Sunday, April 10, 2011

Is Your Food Secure?

This blog entry pulls together information on food security policy.

Domestically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) measures U.S. household food security, which it defines as follows:
Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum: The ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods[; and] Assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).
Conversely, "food insecurity" is defined as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways."

According to the USDA, 85.3 percent (100.8 million) of U.S. households were food secure throughout 2009--essentially unchanged from 85.4 percent in 2008.  On average, between 2007 and 2009, 13.5 percent of U.S. households and 11.4 percent of Hawaii households were food insecure.

The President has also made food security part of his international policy.  In his May 2010, National Security Strategy, the President wrote,
Promoting Food Security: The United States is working with partners around the world to advance a food security initiative that combats hunger and builds the capacity of countries to feed their people. Instead of simply providing aid for developing countries, we are focusing on new methods and technologies for agricultural development. This is consistent with an approach in which aid is not an end in itself—the purpose of our foreign assistance will be to create the conditions where it is no longer needed.
Through the President’s initiative, Feed the Future, the President has pledged $3.5 billion to help poor countries fight hunger by investing in agricultural development solving global hunger and food security.

Ways of getting at the problem can take different forms.  Food security in a post-9/11 era connotes other dangers to our food supply, and some have made that connection.  According to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) website, "[s]ince the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we are more keenly aware of the need to protect the integrity and safety of our agriculture and food infrastructure."  The new threat is "[t]he prospect of an intentional, or terrorist, attack on our food and agriculture industry raises grave concerns that present challenges for producers and policy makers alike."

The USDA's focus on the perceived problem of terrorism on the US food supply is focused on the efficacy of traceability systems.  Traceability systems track the flow of food products through the supply chain to manage issues like bio-terrorism, country-of-origin labeling, Mad Cow disease, and genetically engineered foods.  According to the USDA, policymakers in many countries have begun weighing the usefulness of mandatory traceability.  The jury is still out on how to best implement tracing, but a 2004 USDA brochure recommended the following:
Government may also consider mandating traceability to increase food safety. However, the already widespread voluntary use of traceability complicates the application of a centralized system. Mandatory systems that fail to allow for variation are likely to impose unnecessary costs on firms that are already operating efficient traceability systems.
The response to food security issues has also taken on the color of climate change policy.  Climate change, in particular sea level rise, could decimate agricultural lands within sea level rise boundaries.  Changes in weather patterns may also impact growing seasons and types of agricultural activities.  In a 2001 USDA policy paper, the author wrote, "[g]lobal warming is likely to reduce agricultural production in the Tropics, where many developing countries are located."  

Solving domestic and international food security is complex and research is ongoing.  In the meantime, sustainability, urban gardens, and other related "local" farming movements are making a comeback.  This reoccurring movement had its heyday during the 1960's and 1970's--e.g., People's Park.  By having food grown and produced close to consumers, the food supply chain is shortened.  This is arguably more secure, since traceability is less complicated.  In addition, a shorter supply chain might reduce dependence on fossil fuels.  Dependence on fossil fuels could be further reduced by encouraging intrastate use of alternative fuels (depending on policy framework ) for farming equipment, transportation, and processing.

Food security is difficult to resolve.  Domestically, the federal government, through the USDA, has several successful programs to ameliorate the problem, and many non-profits like food banks try to fill in the gaps.   Hawaii has tried to address this problem when the state legislature created the Food Security Task Force; however, Task Force recommendations were not adopted.  The Task Force recommended the following in their 2002 Food Security Task Force Report: (1) Create state food policy and objectives; (2) Create a Food Security Council; and (3) Provide $192,000 a year to fund Council operations.

Professor George Kent from the University of Hawaii summed up the issue best when he wrote,
The challenge is not to feed people, but to see to it that they live in conditions in which they can provide for themselves. Paradoxically, you don’t solve the hunger problem by feeding people. The task is not simply to establish more feeding programs, but to design a Hawaii in which all able-bodied people are able to take care of themselves. Regardless of whether we draw on federal resources or charitable giving or local farmer’s markets, the state government that should take the responsibility to assure that no one in the state goes hungry. 
 To read more about agricultural issues, see Agriculture.

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