Last Updated 12 Jul 2021

The FAO-organised World Food Conference in 1974

Category Food, Poverty, Security
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The acceptance of the term at the FAO-organised World Food Conference in 1974 has led to a growing literature on the subject, most of which grab ‘food security’ as an unproblematic starting point from which to address the persistence of so-called ‘food insecurity’ (Gilmore & Huddleston, 1983; Maxwell, 1990; 1991; Devereux & Maxwell, 2001). A common activity followed by academics specialising in food security is to debate the suitable definition of the term; a study undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) cites over 200 competing definitions (Smith et al., 1992). Simon Maxwell, who has produced work commonly referenced as foundational to food security studies (Shaw, 2005), distinguishes three paradigm shifts in its meaning: ‘from the global/national to the household/individual; from a food first perspective to a livelihood perspective; and from objective indicators to subjective perceptions’ (Maxell, 1996; Devereux & Maxwell, 2001).

A primary focus on food supplies as the major cause of food insecurity was given credence at the 1974 World Food Conference (McCaston et al., 1998). But the limitations of this supply focus came to light during the food crisis that plagued Africa in the mid-1980’s and the paradigm shifted to explore individual and household food security as opposed to food security from a national perspective (Argenal, no date) and the household food security approach emphasized both availability and stable access to food. Research work carried out in the late 1980s and early 1990s also focused on food and nutritional security (Frankenberger, 1992). It showed that food is only one factor in the malnutrition equation, and that, in addition to dietary intake and diversity, health and disease and maternal and child care are also important determinants (UNICEF, 1990). Thus, the evolution of the concepts and issues related to household food and nutritional security led to the development of the concept of household livelihood security (McCaston et al., 1998). Until the late 1980s, most practitioners and theorists were focusing on a 2,100 calories a day standard, which was assumed to be the amount needed for any individual on a daily basis to avoid hunger. More recently, the ethical and human rights dimension of food security has come to the fore. In 1996, the formal adoption of a new definition by World Food Summit delegates reinforces the multidimensional nature of food security; it includes food access, availability, food use and stability (FAO, 2006). This has enabled policy responses focused on the promotion and recovery of livelihood options and included the concepts of vulnerability, risk coping and risk management (FAO, 2006). In short, as the link between food security, starvation and crop failure becomes a thing of the past, the study of food insecurity as a social and political construct has emerged (Devereux et al., 2001).

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The Rome Declaration of 1996, primarily laid the foundations for diverse paths to a common objective of food security at all levels: ‘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 widely accepted definition points to the following dimensions of food security (FAO, 1996):

  • Food availability: The availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, supplied through domestic production or imports (including food aid).
  • Food access: Access by individuals to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
  • Utilization: Utilization of food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation and health care to reach a state of nutritional well-being where all physiological needs are met. This brings out the importance of non-food inputs in food security.
  • Stability: To be food secure, a population, household or individual must have access to adequate food at all times. The concept of stability can therefore refer to both the availability and access dimensions of food security.

Although nutrition scientists distinguish between ‘food security’ (availability of food on the global, national, local and household levels), on the one hand, and ‘nutritional security’ (satisfactory nutritional status of individuals), on the other (Oltersdorf and Weingartner, 1996), economic, social and behavioural scientists tend to consider ‘food security’ as a more comprehensive term that incorporates both concepts. In the above definitional context, the FAO (1996) stated that to achieve food security at national level, all four of its components ? availability, accessibility, utilization and stability ? must be adequate and that the opposite of food security is regarded as food insecurity.

However, national food security depends on the household-level food security as a fundamental unit. Chen and Kates (1994) stated that ‘at a household level, food security tends to be equated with the sufficiency of household entitlements – that bundle of food-production resources, income available for food purchases, and gifts or assistance sufficient to meet the aggregate food requirements of all household members‘. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) concisely defines household food security as “the capacity of a household to procure a stable and sustain-able basket of adequate food” (IFAD, 1992). Adequacy may be defined in terms of quality and quantity of food, which contribute to a diet that meets the nutritional needs of all household members. Stability refers to the household’s ability to procure food across seasons and transitory shortages. Sustainability is the most complex of the terms, encompassing issues of resource use and management, human dignity, and self-reliance, among others (IFAD, 1992). Thus, household food security is as integrated system of the four subsystems of production, exchange, delivery and consumption (Cannon, 1991).

