Agriculture and food security: taking the measure of a global challenge

Agriculture et sécurité alimentaire : prendre la mesure d'un défi global
Article Index
Agriculture and economy
What do we know about hunger
Which fertilizer for which type of agriculture?

Food security, along with climate change and the current economic downturn, is a systemic crisis calling for a global coordination. Ensuring food security for all necessitates investment in agriculture, but it is vital that such investment places agriculture at the heart of sustainable development and good governance.

Box 1

Rising commodity prices of 2008/2009 have brought the issue of food security back to the top of the international agenda.

At the end of the 1990s, food security was mainly presented as a domestic issue, while the global market was ensuring the overall adjustment of supply and demand. Since then this domestic issue has become an international problem requiring coordinated solutions. When world food commodity markets rocketed in 2008 driven primarily by increased demand from rapidly developing countries, as well as by competition for resources from first-generation biofuel production (Godfray, 2010), some experts suggested that the spike in food prices would herald a period of rising and more volatile food prices as agricultural commodities markets were increasingly interconnected with financial markets. This crisis was not for them a cyclical crisis but the foreshadowing of major new trends. Indeed contrary to events in previous market crises, particularly those of 1951 and 1974, the drop in prices, that was sharp due to the global economic crisis, has been short-lived. Commodity prices (especially agricultural ones) started to rise again in late 2010 and stayed subject to significant volatility. These price increases caused "hunger riots" in a number of countries around the world, opening a period of political instability and increasing the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition at the world level.


The return of agriculture as a global issue Countries reacted to this increase in prices by trying to insulate the local markets from international instability, sometimes restricting exports to give preference to local consumers, reinforcing tensions in global markets. Food security was no longer a domestic issue but a global food crisis on every government agenda.

This de facto globalization of the food crisis has been translated in the political field: the G8 and G20 agendas have included this issue since 2008, the French Presidency even made it an important point of the November 2011 G20 resolutions by creating a "Global partnership for agriculture, food and nutrition". The Secretary-General of the United Nations has taken several initiatives including the creation of the "High Level Task Force on Food Security" and the appointment of a special representative. Finally, the FAO has initiated a reform and revived its food security committee

For more details see p. 258.


This crisis added to other more structural concerns such as on the responsiveness of global agriculture to medium and long-term demand, the decline in public support for development and of national funds dedicated to agriculture, the impact of climate change, the situation of the "bottom billion" people excluded from gains generated by globalization, and the unsustainability of food consumption patterns.

These trends converge into making food security a global problem, in addition to environmental challenges and the difficulties generated by financial market instability.

The transformation of agriculture in developed, emerging and developing countries is one of the prerequisites to escape from this systemic crisis. It can play a key role in reducing poverty and inequality through the development of rural areas and the support for smaller producers. Many studies have shown the positive impact of the reduction of inequality on economic growth. But the development of agriculture and rural areas is effective in the reduction of inequalities, not only because it is in itself central for livelihoods and provides a source of food security for a considerable proportion of the world population, but also because it produces positive structural impacts on human capital, health and education. It remains an engine of economic growth even in developed countries, as shown in Ireland, which experienced a financial crisis and is currently recovering through its agricultural exports. The revival of agricultural production, however, that has historically largely benefited consumers through lower prices must now be thought of in a new context, outside of the frame of the Green Revolution: that of the total availability of natural resources and the control of the impact of production on the environment.

These resources - water, arable land, minerals and more generally soil fertility - are not universally rare or depleted and are even renewable, so long as human activities make reasonable use of them. But the overall findings remain unchanged, a more intensive use of natural resources is not a sustainable way to meet the growing food demand, even though many uncertainties remain about the complex ecosystem changes and the sustainability of alternative production patterns.

What does the concept of food security encompass? The fact that food security is becoming a global issue does not mean that coordinated international action can be easily implemented, because views on food security do not necessarily overlap.

Food security has a "canonical" definition adopted at the 1996 World Food Summit and confirmed in 2002: "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".

Actually food security is a multifaceted notion. At least four dimensions, that are sometimes complementary and sometimes discrete, are raised in international discussions: the issue of self-sufficiency in basic commodities. Countries that are heavily dependent on commodity imports may face food insecurity in times of global scarcity; the issue of malnutrition and hunger, both structural (the most disadvantaged urban and rural populations in poor, emerging or developed countries) and cyclical or specific (failed states, civil wars, climatic and production disasters); the dimension of food safety; and finally the nutritional quality of foods and the cultural and dietary specificities of given regions.

