Hunger: A National Security Threat

Although the term food security was coined only 16 years ago, humanity has been striving against famine and hunger since ancient times. Agreement at the 1996 World Food Summit, based on the concept that food security exists "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life", gave a new vision to efforts against hunger and malnutrition. According to this definition, food insecurity is multidimensional, and affects people at the global, regional, national, sub-national and household levels. It presents itself in various forms, such as chronic, acute, and transient. In addition, in order to be food secure, there are different requirements for men, women, children and the elderly.

A new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets with a deadline of 2015, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), was expected to give new impetus to the cause of food security. However, 12 years down the road, the progress on target 1.C of MDG 1—to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people who suffer from hunger—is still bleak and stymied in most regions. Stunting and wasting prevails in developing countries, where one in four children are underweight.

The causes behind this alarming phenomenon vary in each case. There are three prerequisites that determine whether food security exists: the physical availability of food through production, import, aid, intra-country transfer; socio-economic and cultural access to food; and food assimilation.

Physical availability to food at both the macro and micro levels can become affected negatively due to a lack of local production, natural and man-made disasters, seasonal variations, water shortage, weak infrastructure, insufficient storage capacities, hoarding, or even legal problems. Socio-economic access to food, however, can be affected adversely due to poverty, lack of resources, climate change, disasters, political instability, and loss of livelihood opportunities. Furthermore, a lack of a consistent supply of subsidized food items, due to a reduced fiscal cushion, low literacy rates, social norms such as gender discrimination, and a lack of awareness about the benefits of maintaining a balanced diet, can impact negatively the distribution of resources within the family.

The factors that hamper food assimilation, on the other hand, include a lack of clean drinking water, inadequate health, hygiene, and sanitation facilities, a low rate of literacy, and a lack of fiscal cushion for Governments to spend on public sector development programmes, which would help ensure basic service delivery. Various other overlapping factors also contribute to the burgeoning world food crisis.

Humanitarian and/or Production Issues

One of the reasons for the slow progress on achieving the goal of halving world hunger is that most of our policy and decision makers consider food insecurity either a humanitarian issue and/or a production issue. Treating food insecurity as a humanitarian issue, however, necessitates ensuring food security through emergency appeals for pledges, charity, food aid, emergency food supplies, and other such measures. While all of these measures may be important in certain circumstances, they cannot tackle future food security requirements, nor can they ensure sustainable food security.

Likewise, treating food insecurity only as a production issue would again cater to only one aspect of food security -- physical availability. Hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity have increased over the years in surplus producer countries such as India, Pakistan, and many Latin American countries. According to the World Food Programme, due to the eroded purchasing power of consumers in 2010, in Pakistan, there was a 10 per cent decrease in the consumption of wheat, which is considered a staple food.

Trying to tackle the food insecurity issue merely by increasing production sometimes raises questions as to whether food is being produced in a sustainable manner by making use of available resources. The debate against agricultural production subsidies in the North and the realization of the negative effects of the green revolution on the South's environment point to how principles of sustainability may be compromised in a quest to produce more.

Increased production is not the problem as long as it is achieved through principles of sustainability. What is of concern, however, is that very little is being done to ensure socio-economic access to available food for everyone, at all times. This is the most ignored aspect of food (in)security.

Governance and International Partnerships

There are many reasons for the lack of economic access to food. On the supply side, the primary reason for food price volatility is inefficient governance and market distortion practices. Inefficient markets in poorly governed countries, an increase in prices of agricultural inputs, the increased cost of transportation due to fuel price inflation, damage to physical infrastructure limiting the supply of food products, hoarding, and cartelization, especially in the case of staple food items, and the smuggling of food grains and live animals to neighbouring countries are some of the factors that lead to food inflation. All of these issues could be tackled through better governance at the local level.

In most of the developing countries, where the incidence of hunger and food insecurity is also high, restricted or uncertain, physical food supplies trigger panic buying. Those who can afford to pay try to buy beyond their immediate requirement, even at higher prices. This further encourages hoarders to sell at higher prices and the vicious cycle continues until the supply stabilizes.

Looking at progress reports on the MDGs by Member States, it is obvious that while at the macro level many efforts are being made through international partnerships to produce more food, provide better drinking water (not necessarily safe drinking water for most developing countries), control fatal diseases, and improve food absorption, there is no meaningful international partnership to improve socio-economic access to food.

This is the weakest link in our efforts to eradicate hunger, which, in turn, has larger implications for achieving security. All four levels of security -- individual, national, regional, and global -- are mutually non-exclusive and necessary for the survival of the others. More than a billion people on this earth who are lacking food and experience individual insecurity on a daily basis tend to resort to extreme and extraordinary behaviour. Various United Nations agencies have documented how people in developing countries have reduced their meal sizes and shifted to a less preferred diet. One may read any newspaper from any developing country to understand the extreme and extraordinary behaviour of people with individual insecurities. Some of them protest for basic amenities such as an uninterrupted supply of electricity, gas and water, and may resort to actions which can turn violent. Or they are forced to sell their kidneys, or even their children, while a few resort to various other anti-social activities such as theft, burglary, robbery and kidnapping for ransom. Some force their women into prostitution and children into child labour, and some even commit suicide and/or kill their family members. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, a few also become prey to militant groups and blow themselves up as suicide bombers. These behaviours not only promote intolerance and violence, but also lead to socio-political instability, which affects economic growth and prosperity and threatens national, regional, and global securities thereby necessitating an increase in defence and military spending. At this stage, food insecurity jeopardizes sustainable development by threatening peace, social justice, and economic well being.

So what is the way forward? First, the situation requires a change in paradigm where individual hunger is perceived as a national security threat. Such a paradigm shift would result in greater resources being channelled to improve food security. It would also result in the reprioritization of public spending, so that social development would be given priority over national defence, and the benefits of such spending would accrue to individuals and not only to the State.

Second, increased food production should not be achieved by non-sustainable measures, such as the use of natural resources. There is a need to maintain a balance among food production and environmental sustainability.

Third, our national policymakers need to come out of denial and accept that there is the issue of food insecurity. They then need to strengthen the social protection system to provide targeted relief, especially for children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers. They should also introduce special schemes for those who are deprived of access to food, either in the form of cash for work or food for work programmes.

Finally, the lesson to be learned from countries that produce surplus food is that until there is an improvement in governance at the local and national levels, international partnership and global governing bodies will not be of much help in ensuring food security.