Food Security

What is Food Security?

Food security, despite its simple label, is an immensely complex concept, which has been defined in different but similar ways. Some estimate that approximately 200 definitions and 450 indicators of food security exist (Smith et al. 1992). Currently, the common definition applies: food security is a situation that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 1996).

Food insecurity may occur because of the lack of availability of food, insufficient purchasing power, and inability to produce food and feed themselves at the household level. Additionally, inadequate care, especially for women and children, insufficient health service, and unhealthy environment that are closely connected to inadequate education and other societal factors are also the underlying determinants for food and nutrition status. Food insecurity may be chronic, seasonal, or transitory.

This essay provides a bird’s-eye view explanation on food security, and it is based on the entry I wrote for Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics (2014).


The Evolutionary History of Food Security

Food Security Before the 1990s

As a concept, food security has evolved since it was first developed in the 1970s. Then, the focus was on increasing availability and stability of world food supply to meet the growing demand. In 1981, the Noble Laureate, Amartya Sen, with his groundbreaking thesis on capability changed the focus from availability to food to access to food. Based on the series of studies in India, he argued that to say something about food supply is to say more than just commodity only, but about relationships between persons and that community (Sen 1981). This means that individual food security was primarily dependent on their possibility to access food, labor-based, trade-based, transfer-based, or other entitlement relationships. A shift was therefore made from national level to household/individual level (Maxwell 1996).

The food security agenda in the 1990s was also further broadened by health and nutrition research, which highlighted the fact that reciprocal and synergetic linkages exist between food intake and nutritional well-being (De Rose et al. 1998). The development allowed nonfood causes of food security to be looked into, such as inadequate care – particularly children who need not only sufficient healthy food but also somebody to feed them. Since then, food security is connected with wider goals, such as adequate nutrition or nutrition security, adequate care, and adequate prevention and control diseases. The changes in defining the substantive meaning of food security are to a certain extent reflected in the transformation regarding the ways in which international community addresses the issue of feeding the world.


The World Food Summit’s Approach on Food Security

Hitherto there have been three World Food Summits organized by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the World Food Summit, 13-17 November 1996, Member States adopted the Rome Declaration on World Food Security. The declaration mentions the new formula for defining food security at global, national, household, and individual levels. It is asserted that “food security is achieved 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.” This definition is the current working prescription applied on food security.

The Rome Declaration was completed with a Plan of Action that aims to lay the foundations for diverse paths to a common objective of food security. The Plan of Action contains seven commitment areas with a total of 27 objectives and actions relating to:

  1. Ensuring and enabling political, social, and economic environment most conducive to achieving food security for all
  2. Implementing policies aimed at eradicating poverty and inequality and improving physical and economic access to food by all
  3. Pursuing participatory and sustainable policies and practices in high and low potential areas
  4. Striving to ensure that trade policies are conducive to fostering food security for all through a fair market-oriented world trade system
  5. Endeavoring to prevent and prepare for natural and human-made disasters and meet transitory and emergency food requirements in ways that encourage recovery, rehabilitation, development, and a capacity to satisfy future needs
  6. Promoting optimal allocation and use of public and private investments to foster human resources, sustainable agricultural systems, and rural development in high and low potential areas
  7. Implementing, monitoring, and following up the Plan of Action at all levels in cooperation with the international community

By the end of the World Summit, two important commitments were agreed upon. The first is to halve the number of undernourished people no later than 2015. The second is a commitment “to clarify the content of the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” As to the latter, a concrete response came from the United Nations, which in the same year adopted the General Comment No. 12 on the Right to Food. As to the first commitment, the ambition was later reaffirmed in the Millennium Declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000.

Additionally, the Summit has created further discussions on international trade and food security. The recommendation for establishing a Working Group for Trade and Food security was adopted at the 1996 Singapore WTO Ministerial Conference.

In 2001, once again upon invitation of FAO, the second World Food Summit was organized. The Summit resulted, among others, in giving the mandate to FAO to install the Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) that was tasked to support the Member States’ efforts to achieve the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. After series of meetings in the period March 2003-September 2004, the Working Group delivered the final version of “the Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.” The guidelines give practical directions on 19 topics, based upon three underlying dimensions of the right to food: adequacy, availability, and accessibility.