Of these four dimensions, the first two are more often the subject of international concern and of policy intervention; the last two, which involve different actors, should not however be forgotten since the issues of malnutrition and the poor quality of processed food are now gaining importance.

This diversity of approaches explains the focus on different modes of action according to the institutions and actors involved.

The vision based on the issue of availability and therefore agricultural production - which is a condition that is necessary but not sufficient, since access to this production must also be guaranteed - is predominantly a position held by the FAO and the institutions of global agricultural research that were created in the wake of the Green Revolution.

An alternative vision based on the concept of the right to food, related to the Universal Declaration of 1948, and the development of economic and social rights, is supported by the United Nations and a growing number of NGOs. Some countries, including India and Brazil, have translated this vision into national legislation.

This vision is further developed in Chapter 15 by Olivier De Schutter

Food security is also seen as a fight against hunger and malnutrition, one of the Millennium Development Goals, and is an integral part of poverty reduction policies. This point of view prevails within the development agencies of the United Nations, and first and foremost the World Bank, a strong correlation being found between hunger and development. The 2008 World Development Report (World Bank, 2007), the first to focus on agriculture for 20 years, identified a 'decades-long neglect of agriculture'.

But food security has also been part of the debate on agricultural trade liberalization and public policy interventions in markets. This debate is not over, even if it has been muted by the paralysis of trade negotiations in the WTO. The issue resurfaced, however, with the wave of export controls at the time of the 2008 crisis, reflecting the fragility of the trading system when such crises occur. Finally food security is also the objective pursued by intergovernmental humanitarian organizations and major NGOs in situations of crisis, and food insecurity is seen as a political destabilizing factor in terms of migrations, political upheavals and regime changes, subversion and terrorism. In this it represents a security issue in the traditional sense.

The diversity of approaches, and the fragmentation of the institutions and stakeholders that advocate these approaches, does not facilitate a comprehensive response at a time when we need to rethink the main pillars: agricultural production, environmental issues, issues of equity and stability. It must be recognized, however, that the issue of interactions between the different facets of the problem is the focus of much work and proposals for solutions, in research as well as in public policy. Even if each institution or group of actors gives priority to one dimension, the complexity of the interactions is acknowledged by every one: one such example is how development institutions, even the most specialized ones like the FAO, are considering environmental concerns along with production objectives.

Similarly, the vertical inter-relations are subject to specific reflections. The issue of food security is deployed at different levels: international (e.g. the trade regime and the coordinated efforts of development assistance for agriculture in particular, etc.); regional (regions have specific vulnerability situations and their own institutional devices); national (with specific policies regarding both legislation and availability or accessibility); and finally, local (food insecurity is always linked to specific territories, resources and populations). These levels interact with the increasing integration of economies into the global economy: for example, the increasing international investment in the purchase of agricultural land.

We must also take into account the complexity, or even the "complexification", of the relationships between the stakeholders of the food chain: the late twentieth century food revolution has been characterized by dramatic shifts throughout the entire food system. Important drivers and obstacles for changes to agricultural systems lie beyond primary production, the downstream supply chain and the upstream research and extension services.

Agriculture at the heart of sustainable development Agriculture is high on the global agenda because it is both a sector deeply impacted by global changes (climate change, water resources degradation, invasive species...) and an important driver of these global changes, due to its environmental impacts. As an example, stakeholders from the agricultural sector themselves are advocating that the Climate negotiations should take the sector into account, particularly for what concerns the funding of adaptation, but also for mitigation actions (as has been the case during the Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Durban, COP17, 3rd December 2011)

See page 117 for more details.


There is a growing consensus that with rising resource scarcity, climate change, and concerns about environmental costs, business as usual in the way agriculture uses natural resources is not an option (MCINTYRE et al, 2009). Possible options for the future of agriculture therefore need to be assessed with respect to fundamental requirements.

Increasing the productivity of resource use is central. This can translate into optimising the productivity of land, the efficiency of water use, but also into reducing the use of external inputs, therefore minimising the dependence on non-renewable resources like fossil energy, and also reducing the environmental impacts. Increasing the productivity also has to do with better closing natural cycles (of carbon, water, nitrogen, phosphorus, organic matter for soil fertility...) at the scale of the ecosystem, which would at the same time reduce the need for external inputs and the impacts on the environment. Resilience to climate change and in general to environmental risks and shocks is also a key feature that has to be ensured for the sustainable future of agriculture, particularly for the most vulnerable farmers.

