In Search of Food Security: World Food Day — 2010

A briefing paper from the Global Women’s Project Maria Riley, OP, October 2010

As the twin specters of hunger and poverty continue to haunt millions of people throughout the world the international community has increased its commitment to address this growing human need. The first Millennium Development Goal was “To Eradicate Extreme poverty and hunger” (2000). Since then there have been a series of meetings and commitments to achieve that goal. The leaders of the world gathered at FAO World Food Summit in Rome, 2009, established the five Rome Principles of action and committed to join efforts with the Global Partnership for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition, a large UN initiative engaging intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental agencies in joint efforts to reduce hunger. At the G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, 2009, the leaders agreed “to act with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security.” This commitment has been reiterated in subsequent G8 and G20 meetings. However, recently the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that the number of undernourished people across the world is now close to one billion, the highest ever, and the progress to end hunger has been stymied in most regions.

This rise in hunger is not the consequence of poor global harvests or insufficient food production but of the series of crises that has affected people across the world in the past five years: the food and fuel crises in 2006-2008 and the economic and financial crises of 2009 forward.    These crises have increased the number of people in poverty worldwide leaving many in a state of serious food insecurity and growing malnutrition. The U.S. has not been exempt from these crises. Some 49.1 million people in the U.S. live in food insecure households; 32.4 million are adults and 16.7 millionchildren. African American, Hispanic, women-headed households, and households below the poverty line experience food insecurity at far higher rates than the national average.

Children bear the greatest burden of hunger both globally and domestically. Despite some progress, one in four children in the developing world is underweight. Children in rural areas are nearly twice as likely to be underweight as those in urban areas. In some regions, the prevalence of underweight children is dramatically higher among people in poverty. In the U.S. one in four households with children report food insecurity. When the dramatic increase in food insecurity occurred in 2008, families with children were the hardest hit. Much research has been done on the impact of hunger on both adults and children. The most compelling research reveals that the effects of malnutrition on children—on their health, development, learning and mental health—are particularly harsh even at modest levels of food insecurity. The future of the world’s children must be a deep concern to all.

Poverty is the principal cause of hunger; and hunger causes poverty by leaving people in poor health with low levels of energy and mental impairment, thus reducing their ability to work and learn.    How do people in poverty cope when caught in crises they did not create, but suffer their greatest consequences? Certain patterns of behavior are evident, including migration, selling off whatever meager assets they may possess, borrowing or trying new types of economic activity. Women seek to enter the formal and informal labor force or to expand their work hours. Children often are called into paid labor. Girls are usually the first to forego education to assume their mother’s work in the home or to find a paid job.

Women also alter household spending patterns. Food expenditure tends to shift towards buying less food and buying cheaper, calorie-rich processed foods rather than more expensive protein- rich nutritious foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. Globally as well as in the U.S. there is a rise in obesity particularly among people in poverty. Obesity, as well as lack of sufficient food intake, is increasingly being considered a problem of malnutrition. In addition to cutting back on the amount or the quality of food, households in poverty reduce health and education expenditures thus adding to the deterioration of the family’s well-being.

Seeking A Solution-A Global Change of Direction

While the food, fuel and financial crises over the past five years have had a particularly devastating effect on people in poverty, the number of undernourished people had been increasing even before the crises.    The enduring problem of hunger and food insecurity reveals the fragility of the present food system that is in urgent need of structural reform. While in the short term, food aid, safety nets and social protection programs need to be enhanced, in the medium to longer term the food system needs to be restructured to increase quality food production, particularly in low-income food deficit countries.

In the policy reversal, the new directions are focused on small producers, especially women, to bring major food production and distribution into local and regional contexts and to reduce rural poverty. There is also a commitment to reinvest in agriculture at all levels: International ODA, International and Regional Financial institutions and country levels. In a reversal of past experience, the monies are to be invested in country-owned and developed plans with a genuine bottom-up approach to agricultural development. There will also be a concerted effort at coordination at national, regional, and global levels to improve governance, promote better allocation of resources and avoid duplication. These policies’ direction reflects the Rome Principles.

Several programs have already been initiated including the U.S. initiativeFeed the Future, the World Bank’s Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) and the private initiative of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations’ Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Influenced by the five Rome Principles, these initiatives are country-led, focused on the small producer and seeking to work in collaboration with other groups in order to better leverage resources to achieve the goals of universal food security and improved nutrition. A continuing challenge, however, will be whether sufficient funds will become available to achieve these goals.    To monitor the U.S. Program Feed the Future see and the Gates/Rockerfeller Alliance for a Green Revolution see

But a deeper challenge is whether these initiatives will succeed in restructuring agricultural production and distribution in order to move beyond food insecurity and malnutrition while also addressing climate change which is a growing threat to the human community. Poverty, hunger and climate change are inter-related in agricultural policies.