The third World Food Summit was held in November 2009: the World Summit on Food Security. In the final declaration, the goal to halve the number of people who suffer from hunger or malnutrition by 2015, which was also set during the first World Food Summit, was reaffirmed, and the declaration contained commitments and actions that would lead to food security.


Indicators for Food Security

FAO uses the indicators derived from the definition of food security itself, which include several specific measurements derived from the concepts of availability and access. Utilization is added to clarify the concept of access, by referring to households’ use of the food to which they have access to, and individuals’ ability to absorb nutrients – the conversion efficiency of food by the body. From the normative content of food security, some scholars propose additional indicators, adequacy and sustainability (Oshoug et al.1994). Adequacy refers to nutritional adequacy, food safety and quality, and cultural acceptability. Sustainability entails environmental sustainability and social sustainability.

The most common indicators of food security revolve around measures of food consumption (Bouis 1993). A good measure requires data collected at the household level including the household size, age, and sex of individuals, as well as physical size and activity levels.

Another indicator is the use of coping strategies, which suggest that coping behaviors formed a set of patterns that could be monitored in famine situations (Frankenberger1992). Coping strategies indicators can be decomposed to analyze separately those behaviors that increase the short-term availability of food and rationing behaviors aimed at dealing with outright short-term insufficiency of food (Maxwell et al. 1999).

Advocating the dietary diversity as food security indicator is not something new. In this approach, it is argued that households with low levels of dietary diversity are likely to have low level of consumption per person and low caloric availability. As such, dietary diversity can play a role in identifying the food insecure, monitoring changes in circumstances, and assessing impacts of interventions (Hoddinott and Yohanness 2002).


The Right to Food

What Is the Right to Food?

The human right to food is an older concept than food security. It received international recognition since 1948, with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25(1) stipulates that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social service.” The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976, recognizes in Article 11 “the right of everyone to an adequate food, clothing and housing.”

This recognition has repeatedly been incorporated in numerous normative instruments in international law, some of which are binding on states which have ratified them or can be applied as customary law.


Substantive and Procedural Contents of the Right to Food

On the right to food, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) stipulates:

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
  2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
    1. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
    2. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

The General Comment defines the term “adequate food” more precisely and points out the different types of obligations for Member States resulting from the right to food. In Paragraph 8 of the General Comment No. 12, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has concluded that the “core content” of the right to adequate food implies ensuring:

The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture; The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.

Like any other human rights, the state is the duty-bearer of the right to food. There are two ways on how state parties should approach their obligation. First is that state parties must act immediately for instance in relation to nondiscriminatory measures and to mitigate and alleviate hunger in emergency times. Second is that state parties to the ICESCR are required to take steps to progressively achieve the right to adequate food, also known as the principle of progressive realization. The principle compels the state parties to move ‘as expeditiously as possible’ toward this goal. Article 2(1) of the ICESCR further asserts the state parties to:

…take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.

By ratifying the ICESCR and other international treaties recognizing the right to food, states agree to be bound to three categories of state obligation: the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil. The state obligation to respect requires states not to take any measures that would result in preventing individuals from having access to adequate food and to feed themselves. Indeed, the right to adequate food is primarily to be realized by right holders themselves through their economic and other activities. The state obligationto protect implies that states take measures to ensure that third parties (individuals, armed groups, enterprises, etc.) do not deprive individuals of access to adequate food. Under this obligation, the state could be held liable for violations of the right to adequate food committed by non-state actors. The state obligation to fulfil demands proactive measures from the state to facilitate and provide access to food. For example, as a last resort, states must provide food whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal.


Current Implementation of the Right to Food

At the international level, the implementation and the current development of the right to food mostly rely on the work done by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Council, which was before 2006 known as the Commission on Human Rights.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, established in 1985, is responsible, among others, to monitor the implementation of economic, social, and cultural rights by receiving and assessing state reports. All ratifying states are obliged to submit regular report on adopted measures and progresses made in achieving the observance of the ICESCR rights, every 5 years. The Committee examines each reports and addresses its concerns and recommendation in the form of concluding observation. The Human Rights Council has mandated several working groups and expert individuals, referred to as “Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food,” to investigate current challenges and further provide recommendations to meet such challenges. To meet the mandates, the Special Rapporteur usually conducts country visits and performs studies on specific topics, such as agroecology, land rights, seeds, nutrition, or value chains.