Theoretically, poverty, household vulnerability, and undernourishment may be distinct conditions. Yet, in practice, these conditions intersect and overlap: poor households are usually most vulnerable to transitory and chronic food insecurity, hence they are often undernourished (Maxwell and Frankenberger, 1992). But the individuals within food-insecure households cannot be assumed to suffer from hunger equally; there are differences in distribution and negotiating abilities of individuals (Argenal, no date). Oshaug (1985) therefore identified three kinds of households: “enduring households”, which maintain household food security on a continuous basis; “resilient households”, which suffer shocks but recover quickly; and “fragile households”, which become increasingly insecure in response to shocks. Similar approaches are found elsewhere (Benson et al., 1986).

During the 1990s, authors and practitioners concerned with vulnerability to food security have engaged to define vulnerability and theorize how far people had slid towards a state of food insecurity (Dilley and Boudreau, 2001). The foundation of the concept is closely associated with poverty. But it is not the same as poverty; rather underlying poverty contributes to increased vulnerability (Young et al., 2001). In addition to income, there is a multiplicity of other factors that co-determine whether an individual will go hungry. In 1981, Sen challenged the then widely held conviction that a lack of food availability was the primary explanation for famines; instead, he posited lack of access as the key to understanding who went hungry and why. Because access issues are entrenched in social, political and economic relations, Sen’s work represented a clear shift in emphasis from natural to societal causes of famine (Blaikie et al., 1994).

After Sen’s (1981) entitlement approach, many authors (Swift, 1989; Borton and Shoham, 1991; Maxwell and Frankenberger, 1992; Ribot, 1995; Middleton and O’Keefe, 1998) sought to operationalize Sen’s ideas by using the word “vulnerability” to refer to the complex web of socio-economic determinants. In food-related contexts, the question, “vulnerable to what?” is nearly universally answered by ‘famine’, ‘hunger’ and ‘the undesirable outcomes that vulnerable populations face’ (Dilley and Boudreau, 2001). Therefore, vulnerability denotes a negative condition that limits the abilities of individuals, households, communities and regions to resist certain debilitating processes and improve their well-being (Yaro, 2004). According to Chambers, ‘vulnerability refers to exposure to contingencies and stress, and the difficulty in coping with them. Vulnerability has thus two sides: an external side of risks, shocks, and stress to which an individual or household is subject: and an internal side which is defencelessness, meaning a lack of means to cope without damaging loss’. Chambers’ definition has three basic coordinates (Watts & Bohle 1993):

  • The risk of exposure to crises, stress and shocks;
  • The risk of inadequate capacities to cope with stress, crises and shocks;
  • The risk of severe consequences of, and the attendant risks of slow or limited poverty (resiliency) from, crises, risk and shocks.

According to this definition, the external shock or stress might be drought, market failure, conflict or forced migration and the internal aspect of vulnerability is to do with people’s capacity to cope with these external shocks (Young et al., 2001). As livelihoods are conjured of a combination of exchange entitlements, a massive change in a particularly important entitlement may be decisive in causing entitlement failures, leading to loss of livelihood and starvation. The impact of the external shock on livelihoods depends on the household’s vulnerability, which is a combination of the intensity of the external shock, and the household’s ability to cope (Young et al., 2001). Patterns of vulnerability have become increasingly dynamic, thereby necessitating a dynamic rather than static approach to vulnerability (Yaro, 2004). From this vantage point, the most vulnerable individuals, groups, classes and regions are those most exposed to perturbations, who possess the most limited coping capability, who suffer the most from crisis impact and who are endowed with the most circumscribed capacity for recovery (Watts & Bohle 1993). Thus, the two dimensions of vulnerability ? ‘sensitivity’ (the magnitude of the system’s response to an external event) and its ‘resilience’ (the ease and rapidity of the system’s recovery from stress) are crucial. The lower the resilience and the higher the sensitivity, the higher the vulnerability and vice versa (Gebrehiwot, 2001). Swift, (1989) and Davies (1996) further pointed out that most food-insecure households are characterized by a very low resilience.