Currently there is an intense and growing debate on the merits and demerits of biotechnology-led agricultural production versus agroecological-led production. The debate pits farmers and farmer organizations, grassroots groups, health and consumer organizations, environmental organizations, faith-based and women’s groups as well as a growing number of scientists and academics against corporate agribusiness and industrial farmers, as well as a cadre of scientists, academics and government bureaucrats who support biotechnology.    Which method of agriculture these new initiatives will support is still unclear, but current evidence seems to indicate that they will favor biotechnology.

Recent studies, including the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development“(IAASTD) commissioned and funded by the UN and the World Bank and “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa,” developed by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have provided scientific evidence that agroecological agriculture has the potential to revitalize rural economies, mitigate climate change and its effects, restore and preserve the environment, eradicate poverty and provide healthy and culturally appropriate food for all. Their findings challenge the safety and effectiveness of bio-technology with its use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and monocropping of genetically engineered crops, practices which deplete the soil and contaminate and deplete water supplies. The U.S. government does not support the findings of the IAASTD study.

On the other side of the debate the biotech supporters point to the success of the green revolution in decreasing hunger and poverty in India, the value of GMO crops in addressing perennial problems such as pests, drought and other natural disaster and in dramatically increasing the yields per acre. They insist that agroecological methods, while of value in their own right, will never have the capacity to feed the world. The outcomes of this debate will shape the structure of agriculture for the future.

U.S.—In Need of a New Social Contract

The debate is also critical in the U.S. revealing itself in the growing number of organic farms and local markets that have been spreading across the country in the last decade. It will also be a debate in the development of the next agricultural bill now being worked on in Congress. A key
The Global Women’s Project • Advancing human well-being and ecological sustainability issue will be the purpose, beneficiaries and dollar amount of U.S. agricultural subsidies which currently are primarily directed toward large industrial farmers.

However the responses to the poverty and hunger crises in the U.S. differ from the global approach because today less than 4% of the U.S. population is engaged in agriculture as contrasted to the more that 80% of the population in the Global South. The U.S. problem is not agricultural under- production, but over-production; the problem is food availability and poverty which calls for a different set of policy initiatives.

Currently the primary U.S. policies that address hunger and malnutrition are SNAP/Food Stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants and Children), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families which technically is not a food program but does supply minimal support for families) and provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill through support for school lunches and other programs. During the rising food prices in 2008 and the financial meltdown, the extension of Unemployment Insurance benefits, TANF and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act kept the food insecurity from rising even higher than it did.
The financial meltdown and its subsequent dramatic rise in unemployment laid bare the inadequacies of the social safety net approach to questions of poverty and hunger.    The future of human well-being in the U.S. lies in a comprehensive job program which includes a living wage, safe working conditions and protection of worker’s rights. But it also requires a new social contract that guarantees comprehensive social protection to all residents of the country, including adequate nutrition, housing, childcare, elder care and care for the disabled and chronically ill and comprehensive health care. The country is not only in financial, economic and employment crises, it is in a care crisis as the human rights for essential needs of people are ignored.

Within the current divided political climate it is doubtful that the country will see any new initiatives to address the care crisis, but the time is ripe to begin a new political discourse toward developing a robust social contract between the government and its people. The conversation is well under way in a variety of settings. Join in on the Center of Concern Global Women Project’s on the care economy to be part of that dialogue (See and Center of Concern on Facebook http://

Resources Consulted

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008.” http://$file/FAO_dec2008.pdf?openelement
FAO. 2010. “More people than ever are victims of hunger.” upload/newsroom/docs/Press%20release%20june-en.pdf
FRAC (Food Research and Action Center). 2010. “Food Hardship: A Closer Look at Hunger.” www.
FRAC. 2010. “Hunger in the U.S.”…/hunger_index.htm
IFAD (International Fund for Agriculture Development). 2010. “Summary of the High-Level Panel Discussions—From summit resolutions to farmers’ fields: Climate change, food security and smallholder agriculture.”

Millennium Development Goals. 2000. Ridberg, Ronit. 2010. “Creating Food Sovereignty for Small-Scale Farmers: Interview with Raj Patel.”
UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity Building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development. 2008. “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.” en.pdf
U.S. State Department. 2010. “Feed the Future Guide.”
U.S. State Department. 2010. “Partnering for Food Security: Moving Forward.”
World Summit on Food Security. “Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security.” 2009. www.


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