What Does Food Security Really Mean?

Peter Mann reports from a panel on food security at Fordham Law School.

By Peter Mann

What does food security really mean? Who are the food insecure and where do they live? Why have so many people fallen into food insecurity, and where are solutions to this human tragedy? On Wednesday February 13, 2008, The Fordham Law School in New York City’s Stein Scholar Program of Public Interest Law and Ethics invited a panel monitored by Professor Paolo Galizzi to discuss international and U.S. food security and respond to questions from law students and teachers.

Food Security: Strengths and Limitations
The panelists were invited to give their definition of food security, and most responded with some variation of the USDA definition: Access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life .

In the panel discussion, however, it became clear that the term “food security” had both strengths and limits. The panelists came from different backgrounds: from the Food Bank for New York City (Aine Duggan), the U.S.-based Community Food Security Coalition (Stephanie Larson), the Liaison Office in NYC of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (Themba N. Masuku.), the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University (Gabriella Petrick), and myself from WHY’s Global Movements Program. One strength of the food security term is that it provided an accepted context for us to share differing views during a free-flowing discussion.

One limitation, however, is that food security is a comparatively new technical term: it does not convey the wider awareness and emotional impact linked to the age-old realities of hunger and starvation. Another weakness is that the general public may equate food security with food safety or the protection of food resources through military action against bioterrorism. As they faced questions about poverty, the environment, trade and development, panelists extended and strengthened the concept of food security. One widely-used pathway is to understand food security through the 4 A’s : healthy food should be available to all (sufficient supply); accessible to all (food access); acceptable to all (culturally appropriate); and adequate (nutritionally adequate and from a sustainable food system.)

Panelists also described the importance of moving beyond the limits of the concept of food security. A discussion of social justice around food must also include a radical analysis of poverty. Three related movements reflect this deeper analysis: The community food security movement shows how our food system is connected, how our food grows, how it’s processed, who grows it, what we eat, where it comes from, who goes hungry and why. The food sovereignty movement empowers the poor and hungry to rebuild and take control of their own food systems. Food system analysis focuses on who produces, distributes, and controls our food. We all agreed that we had to find simpler ways to communicate what food security really means. Willie Nelson of Farm Aid, for example, uses a simpler definition: “good food for all.” Carlo Petrini of the international Slow Food movement speaks of food which is “good” (rooted in a food culture), “clean” (based on healthy soil, plants, animals and eaters), and “fair” (to farm workers, food workers, and food producers).

Who Are the Food Insecure?
Global food security would mean that the world population of around 6.5 billion is adequately nourished and fed. In fact, more than 830 million people are chronically hungry and many are malnourished. The poverty statistics panelists shared from FAO and other UN agencies on those living on less than one dollar a day (more than 1 billion), along with those living on less than two dollars a day (more than two billion), would lead to the conclusion that something approaching half of the world’s population is food insecure. Who are these people? They are people of color, women and very young children, smallholder farmers, people marginalized in shantytowns and rural areas. Where are they? They live predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

This sounds far-away, but food insecurity – food insufficiency and not knowing where the next meal is coming from – exists also in the inner cities and rural areas of the U.S. Aine Duggan of NYC Food Bank described the 25 million people in the U.S. who use the emergency food system as being predominantly women with small children, the working poor, the disabled, people of color. In New York City (and increasingly nationwide), it is poverty which is driving them into food insecurity: rising rents and mortgages, increased healthcare and energy costs, low wages and lack of jobs.

Global poverty is a nexus where the poor lack access to basic necessities of life: food (830 million), safe water (1.1 billion), sanitation (2.6 billion), adequate shelter (1 billion), literacy (774 million adults.) Yet Thomas Pogge in a remarkable Dissent article on “Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices,” has shown that while the problems of world poverty are large, the solutions are also amazingly small.

Barely $300 billion annually would be needed to meet the basic needs of the 40 percent of human beings who now live below the $2 a day poverty line, “much less than what the United States spends on its military.” However, we would need political choices to reduce the growing inequality within countries for this to happen, and we know how difficult this is proving to be. The global movements that are emerging around food, water, land, seeds, and livelihoods are pressuring politicians to make these choices.

What Can Lawyers Do?
Most of the question and answer session at the Law School panel event dealt with what lawyers and law students could do to help build food security and combat food insecurity. Many suggestions were explored. Lawyers could work with anti-poverty organizations to protect food entitlements such as food stamps. They could enter new struggles around human rights, including the right to food. As George Kent writes in Freedom from Want: The Human Right To Adequate Food, the human right to adequate food has a long history going back to FDR’s Freedom from Want, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but only now are global movements emerging to implement these economic and social rights.

The human right to feed oneself in dignity is different from the age-old injunction to feed the hungry, since it is based on the demands of justice rather than charity, and entails political responsibilities. It empowers the world’s poor and holds governments accountable, and in fact certain governments are now including the right to food in their constitutions. However, resistance to this new movement is strong, and knowledge of the law would be an essential tool to strengthen the movement.

Peter Mann is Director Emeritus of WhyHunger’s Global Movements program.