Setting for Action
Measurement of Household Food Security
Scope of Options
Food insecurity continues to threaten large proportions of households in low income countries. It is common among the absolute poor in middle income countries, and even in some rich countries. The problem is widespread, and is not confined to any one sector or group of nations. Even when hunger is avoided, families suffer from its threat. The entire society benefits when people feel their access to food is secure.
An operational definition of household food security is proposed as follows. A household is food secure when it has access to the food needed for a healthy life for all its members (adequate in terms of quality, quantity, safety and culturally acceptable), and when it is not at undue risk of losing such access.
Food insecurity, as a household-level issue, can be addressed by a wide range of alternative policies and combinations of policies and programmes. Policies for food security should aim at attaining required food consumption levels and reducing the risk of the poor losing access to food. Access to food and purchasing power are central, and both transitory (e.g. seasonal) and chronic food insecurity problems are of concern.
Adequate global and national level food supply remain necessary but insufficient conditions for household food security. High levels of food self sufficiency in low income countries have no necessary relationship to their households' food security, which has to be addressed by specific policies. Households should be viewed in the context of their community, and not in isolation. Many of the problems considered below have an important community and local government dimension and cannot be addressed by the central government alone.
The nature and scale of the food security problem differs a great deal among and within countries, and also between urban and rural areas. Wise policy needs to take account of this, and therefore has to be country- and region-specific and problem-oriented. Food security cannot be achieved free of charge in terms of fiscal resources. Public capabilities for problem identification and policy design and implementation are required to help to find ways to eliminate the unacceptable human misery caused by food insecurity, or by extreme efforts that households may take to avert it. In addition to humanitarian considerations, food secure households are a precondition for a modernizing and healthy society whose members concern themselves with investment in a productive future (e.g. education) rather than scrambling for adequate food today. Governments have an obligation to enable families and communities to achieve long-term food security and to provide a safety net to prevent destitution.
Food is such a high priority for poor households that many may be tenuously "secure", but at great sacrifice - for example spending almost all their money or time on securing food. Thus not only must current food security itself be tackled, but also both the vulnerability and the disadvantages from enforced concentration on acquiring food, to the detriment of other needs like education or housing. Moreover increases in income even among the lowest income groups do not necessarily go entirely to increasing food energy intakes, but also towards better quality in terms of a more palatable and diversified diet. This represents an important aspiration not captured by dietary energy intakes alone, and is another objective of improved food security.
A first step for improved food security that applies universally is to develop government and district-level capacity to assess, analyse, act, and evaluate actions relating to malnutrition in general and food security in particular. Community participation in this process is essential to successful capacity building at all levels, just as community mobilization must be a key feature of implementation. The ability to implement policies and monitor their effect is at least as important as the ability to design policies. Integrating all these activities into a continuous process will help to ensure that initial mistakes in policy conception are corrected, and that adjustments are made as circumstances change.
The general development strategy of a country greatly influences the food security of its households. A development strategy supportive of sustainable agriculture and rapid growth in labour-intensive output will enhance food security. So too will a macro-economic strategy that builds upon stability to encourage growth. This type of management reduces economic insecurity caused by sudden large devaluations, drastic budget cuts, sharp curtailment of credit, and shortages of goods. These fluctuations hurt food security in the short- and long-run.
Household food security is substantially influenced by macro-economic adjustment policies. The situation typically preceding adjustment includes such factors as overvalued currency, price policies negatively affecting agriculture, inefficient market interventions and government expenditures; these tend to depress production and incomes (particularly rural), and reduce the access to food of the poor. However, adjustment programmes, although necessary, usually lead to at least short-run insecurity especially among the urban poor and net consumers (wage-earners, landless) in rural areas. Reasons include increasing food prices, rising unemployment, and reduced budget allocations to social sectors. These should be cushioned by compensatory measures. Adjustment programmes are aimed in the long-run to lead to sustainable development, which will benefit nutrition, and considerations discussed later for development strategies are relevant.
Support for sustainable agriculture implies fair prices for farm output and inputs, and concern with resource mining, and spill-over and dynamic biological effects of agricultural inputs. (More plainly, problems such as erosion, groundwater depletion, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and problems of pest resurgences are addressed.) Labour-intensive growth implies avoiding subsidies to capital via overvalued exchange rates, cheap credit, tax holidays, and low tariffs on capital goods; and also avoiding artificially high wages. Improvements in marketing, distribution, and agro-industries, as well as promoting the contribution of the private sector in job creation, all have important roles. Food safety and food quality must be assured by appropriate legislation, consumer protection and information.