In several countries, the right to food is recognized in the national constitutions. According to a FAO right to food study in 2011, the right to food is recognized explicitly in the constitution of 23 countries. In addition, the right is recognized implicitly, for instance, by means of a broader right or by a directive principle, in the constitutions of 33 countries. Due to direct effect of international provisions, the right to food has effect in at least another 51 countries. Overall, the right to food is thus legally applicable in 107 countries (Knuth and Vidar 2011).

The current status of development of economic, social, and cultural rights in the United Nations is the establishment of an optional protocol to the ICESCR in 2008. Once entered into force, this protocol will empower the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to also receive individual communications and interstate communications. At the time of writing, the protocol has been ratified by five states, which are half of its ten-ratification requirement.

The international profile of the right to food allows its realization to move beyond the national borders (Kent 2005).


Between the Right to Food and Food Security

There are some similarities between the concept of the right to food and food security, noting that both emphasize a situation, at the individual level, pertaining to food availability, accessibility, safety, and cultural acceptability.

It is observed that states recognized the concept of the right to food in both international documents pertaining to the food security. In Paragraph 1 of the Rome Declaration 1996, states “reaffirm the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” As such it was again reaffirmed in 2002, at the World Food Summit: Five Years Later, where states also agreed “to develop a set of guidelines to support Member States’ efforts to achieve the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.”

Regardless of such a concerted and long endeavor at international level, the meaning of food security in connection to the right to food is ambiguous. In an attempt to clarify the connection between the two requires one to compare the distinctive attribute of their objectives and procedures. With regard to the objectives, the motivation for achieving food security can be based on a number of grounds, ranging from moral grounds to more market-oriented motivations. Human rights, on the other hand, are exclusively based on the very idea of human dignity and autonomy which entails a priori values. Thus, from a human rights perspective, all other consideration would be secondary in nature. With regard to the subject of procedure, it looks at the nature of food security as part of international and/or national policy, rather than the legal concept as the right to food is (Alston and Tomasevski 1984). Such would imply recognizing the element of international treaty and customary international law of the right to food, with relatively clear and binding normative contents. Furthermore, the acknowledgement and internationally acceptance of the right to food, which are demonstrated by state ratifications, may conclude that as a human right, the right to food has a precise content. It can be violated and the violation can be the subject of judicial or quasi-judicial remedies (Mechlem2004).

In conclusion, the concepts of food security and the right to food are closely linked to each other. It is in the procedural circumstances of the right to food that food security can be realized. Relying on the application of the doctrine of state obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil, one could expect a progressive realization of the right to food at the individual level. Furthermore, as the concepts of both food security and the right to food become more accepted and used interchangeably, realizing the right to food has been argued to include the application of the rights-based approach to food security (Barth-Eide 2005). This means applying good practices inspired by the human rights logic, namely, participation, accountability, nondiscrimination, transparency, and empowerment into food security programs and policies. However, the right to food does not claim to eradicate hunger or to achieve food security faster, or to reduce the importance of experiences gained from food security policies. Indeed, considering the closeness of both concepts and the considerably similar international acceptance thereof, attempts to realize the right to food need to be integrated with existing experiences with food security, with additional new dimensions that pose some arbitrary limits to them.


Contemporary Challenges on Food Security

Scholars and analysts have generally defined three situations of food insecurity: chronic or long-term food insecurity, seasonal, and transitory. The first refers to a situation where people are unable to meet their minimum food requirement for sustained amount of time. The second and the third imply a temporary food insecure situation as a result of sudden drop in the ability to produce or acquire food, which can result from natural disasters of harvest failures.

Natural disasters such as floods, droughts, earthquakes, and other weather-related phenomena can affect food security, destroying, for example, physical and economic capitals of food stocks and harvests. The effects are particularly adverse for the poor. This is primarily the result of three factors. Firstly, most low-income countries are located in regions that happen to be at far higher risk of natural hazards. Secondly, within countries the poor are normally affected much more than others due to economic and social factors, including race, class, gender, and ethnicity. The majority of the poor cannot afford living in locations with lower risks, they live in poorly built houses, and women and children are often hit the hardest, bearing the brunt of food and nutrition security impacts. Thirdly, there may already initial discriminating practices towards the poor regarding the allocation of the targeting compensation for natural hazards (de Haen and Hemrich2007).

