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Food Security and Poverty—a precarious balance

Will Martin's picture

Children haveing a meal at school. Ghana. Photo: © Arne Hoel/The World Bank

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

This profoundly important—and seemingly-simple—definition of food security from the World Food Summit of 1996 actually has four elements:

1. Enough food must be available to meet people’s needs.
2. People must have access to the food that is available under normal circumstances.
3. Volatility in production or prices must not threaten this availability, and
4. The quality of food that people consume must be adequate for their needs.

Availability of sufficient food is clearly a necessary condition for food security, and much policy thinking focuses solely on the question of availability. But as Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen eloquently states in his classic Poverty and Famines, availability of enough food in the aggregate is not sufficient for food security. Most of the serious famines documented in his work—from the Great Bengal famine of 1941 to the Sahelian famines of the 1970s occurred when sufficient food was available. Analysis based solely on food availability frequently resulted in policies that exacerbated the problem—such as the refusal by the colonial authorities in Bengal to allow food imports.

There are many reasons why people may not have access to food even when enough is available in the aggregate. One of the most fundamental is that there is no guarantee that a market economy will generate a distribution of income that provides enough income for all to purchase the food they need. Thus, the World Bank’s central poverty reduction mission is critical to achieving food security for all.

Policies that focus on the availability of food, rather than on securing access to food can, and frequently do, create risks for access to food. Consider, for example, using import tariffs to protect domestic food production. This will certainly narrow the gap between production and demand—by increasing domestic production and reducing consumption. But this policy choice can easily put the access of the poor to food at risk. The poorest people spend three quarters of their income on staple food. While such policies are frequently justified as safeguarding the welfare of poor farmers, they may do exactly the opposite—survey data show that the poorest farmers typically produce less food than they consume, and depend on the market for the rest. Similarly, policies that restrict or tax the ability of small farmers to produce cash crops, or force them to grow food when cash crops would provide them a higher income, may actually reduce their food security by lowering their real incomes. By contrast, policies and projects that increase the incomes of poor people—75 percent of whom live in rural areas, and the majority of whom depend substantially on agriculture for their livelihoods—can do a great deal to improve food security.

Elderly woman shopping for food. Colombia. Photo: © Jamie Martin / World Bank

Price volatility poses particular challenges. Poor people who are, under normal market conditions, able to eat enough may be unable to afford the food they need when prices surge, as they did in 2008, and could potentially do under today’s turbulent market conditions.

Volatility—particularly food price spikes—pose major policy challenges. Many countries understandably try to insulate their citizens from world price fluctuations—exporters frequently impose export barriers, while importers tactically reduce their barriers. At the national level, these policies may make sense, but their combined effect, when used by many countries, is to sharply increase global price volatility, and hence raise the vulnerability of countries and people unable to follow this approach. Many attempts have been made to stabilize world prices, and this remains an area of continuing policy interest, but to date most attempts have failed. The most important element of any response to this problem is to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable have access to the food. In such instances, general safety-net policies have an advantage over policies focused only on the price of food. This is because safety net programs can protect not only against food price shocks, but against a wide range of other shocks, such as those resulting from poor health or poor harvests.

The quality of food that people can access is also important, particularly for the poorest people, but also for people with limited information about the nutrition. When food prices rise, or the real incomes of poor people fall for other reasons, there is a risk of hidden hunger, where people switch to lower-priced foods that fail to adequately meet their nutritional needs. Ensuring that food is always safe to eat raises a different, but important, set of challenges. Policies for this problem need to ensure that the real incomes of the poor are protected, and to provide information to help poor people make better choices about the food they eat.

There is no more important policy challenge than ensuring food security for all. As we have seen, however, this is a particularly difficult challenge. It involves not just ensuring the availability of adequate food in total, but that all people have access, at all times, to safe, nutritious food. Reducing poverty is a key element in a policy for food security, because poor people spend such a large share of their incomes on food, leaving them vulnerable to high food prices, and many poor people obtain much of their income from farming, leaving them vulnerable to declines in agricultural output. But reducing poverty is not sufficient, because of the many risks to the food security of the near-poor from a wide range of shocks. A key for policy is to avoid the many apparently simple and attractive policy options for dealing with food security challenges that could actually make the situation worse.


This article is an excellent summary of some of the ciritcal quesitons about food security. I have long felt that open markets and an economic apporach to crop seleciton would trump closed markets and a focus on food crops as a means to promote food security. Some well informed NGOs have over the years argued otherwise and it is good to generate sound evidence on such questions. Food price volatility was ineed a major problem in 2008. The UK commissioned some research which demonstrated that countries in Africa which had an open trade policy tended to do better in terms of lower price volatility. This is as you would expect, but very useful to document as a resposnse to those that advocate closed markets. Quantity volatility (which of course is associated with price changes if supply and demand works as you would expect it to), can also be reduced through open markets, but measures to reduce volatility, particularly in the context of growing uncertainty in the context of climate change, is a major area for research and innovation. Understanding micro level behaviours, including intra household issues, seems important. Some societies appear to suffer more malnutrtion than expected, and the situation does not appear to improve as much as you would expect from economic growth and rising incomes e.g. in S Asia. It would be useful to generate ideas and innovations which can really address this ongoing scourge for the poor.