Friday, December 06, 2013

What do we mean by food security?

Food security has been a dominant element in recent debates on agricultural policy, not least the recent discussions on CAP reform. But what do we actually understand by food security? There are a number of standard definitions out there, but in fact various actors interpret the term for their own purposes. An important article in Food Policy by Jeroen Candel, Gerard Breeman, Sabina Stiller and Catrien Termeer, identifies six different interpretations or 'framings'.

Not surprisingly, the productionist and environmental frames were dominant, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of uses. Anyone who has followed the CAP debate is familiar with the productionist frame. It is the stock in trade of those who advocate a 'business as usual', 'more of the same' CAP. As the authors note, it 'revolves around a story line that considers food security as one of the key goals of a future Common Agricultural Policy.' World food crises increase the salience of this frame.

The policy conclusion that is drawn is that the CAP should maintain 'a strong first pillar.' Agricultural production and productivity should be stimulated, 'and should be considered as a form of public goods provision, for which a financial compensation is justified.' [Needless to say, I think that this is a spurious argument, but it is certainly widely deployed].

Whilst the productionist frame is the dominant one, the environmental frame accounts for almost a third of all uses. This is of itself interesting as such a prominence would not have been achieved fifteen or twenty years ago and shows how the debate about the CAP has been 'greened'. The provision of environmental services is seen as an integral part of European food production and the emphasis is on long-term sustainability which cannot be achieved by the continuation of current policy.

Interestingly, the third most used frame is the regional one which shows how the notion of food security can be appropriated for a range of purposes. I see this as a very political frame in the sense of securing benefits for a particular set of actors. The argument here is to look after less developed regions which it is argued cannot produce at world market prices. Farmers in these regions perform an important function as caretakers of the countryside. The Scottish Highlands and Islands are a good example. Although a continuation of the CAP is supported, the present distribution of funds is seen as unfair.

The free trade frame argues that food security is best achieved by free trade. The development frame critiques the impact of the CAP on developing countries. The food sovereignty frame offers a radical critique of traditional conceptions of food security and focuses attention on people's right to food. Historically, notions of equity did feature in the debate in terms of closing the gap in the standard of living between rural and urban areas, but this framing covers both consumers and farmers and is underpinned by notions of global solidarity.

Interestingly, the European Commission uses multiple framings, invoking various frames simultaneously. My take would be that various interpretations of food security can be utilised to justify whatever line the Commission has chosen to take. The consequence, the authors argue, is that a clear vision of the relationship between the CAP and food security is lacking and policy makers may need to develop a more coherent vision [although I would add that CAP decision-making processes rarely facilitate clear strategic thinking].

Not only is this article a very useful, empirically based overview of how the term 'food security' has been used in policy debates, it also provokes thought about where we might go in the future.

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