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What do we mean by food security?

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When I was young, my mum used to try and encourage me to finish all the food on my plate by pointing out there were starving children in Africa. This link between what I ate and the nutrition of children in developing countries always left me confused. More recently I have felt the same about the way in which the term ‘food security’ is sometimes used.  In particular, increasing food security is sometimes equated with a need to increase self-sufficiency – even occasionally by my scientific colleagues, as in this recent news article.

Official definitions of food security have changed over time, gradually extending beyond the physical availability of food to issues of access (relating to affordability and the means by which people can secure food), food use (in terms of nutritional needs and health-related issues) and, most recently, stability.  The FAO definition states food security is:

“a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

In contrast, food self-sufficiency is a much narrower concept, usually considered at the national level, and defined as the proportion of domestic consumption met from domestic production.  Self-sufficiency is not necessarily a good policy target, especially for a developed country, and I would imagine even the most avid anti-neoliberalist would question whether 100% self-sufficiency in all food and drink products in, for example, Scotland is desirable. 

Barley field-2007-02-22 - By Victor Szalvay (flickr.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Although hard to quantify reliably, the UK as a whole is currently thought to be about 60% self-sufficient in food and drink, 70% in products it can produce indigenously.  Scotland is currently a net importer of certain products - mainly fruit, vegetables and cereals-based products - but a (highly successful) net exporter of other food and drink products including beef and whisky.  So at present, Scotland is not 100% food self-sufficient, but, because it specialises in the export of products which have high value and are in demand elsewhere, this helps us to import products which other countries can more easily or efficiently produce.  For example, it would be very costly to try to grow our own bananas!  An increase in the local production of certain products that we currently import (and could technically produce) may help better protect food manufacturers and consumers from volatile global markets: however becoming more insular and failing to exploit our comparative advantage could be counterproductive. It could also harm those countries supplying imports, countries which may be far more dependent on agriculture as a source of income and employment and far more food insecure than is the case in Scotland. 

Thus, at national level, equating food security with food self-sufficiency is misleading.  It is also potentially dangerous if it leads to the broader trade implications and other aspects of food security being overlooked.  Food banks do not exist in Scotland because Scottish farmers are not producing enough food: they exist because some segments of Scottish society are unable to afford to buy food.  Similarly, thinking back to my mum’s encouragement at tea time, reducing food waste in Scotland will not necessarily improve food security in developing countries suffering from high levels of malnutrition.

Even before getting into the debates about food sovereignty or environmental goals, the concept of food security is complex, with different policy implications at local, national and global scales.   In this context, I argue we should be more careful about the use of the term.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/what-do-we-mean-food-security on 28/02/24 03:29:24 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.