In general, the access of poor smallholders to technologies ensuring the improvement of productivity and their resilience is a central challenge: accessible technologies, and public support to invest in improving productivity, will also play a key role.

Agriculture is back on the agenda, and new investments might be expected: it is therefore important to take into account that current and emerging challenges make it necessary to get the basics right, in order to make the best use of these investments.


Now that agriculture is regaining its rightful place high on the international agenda, the key question is to define what kind of agricultural system we should be investing in. The critical importance of food to human well-being and social and political stability makes it likely that governments and other organizations will want to encourage food production beyond that driven by simple market mechanisms.

The long-term nature of returns on investment for many aspects of food production and the importance of policies that promote sustainability and equity also argue against purely relying on market solutions. So how can more food be produced sustainably?

Pursuing today's dominant modern model of large-scale highly-mechanized and input-intensive agriculture, and expanding it to new areas where food production will need to rise in the future, is simply no longer an option, as we are hitting natural boundaries (Buck ''& Sherr 2011). Harnessing agriculture's potential to create sustainable development will require changing our current models towards ones that can produce positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes at multiple scales.

Agricultural policies are in dire need of reform, and this applies both to countries in the North and in the South. There are many challenges and constraints but there are also opportunities and objectives that must be seized and achieved.

The Challenges On both the demand and supply side, agriculture is facing a multitude of challenges. On the demand side, these include food and nutritional security, population growth, changing pattern of demand driven by increased income and competition for food crops for biofuel production, in addition to the emergence of agriculture (food, land) as a globally traded investment commodity.

According to the FAO, food production will need to increase by at least 70 percent by 2050 in order to meet the needs of an expanding population and changing diets (FAO, 2011b). This fragile global food security situation is in part due to the various pressures of rising prices, speculation on agricultural commodity markets or the growing pressure from biofuel, but it is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, the reflection of decades of underinvestment and misinvestment in the agricultural sector, both by governments and donors. Governments of low-income countries with agriculture-based economies have only been devoting around 4 percent of their national budgets to agriculture (World Bank, 2007) and donors decreased the share of official development assistance (ODA) for agriculture from a high of 18% in 1979 to a low of 3.5% in 2004 (World Bank, 2007).

On the supply side, the challenges faced by agriculture include limited availability of land, water, mineral inputs and rural labour as well as the increasing vulnerability of agriculture to climate change. Some would argue that globally there is plenty of land and water but that we are just not using resources efficiently. The World Bank estimates that there are over 200 million hectares of degraded and underused land in Africa that can be brought into production. Yields of major cereal crops in Africa can easily be doubled, even tripled.

The Opportunities Many new opportunities are emerging for agriculture. They include increased awareness by governments, donor interest in supporting and investing in agriculture development in low income countries, growing interest of private investors in sustainable agriculture and increasing consumer demand for sustainably produced food. Dynamic new markets, far-reaching technological and institutional innovations, and new roles for the state, the private sector, and civil society all characterize the new context for agriculture.

In order to seize these many opportunities, further agricultural research and a better application of the research results already obtained are needed. Currently, neither the international research centres of the CGIAR nor national research centres are adequately funded. On the positive side, new players like the Gates Foundation are stepping in, and financially supporting agriculture research.

There are multiple possibilities for innovation in agricultural technologies and practices, ranging from innovations at the seed level due to genetic improvements (marker aided selection, GMOs), innovations at the farm level with a better inclusion of ecological principles in agronomy, and innovations in connecting farmers to their markets (such as IT applications). As of now, there is no global consensus on which level or type of innovation will yield the best results for low implementation costs.

This discussion is further developed in Chapter 9

Yet, as Olivier De Schutter (2011) notes, transforming agriculture towards a sustainable, low carbon and resource conserving model focused on smallholders will not happen by chance, but only by design. Achieving this transition will require strong political will at national levels and strong international cooperation, and an array of supportive policies and public investment in infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services and the creation of conducive economic conditions, including fairer markets.