Appropriate macro-economic management must recognize the lessons of the 1980s: growth and equity will be faster and smoother in a stable macro-economic environment. Avoiding large fiscal and current account deficits, high levels of inflation, rapid credit growth, or unchecked public enterprise losses will allow higher levels of productive investment, fewer recessions, and less unemployment. Arriving at a favourable macro-economic situation can be painful, but must be managed so as to allow food security for all families.
While the basic concept of household food security is clear, and an ideal measure of it is easy to describe, it is surprisingly difficult to gauge it in practice. This difficulty does not mean waiting for years of academic research. It does suggest that operational research and evaluation should be built into food security activities, so that confidence in the precision of actions will grow as the decade progresses.
An ideal measure of household food security includes the measurement of household food availability and average household food consumption levels over a period of time, in relation to need. For various reasons, this is all but impossible to achieve at a reasonable cost in a reasonable time period: there are problems with measuring both availability and consumption, and need itself. It is sufficiently difficult that it is best regarded as an ideal rather than practical measure. The proportion of available resources required for achieving food security may also be assessed; for example, households with adequate food security but spending almost all their income on food should clearly be distinguished from those only needing to spend a moderate proportion on food. This proportion is indicative of the stress on households' well-being, and reflects on their capacity to cope and indeed survive.
There are a number of other variables that might help to indicate trends, or serve as proxies for, food security. The best general indicator is probably real income, although still hard to assess; more fundamental measures, such as landlessness, should be included. Research is needed to see which groups of indirect indicators are best used under which conditions. In general, more weight has to be placed on indirect indicators where local government is weak and participation in the policy process is low; and also where investigative journalism is suppressed. Examples of potential indicators are changes in food production by region, changes in price ratios (e.g. crop/livestock or crop/wage price ratios), migration, assets; priority data from household surveys conducted for this specific purpose include; food consumption, the perceived risk of food insecurity, use of famine foods, and anthropometric measurements.
In relation to causality, none of these indicators are reliable on their own. All should be used in conjunction with other information. Emphasis should be on changes from normal levels, as many indicators will change for reasons unrelated to food security. For example, migration may rise in response to urban job opportunities, and weight-for-length indices may drop due to a rise in infectious disease. In general, careful analysis is needed before inferring changes in food security. However, there is often adequate data available or easily gathered to allow judgements about food security - lack of precise data is no excuse for inaction.
The purpose of the policies discussed below is to improve household food security. This is done, in part, by having a social safety net. A government has an obligation to ensure food access for all, extending especially to women and children. But true security comes from raising the level of production and earned income and improving asset ownership. If food prices are stabilized, and food availability assured, this will help families realize an acceptable minimum livelihood, food security, and adequate energy intakes.
As stressed above, appropriate policies can only be identified in a specific country context. The listing of major policy options for food security can therefore only be indicative of a government's choices. Conclusions regarding their impact and cost-effectiveness must remain at a very general level. A large body of research and experience exists for each policy and use of this will help guide decisions in specific contexts. Not every policy will fit every country, but most policies - if well applied - have the potential to improve food security in many countries. A brief list follows.
i) Promotion of small-scale agricultural production remains central to food security in most poor countries, to provide food and income for those at risk. Agricultural growth for employment expansion and food supply is important because many of the food insecure live in rural areas and are directly or indirectly linked to agriculture. Sustainable technology improvements in agriculture can increase the productivity of labour without diminishing employment. There are potential gains in food, cash crops, and in livestock. Traditional food crops and collected foods must be given systematic attention. Central elements of this policy include research and extension linkages, drawing upon indigenous knowledge, and improved input supply.
ii) Income generating projects including livestock and non-farm activities will allow rural families to use time previously spent on low productivity work to switch to jobs with higher returns. Non-farm work generates incomes not closely connected to farm income, thus helping to stabilize household incomes. Income generation is equally or more important in urban areas, although often the investments may differ from those in rural areas - urban families are usually more reliant on purchased foods.
iii) The initiation of credit programmes is one way to allow the rural poor access to loans, both for consumption and especially for production. Loans can make it possible for the poor to acquire assets, which both increase their income-earning capacity and provide buffers against disaster. Women should have equal legal and effective access to credit (see section D), as its availability allows higher incomes to be earned, and improves the resilience and flexibility of the household's income base. Lending to micro-enterprises using non-traditional and unregulated intermediaries has proved effective in reaching the poor; such schemes could now be expanded. (The success of credit programmes for the poor does not in general hinge on an interest rate subsidy, so decisions on subsidy to credit can be made depending on local conditions.)
