many ripple effects. They could affect food security directly by influencing (a) tariffs, (b) domestic subsidies, and (c) export subsidies, and indirectly through the many ways in which these are transmitted through the economy. An initial framework for establishing trade rules in agriculture had been established through the Agreement on Agriculture as part of the Uruguay Round in 1994. New negotiations had been launched in 2000.

7. Stevens argued that there was little in current rules to require either lower tariffs or subsidies in developing countries, especially those poor countries which qualified for special and differential treatment. Whilst it was important to ensure that this did not change in future, the biggest impact on them might come from liberalisation in developed countries. It had been estimated, for example, that a 30% liberalisation at world level could push prices up by up to 10% for key commodities traded internationally. The impact of an increase in the prices of food that developing countries import (such as cereals) would be greatly exaggerated if the developed country liberalisation also reduced the prices of the food they export (such as horticulture). However, it was important to realise that a wide-ranging liberalisation was not likely. In that case, developing countries needed to plan for the continuation of market distortions (meaning artificially low world market prices for some commodities, and artificially high prices for others). Some tariffs might be affected, including in developing countries, and this could mean revenue loss.

8. A number of issues were pursued in the discussion:

  1. There was sympathy for the view that the food system needed to be analysed in its totality. The spread of contract farming was noted, also the role of supermarkets. It was noted that value chain analysis had become popular in industrial economics - food security policy had adopted a similar approach for many years. (See also the paper by Peter Gibbon for the earlier session in the series on the future of small-scale farming).
  2. At the same time, some felt that the food system did not always act counter-productively. The widespread reduction of poverty and improvement in nutrition indicators in Asia was cited. It was true that Africa was getting worse, but, as Sir Hans Singer had noted, Africa was largely excluded from globalisation.
  3. The impact of subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe was much discussed. On the one hand, it was argued that developing countries should simply accept (and be grateful for) a subsidy from European consumers that lowered the price of food. On the other hand, it was argued that the economic viability of the rural sector could be undermined, and that there were no easy alternative livelihood opportunities available.


This meeting marked the launch of a new book, Food Security in sub-Saharan Africa. It highlighted how food security had been through a quiet period, but was undergoing a revival.