New Fundamentals and Policy Objectives Making agriculture more effective in supporting sustainable growth and reducing poverty starts with a favourable socio-political climate, adequate governance, and sound macroeconomic fundamentals. It then requires the definition of an agenda for a transition toward sustainable agriculture, an agenda and transition that may differ radically from one country to another. This is a global challenge which concerns all types of agriculture, but it confronts differently countries who have already undergone an industrialisation of farming, after World War II or through the Green Revolutions of the 1960s to 1980s (OECD countries, Asia, Latin America), and countries whose agriculture remains mostly "traditional", that is low input, high labour, extensive models. These different agricultures face, in each region, diverging conditions of supply and demand.

But in the face of this global challenge, four new fundamentals need to be considered. The first of these is the need to impact not solely agriculture but the entire food chain: input manufacturers, researchers, farmers, agro-industries, retailers and consumers are all concerned and sustainability of agriculture cannot be attained without taking into account the sustainability of the broader food system. The connections between the different steps of the value chain need to be enhanced, with better market entry and access, new kinds of links between producers and consumers, and overall more efficient value chains that minimise losses. The second new fundamental is the role of farmers. There is a need to empower farmers as key actors of this transition: in order to ascertain that research reaches fields, farmers need to participate in the innovation process; choices of agricultural technologies and transition pathways need to ensure that they offer decent employment. Farmer organizations can be a precious tool to mobilise farmers and as such need to be developed. But new methods to identify research priorities integrate farmers' competences and to transmit knowledge and innovations are essential.

The third new fundamental concerns the interaction between agriculture and other economic sectors. A programme of "Agriculture for development" will only work if we foster the linkages between agriculture and other economic sectors. Finally, the fourth new fundamental is to encourage private investments alongside public intervention in agriculture, and to oversee these new investments to make sure that they are inclusive of the needs of smallholders.

Rebuilding a green economy scenario with sustainable agriculture

There is no single solution, but a key component is an appropriately scaled framework for making policy and governance decisions. This in turn will help ensure that any economic development initiative based on agriculture is a truly sustainable effort that has been discussed and validated in a democratic and transparent manner avoiding situations of unfair rents. Public intervention will be necessary to correct market failures (in particular environmental externalities, positive and negative), and to build safety nets and invest in infrastructure. Pursuing an "agriculture for development" agenda for a country implies defining what to do and how to do it. What to do requires a policy framework anchored on the behaviour of agents - producers and their organizations, the private sector in value chains, and the state. How to do it requires effective governance to muster political support and implementation capacity, again based on the behaviour of agents - the state, civil society, the private sector, donors and global institutions.

To use agriculture as a development engine and a provider of public goods such as environmental protection and the sustainable management of natural resources, and food of high quality, a country would need a coherent and comprehensive programme.

The ability to deliver social peace and a legitimate governance system within a sound macro economic environment is a condition for any successful plan for agriculture. This basic premise was all too often missing in agriculture-based countries until the mid 1990s, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The agricultural programme will have to be environmentally sustainable both to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture as well as to sustain future agricultural growth. In this perspective, taking advantage of the local knowledge as well as the advances in science and technology, biosciences, ICT, ecology, is key.

The design has to be specific to each country and its natural conditions and fitted to local stakeholders' projects and capabilities through broad participation. Finally, monitoring the progress of implementation and ensuring adequate administrative capacity is as important as the policy design.

The new interest generated by agricultural matters is not or should not be limited to developing countries and to an "agriculture for development" agenda. Agriculture - and all stages of our food systems - has a key role to play towards achieving sustainable development in both North and South countries (as illustrated by the FAO Greening the Economy with Agriculture initiative, or the OECD Green Growth strategy).

Northern countries have to rethink their agricultural policies through the spectrum of sustainability (also the efficiency of public policies), as markets signals and public support are still an incentive for unsustainable agricultural practices through subsidies harmful to the environment and employment. We need to discuss what public goods agriculture provides and how much as a society we are willing to pay for their provision. This needs to be done in coherence with our international commitments (trade, climate change, etc). In the implementation of the major changes necessary, countries are sovereign and will choose their own options: but the sustainability challenges of the three dimensions (economic development, social and environmental) make it important to assess the strategies chosen, and to realize that the path to sustainable development may be narrow, given the challenges. Whatever the choices, the fundamentals have to be right.

Furthermore, consumers and companies also have to act alongside governments and farmers. Companies in particular have to apply responsible corporate governance to their core activities, both in the upstream and downstream of food production. They can play a crucial role as input providers for agriculture: sustainability in agricultural production means a sustainable use of inputs. Similarly, as processors of agricultural products, companies are responsible for the quality and nutrition components, as well as the content of their communication campaigns as they play an increasing role in food consumption. They are part of the solution even more so when global food producer and distributor groups are shaping consumer choices. In a world where obesity as well as malnutrition affects a greater number of poor people, companies cannot ignore the impact of their policies.