iv) Public investment in infrastructure will have a number of benefits. Labour intensive construction creates jobs. Better roads lower marketing costs, thereby allowing both better prices to farmers and lower consumer prices in cities. Roads also improve the flow of information and reduce the power of local monopolies. They allow the easier movement of labour out of low wage or drought-struck areas, and cheaper movement of food into them. If irrigation and regreening are investments, continued gains in employment and incomes can be enjoyed.
v) Public stockpiling of food has sometimes efficiently improved food security by assuring physical supplies and stabilizing prices. In general, however, if transport costs are low, stockpiling will not be the best way to ensure access to food. Use of futures markets and international trade would provide a cheaper alternative. If transport costs are high, national, regional, or even community stockpiling in excess of normal commercial stocks may be needed. If a nation's demand can raise the price of its imports, stockpiling may be needed, even with low transport costs.
vi) Food price stabilization can benefit farmers by allowing more confident investment in inputs, and consumers by reducing extreme fluctuations in real wages. This policy may sometimes involve driving a wedge between local and world prices, but these should not deviate too far from average world prices for too long.
vii) Food price subsidy and rationing policies are widely used. An important distinction is between targeted subsidies which are aimed mainly at households facing food insecurity and general subsidies aimed at most or all households. Targeting can be done by means-tested food stamps, ration books or coupons, by type of staple (e.g. cassava rather than rice), by geographic location of shops, or by restriction of the subsidy to certain groups, such as pregnant and lactating women and young children. Targeted subsidies face lower food costs, somewhat higher administrative costs, and, sometimes, a lack of widespread political support. General subsidies are very costly, popular, and hard to stop.
viii) Public works for food security (including food-for-work) continue to play an important role in Asia. Their potential in Africa appears to be increasing as there is rising population concentration, resource conservation opportunities, and infrastructure needs. If wages are set somewhat below normal levels, this intervention has the highly desirable feature of being self-targeting for the poor. Women are often attracted to these public works, although questions of child care, preferably near the place of work, should be addressed. The dual effects of short-term employment and long-term asset creation are described under infrastructure.
ix) Free distribution of food to selected groups is useful in emergency situations, such as famines or floods; and in chronic situations where poor pregnant and lactating mothers or underweight young children are at risk. Supplementary feeding programmes are common in this category. These may be aimed at households, such as food-for-work (section viii above), or individuals such as school-children, preschoolers or mothers. They can be successful where the service infrastructure and budgetary resources are adequate for sustained application. The benefits go beyond correcting growth failure to include child health and development (e.g. immunity and activity, school feeding for educational performance), and they should be considered and assessed in these terms. This type of distribution should be limited to those who will clearly benefit from the food; food distribution to the general population is seldom a cost effective way to intervene to improve household food security.
x) Food quality and safety control are important to reduce food contamination from chemicals (e.g. pesticide residues), mycotoxins (e.g. aflatoxin) and bacteria, both during storage and preparation (e.g. "street foods"). Attention to storage is important not only to prevent post-harvest losses but for reasons of palatability and acceptability. Certain foods need specific processing to be safe and acceptable (e.g. cassava, soya) and investments in this area can contribute to a safe and inexpensive food supply.
xi) Timely warning and intervention systems integrate local levels of data gathering, analysis and response. In some situations, this can prevent serious food security problems from developing, by increasing the availability of public works or subsidized food before real deprivation sets in. These systems require a fairly sophisticated local government which is not always available, but can be built up over time.
xii) Specific micronutrient programmes should be considered among the options for improving household food security. These are discussed in a separate section (E).
The above listed indicative policies all need to be examined in terms of the extent to which they are consonant with policy priorities in a given country. They cannot be evaluated or advocated in isolation from the policy and development strategy framework of a country. Most of the policies mentioned can include community participation and should to a large extent involve the private sector in actual implementation - e.g. privately run licensed ration shops, or privately bid infrastructure construction.
Given the essential contribution of women to household food security and adequate food intake of specific household members, especially women and children, part of any process for policy and programme choice needs to be the assessment of the likely impact of policy on them. Many policies create losers and gainers, and these should be identified.
Food security policy must be sustainable in the broad sense, i.e. in terms of fiscal resources, the preservation of natural resources, and in terms of a conducive political support base. Erratic changes in policy misguiding food insecure households can do more harm than doing nothing. While in any specific country and at any specific time, the best mix of policies may not be clear, this is no longer an acceptable excuse for delayed action.