However, extending our understanding of the crucial links of entitlements to wider political processes, Watts & Bohle (1993) argue that the mutually constituted triad of entitlements, empowerment and political economy configures vulnerability to food security (Yaro, 2004). Vulnerability will therefore be shaped by several forces that affect the three sources of provision of food and well-being of households. Watts & Bohle (1993) see vulnerability as being caused by lack of entitlements, powerlessness and exploitative practices and they defined the space of vulnerability through an intersection of three causal powers: command over food (entitlement), state/civil society relations seen in political and institutional terms (enfranchisement/empowerment), and the structural-historical form of class relations within a specific political economy (surplus appropriation/crisis proneness) (Watts & Bohle, 1993). In the entitlement lexicon, vulnerability can be defined as the risks associated with the threat of large-scale entitlement deprivation (Sen, 1990).

These shifts are frequently posed as a function of market perturbations, with a particular emphasis on rural land, labour and commodity markets (Watts & Bohle, 1993). The heart of empowerment approaches to vulnerability is politics and power. Empowerment encapsulates both freedom to make choices by people and acceptance of culpability by governments who are supposed to ensure the workings of the ‘right to food’ (Dreze et al., 1995) as part of the fundamental rights of the human personality. Vulnerability can be defined, in this view, as a political space and as a lack of rights broadly understood. Property rights ensure access to land and other assets, but political rights are also central to the process by which claims can be made over public resources as a basis for food security, and to maintain and defend entitlements (Watts & Bohle, 1993). As a political space, vulnerability is inscribed in three domains: the domestic (patriarchal and generational politics), work (production politics) and the public sphere (state politics).

Accordingly, vulnerability delimits those groups of society which collectively are denied critical rights within and between these political domains. Mead Cain (1983) identifies two fundamental realms of risk in rural Bangladesh; one is patriarchal, expressed through gender based differences in wage rates and access to and control over resources (within a specific notion of political ecology); the other is rooted in property rights, and specifically the difficulty for the rural peasantry to enforce and defend their property rights against rapacious local landlords and corrupt representatives of the state (Chen, 1991). Powerlessness can, therefore, be approached at a multiplicity of levels in entitlement and food security; intra-household rule-governed inequities over access to resources and property rights, village level stratification and processes of political inclusion and exclusion with respect to land or access to local credit, national level power (Harriss, 1989).

On the other hand, the strength of a rigorously class-based political economy provides a class map on which historically specific processes of surplus appropriation and accumulation (Patnaik, 1991), and the corresponding configurations of crisis, conflicts and contradictions can be located. In general, these crisis tendencies arise under capitalism as a result of structural contradictions and conflicts between classes, between the relations and forces of production, and between accumulation and production conditions (Harvey 1982; O’Connor 1988).


Vulnerability is here understood not solely in terms of entitlement or empowerment (though both are implicit), but rather as an expression of capacity, specifically class capacity defined by the social relations of production in which individuals and households participate (Watts & Bohle, 1993). In the class perspective, famine and hunger are poverty problems but this requires an understanding not simply of assets but of the relations by which surpluses are mobilized and appropriated. Class analyses of hunger and famine are similar, in many respects, to marginalization theories and to “political ecology” (Blaikie 1985; Blaikie and Brooldield 1987). Vulnerability to food security is thus a structural-historical phenomenon, which is shaped by the effects of commercialization, proletarianization and marginalization (Watts & Bohle, 1993). Therefore, dynamic on-going political economic processes of extraction, accumulation, social differentiation, marginalization, and physical processes all affect vulnerability (Yaro, 2004).

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