Global to local – redefining food security

How we’re going to ‘feed the 9 billion’ has become one of the existential questions of recent years, alongside, and linked to, other threats to human wellbeing: climate change, planetary boundaries, and so on. Food security, like other high-risk threats, has been framed as a global challenge. But is a global lens the best approach for tackling the problem?

A street vendor selling fresh potato chips and kaka pizon in Antananarivo, Madagascar

First things first: there certainly is a food security problem. Despite the significant progress towards the Millennium Development Goal to reduce hunger1, the globally aggregated statistics make for grim reading. To cite just a few:

  • 805 million people worldwide remain chronically undernourished2
  • 162 million children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition3
  • 2 billion people suffer from a shortage of micronutrients (‘hidden hunger’)4
  • climate change has already reduced global maize and wheat production by 3.8% and 5.5% respectively5

Add in the worsening impacts of climate change, human population increase, and change in diets, and the future of food security looks even grimmer than the present.6

One of the main responses to these kinds of globally aggregated statistics and forecasts is the focus on increasing global agricultural production to keep up with growing demand. The underlying assumption is that producing more food globally will mean fewer people going hungry. I find that a hard assumption to accept: it’s not a great revelation that the world already produces enough food for all, but we are failing to distribute it equitably, (as Amartya Sen pointed out decades ago)7:

  • Redistributing just 1% of global food production would be enough to feed all the hungry people on the planet8
  • Approximately one third of food is wasted without being consumed9
  • There are now half a billion obese adults worldwide10, resulting in costs estimated to be as high as US$2 trillion every year11.

None of us can see the future, but equally I can’t see any compelling reason why increasing agricultural production will somehow improve poor people’s access to agriculture’s bounty.

And that’s where the doubts begin to creep in about how useful it really is to think about food security as a global challenge. Is a global perspective blinding us when it comes to thinking about solutions?

Consumers in many countries buy products from all over the world, and true, some commodities can come from anywhere (where they are produced is less relevant than the quality and price). But the reality is that there isn’t a ‘global food system’ in any meaningful sense. A more realistic representation is that there are places that predominantly import food (urban areas) from areas that predominantly export food (rural places). Each city or urban area is in effect driving a food system of supply and demand.

The food systems that feed cities are widely divergent. In Lusaka (Zambia), most people buy food from small shops and stalls12, and this food originates predominantly from the area around Lusaka and to some extent from countries with which Zambia shares a border13. Compare that to Greater Manchester in the UK, where about 95% of people purchase their food from supermarkets. Very little of the food produced locally (mostly beef and dairy) is traded directly within the area for local consumption, only about 50% of food consumed in Greater Manchester is sourced from within the UK, with about one third imported from Europe, and the remaining 20% from the rest of the world14.

Framing the problem as a global challenge masks many local dimensions, in terms of causes, impacts, and our ability to effect change. As much as global food supply, food security depends on the specific organization of local enterprises, and the links between them and their rural supply base; on how local authorities manage their food economy; the buying power, skills and cultures of consumers; and many other locally specific factors.  The drivers and expression of food security in Lusaka are not the same as those in Greater Manchester. Nor will the solutions to food security be the same. Thinking about how cities are fed leads to a different definition of the problem, and different solutions as well.

We need to turn our attention to the city/regional food system to tackle food security worldwide. But how are cities connected to the rural areas that feed them, that absorb their waste, but that also depend on cities, for infrastructure, technology and markets? In the next blog we will explore those linkages, uncover their challenges and look for solutions.

1 United Nations 92014). The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014. New York.

2 FAO, IFAD and WFP (2014). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition. Rome, FAO

3 United Nations (2014). ibid

4 von Grebmer, K., Saltzman, A. Birol, E. Wiesmann, D., Prasai, N., Yin, S. Yohannes, Y., Menon, P., Thompson, J., & Sonntag, A. (2014). 2014 Global Hunger Index: The Challenge of Hidden Hunger. Bonn, Washington, D.C., and Dublin: Welthungerhilfe, International Food Policy Research Institute, and Concern Worldwide

5 Lobell, D., Schlenker, W & Costa-Roberts, J. (2011) Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980. Science. Vol. 333, no. 6042, pp. 616-620

6 For excellent summaries of the future prospects of these issues see Conway, G. (2012). One billion hungry: Can we Feed the World?. Cornell University, or Evens, A. (2012). The Feeding of the Nine Billion Global Food Security for the 21st Century. A Chatham House Report.

7 Sen, A. (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford, Clarendon Press

8 Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and Just space for Humanity: Can We Live Within the Doughnut? Oxfam.

9 FAO (2011) ‘Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention’, Rome: FAO

10 World Health Organisation. Obesity.

11 Dobbs, R., Sawers, C., Thompson, F., Manyika, J., Woetzel, J., Child, P., McKenna, S., & Spathrou, A. (2014). Overcoming Obesity: an Initial Economic Analysis. McKinsey Global Institute Discussion Paper.

12 Hichaambwa, M. (2012) “Urban Consumption Patterns of Livestock Products in Zambia and Implications for Policy”, IAPRI Working Paper No. 65. pp. 13-16. Food Security Research Project, Michigan State University

13 Tschirley, D. and Hichaambwa, M. (2010) How are vegetables marketed into Lusaka?, Policy Synthesis No. 40. Food Security Research Project – Zambia. Michigan State University.

14 Understanding and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food consumption and production: Greater Manchester

Image: A street vendor selling fresh potato chips and kaka pizon in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

…And that’s where the doubts begin to creep in about how useful it really is to think about food security as a global challenge. Is a global perspective blinding us when it comes to thinking about solutions?