As the impact of such events to food security can be long-lasting, establishing measures to reduce natural disaster risk and build resilience is being advocated. The aim is to develop the ability of a system, community, or society to adapt to shocks in order to maintain an acceptable level of functioning. Crucial in such endeavor is to adopt measures that aim not only to eradicate the immediate catastrophic impacts but also to integrate those efforts into food security strategies as part of overall poverty reduction (Skoufias 2003).

Indeed, while food security can result from unfortunate events, as a social phenomenon, its root of causes is often structural, manifested in persistent status of vulnerability. This implies investigating events as well as intrinsic characteristics of exposed groups of people to determine who will be affected and to what degree (Dilley and Boudreau 2001). Vulnerability approach emerged from the realization that the underlying vulnerability status of a population is a more important determinant of the extent and duration of a food security crisis, and thus relevant for adopting its solutions, than the discrete natural hazards or sudden drop of food stocks that may trigger food security (Prowse 2003).

In addition to vulnerability framework, the Household Livelihood Security (HHLS) framework grew out of a food security perspective but is based on the observation that food is not the only basic need. A livelihood “comprises the capabilities, assets (resources, claims, and access) and activities required for a means of living; a livelihood that is sustainable can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation” (Frankenberger 2003). Livelihood security, then, refers to adequate and sustainable access to income and resources to meet basic needs. This means to include a wide range of issues, such as land tenure, sustainable agriculture, potable water, health facilities, educational opportunities, involvement in policymaking, and time for community participation. Livelihoods include a range of on-farm and off-farm activities that together provide a variety of procurement strategies to make a living. Notably, the status of each individual and household’s livelihoods is based on the household’s endowments and its position in the legal, political, and social fabric of society (Baro and Deubel 2006).

Consequently, political and economic interventions on food security as well as humanitarian food aid may be not directly related to food itself. Power relations influencing the distribution of land, military insecurity, and political oppression impeding people to produce food are a case in point. Additionally, the increasing roles of private actors, as well as the relationship between state and market, is dominantly influencing the governance of food security policies at the national level (Hospes and Hadiprayitno 2010). Pollution affecting the safety of food and food production are another case in point. Against this framework, the future of food security is closely connected to the complexity of law and practice that govern the arrangements of food production, distribution, consumption, and sustainability, as well as accountable economic growth policies and active preparedness measures.



Several major shifts in food security studies and policies have occurred since the 1970s. First, the unit of analysis has moved from the global/national level to the local/household/individual level. Second, the scope of analysis has shifted from a “food availability” approach to an emphasis on the performance and sustainability of household access to livelihoods. Third, subjective perceptions of food security among local populations now complement objectively measurable indicators of food security.

International organizations, national governments, and nongovernmental organizations who are responsible and assuming the tasks to carry out the food security programs and policies in the world hold a wide variety of opinions and have developed a wide variety of frameworks for tackling the issue of food security. These frameworks are congruous with specific scientific approaches to food security and act as frameworks for orienting policies.

The parallel between food security and the right to food is particularly relevant as the concept of “adequate” food has been further elaborated along and beyond the lines quoted above on food security. Both concepts argue that on the one hand the availability at all times is relevant and on the other hand adequacy is understood to mean sufficient to satisfy dietary needs, free from adverse substances, and acceptable in a given culture. While food security offers its flexibility and adaptability into different measurable indicators and policy measures, the right to food advances the concerted effort of eradicating hunger as legal obligation, to which some limits and requirements apply to hold the duty-bearer, state accountable, and protect the entitlements of right-holder, the individual.

Current challenges pertaining to climate change; natural disaster; pollution; corruption; decreasing availability of land, water, and other resources; as well as the impact of food security to nutrition and health status particularly to vulnerable groups are analyzed and addressed using different approaches. Frameworks on vulnerability and household livelihood security are only few that have been advocated to provide solutions as well as to understand the complexity of persistent problem of food security.



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