Finally there is a great need for a global debate on future consumption models. Even if the diversity of food consumption is wide and will hopefully remain so, unsustainable trends have to be assessed. As is the case in energy consumption patterns, a global population of 9 billion cannot follow the modern western path of high meat consumption based on a very inefficient use of energy and natural resources. A global discussion on this subject is unavoidable.

Globalization has played a major role, both positive and negative, for food security: from now onwards, no solution can be deployed only at the national level. The different visions of the role of agriculture and food will have to find some common ground, away from the traditional trade divide. Reintroducing into the discussion the different components, including the local and global public goods that sustainable agriculture can produce, is certainly a positive step forward.

Moreover governments will have to face a paradox. Ensuring food security is, and has always been throughout history within any political regime, a responsibility of governments and an element of their legitimacy. As such it is an important component of their sovereignty. Indeed, there are tragic examples, like the famine in North Korea, that demonstrate how much some governments consider food security to be part of their exclusive domain. But because of the global interactions from climate change to market instability, the full exercise of sovereignty, in this case and in many others like disease control or global warming, requires global action and coordination.

Food availability and historical trends in undernutrition

Twentieth century food policy discourse mostly revolved around hunger and food availability issues in the developing world. Real advances were made in terms of research, development and technology transfer between the 1940s and 1970s that increased agriculture production around the world. These advances were measured in terms of delivering more food and for more people affordably. The increases in agricultural production fostered by the "Green Revolution" are often credited with having helped to avoid widespread famine, and for feeding billions of people. While the Green Revolution has had significant impact in Asia (mainly smallholders and consumers) and Latin America (mainly larger scale farming), the impact in Africa was relatively small, not because the rate of production did not increase, but because it could not keep up with the population growth rate. So while the Green Revolution has certainly provided helpful insight and certainly deserves special attention in drawing lessons learned, it has not solved the problem of how to feed and nourish an expected 9 billion by 2050.While the number of undernourished people dropped consistently from the 1970s, it began to rise again from the mid-1990s. Today, the statistics in hunger and malnutrition are not only worsening but devastating. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which measures "undernutrition" to estimate food security in the world, 925 million people are undernourished in 2010, this number represents 13.6 percent of the estimated world population of 6.8 billion, and nearly all the undernourished are in developing countries (FAO, 2011a). This figure of 'undernutrition' has increased since the mid-1990s, in part due to the current worldwide economic crisis; in part due to the neglect of agriculture by governments and international agencies, particularly for the very poor; but most notably, this increase is due to the significant increase of food prices in the last several years.

Agriculture and economy

The proportion of agriculture in the economy and in the workforce varies widely by country. The area remains economically important especially in Africa, even if the comparison between Ethiopia and Congo, for example, reveals very different profiles in terms of employment created. Even in countries that still have a strong rural agricultural workforce such as Ethiopia and Kenya, the agricultural structure itself and the links with other sectors explain the varying contributions of the sector to the creation of national wealth. Finally, large economically important countries such as India or China, where agriculture represents a small proportion of the GDP, retain a significant portion of their labour force in agriculture. All of these factors reflect the difficulty of addressing the overall issue of agriculture and of proposing strategies for the future.

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What do we know about hunger

The media generally state the symbolic figure of one billion people as suffering from hunger. While the method used by the FAO to calculate this figure is currently being debated, we know that the absolute number of undernourished people remains greater than the target set by the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals, which aims to half the proportion of the population suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015. We can nevertheless acknowledge the efforts made in preventing the proportion of the undernourished population increasing at the same rate as the total world population, with issues specific to each region: despite the green revolution, many poor people in Asia still suffer from hunger; in Latin America, specific programmes seem to have borne fruit; in Africa, the challenge remains primarily demographic; in developed countries, the growth in inequality generates situations of malnutrition that are poorly referenced in the overall statistics.

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Which fertilizer for which type of agriculture?

Fertilizer consumption is increasing worldwide (+14% between 2002 and 2009), a figure that encompasses contrasting situations: the reduction of fertilizer use in most developed countries does not offset the sharp increase in their use in Asia or Eastern Europe. Input use in sub-Saharan Africa remains very low, reflecting the limited financial resources of agricultural actors more than an environmentally-motivated choice.
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