Politics of Poverty

What are the ‘Fundamentals of Food Security,’ really?

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Bahati Muriga, 2014 Tanzanian Female Food Hero. Credit: Kwetu Studios for Oxfam

What are the necessary actions to create a just, sustainable, and resilient food system for everyone?

This Friday, October 16 is World Food Day – a day when people around the globe consider the essential role that bountiful, nutritious, and accessible food either does or doesn’t play in their lives. Unfortunately, for the majority of world’s population, having adequate, nutritious food is not a certainty.

Each year around the time of World Food Day, the World Food Prize  is awarded to a person or persons who have made a significant contribution to improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. Plant breeder and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug , established the award, and each year the ceremony is accompanied by a three day international symposium attracting almost 2,000 guests from around the globe to Des Moines, IA.

Since 2010, Oxfam has worked to make sure that the innovations, concerns, and voices of small-holder farmers are represented at the symposium. This year will be no exception as Tanzanian Female Food Hero, Bahati Muriga , arrives to speak in this Midwestern city thousands of miles away from the Horn of Africa and surrounded be fields of ripe corn and soybeans.

The theme of the 2015 symposium is Fundamentals of Food Security . I have been thinking about that theme and considering what “fundamentals” there are when it comes to creating food security. I suppose too many of the people attending the Prize conference it means good seeds, fertile soil, labor saving machinery, and good agronomic practices. Being a farmer in Kansas myself, I would acknowledge that these things are necessary.

But are there other parts of the food system just as fundamental to creating a world where everyone is well-fed?

Some questions come to mind: What do good seed, fertilizer and tools mean if climate change contributes to unpredictable weather, and poor harvests? What do the components of producing food mean if the market is rigged, and a farmer can’t meet her costs? What do the means of production mean if a farmer is never sure that her land will not be taken away in the next season?

These are the questions that the majority of the world’s farmers face each year – those small-holder farmers producing up to eighty percent of the food in in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.[1] And it is in the rural areas of these regions where the greatest poverty is also concentrated.

Food production doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is built on knowledge, markets, infrastructure, investments and policies. So building a food secure world means more than buying the right seed, fertilizer or tractor. It means concentrating action where there is the greatest number of farmers and where the greatest concentration of hunger exists.

So in this World Food Day season, and when bountiful crops of corn, soybeans, and sorghum are being harvested in Iowa and my state of Kansas, it is my hope that our focus on fundamentals will include these three steps for building a productive and sustainable global agriculture system:

STEP 1:  Take action on climate change.  And while we are doing that, countries like the US must honor its commitment to the Green Climate Fund set up to help poor countries prepare for climate change and cut their emissions. So far, 28 countries have pledged a total of $10.2 billion to get the Green Climate Fund up and running. On behalf of the United States, President Obama has pledged a total of $3 billion to help establish the Green Climate Fund , and has requested $500 million in his current budget. Congress now must follow-through on the first installment of this pledge.

STEP 2: Reform food aid. When disaster strikes and chronic hunger occurs in specific regions, food aid should be delivered in a way that does not disrupt the markets and livelihoods of farmers within the region. One of the most efficient and effective ways of fighting hunger is procure food from local and regional sources. In the US, the bulk of food aid comes from US commodities and half of the money spent on aid goes to shipping and overhead. We can do better, by passing legislation like the Food Aid Reform Bill of 2015.

STEP 3: Focus on small-holder farmers. Those that produce the majority of the world’s food each day but face the greatest challenges of poverty and hunger – should be empowered. And more importantly, a focus on women farmers should be a priority. For example, across Africa, eight out of ten people who work in farming women, says the World Food Program. [2] In Asia, six out of ten are women.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that if “women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.” [3]

Right now, US policies that govern foreign agricultural development have prioritized gender and increased the focus on small-holder agriculture through Feed the Future administered through USAID. There is a unique opportunity to build on and make Feed the Future permanent by passing the Global Food Security Act of 2015  in both the US House and Senate.

Yes, food security needs seeds, soil, and technology. But without women farmers, like Tanzania’s Female Food Hero Bahati Muriga, feeding the world will be an almost impossible task. So on this World Food Day, don’t just thank a farmer. Take the actions necessary to create a just, sustainable, and resilient food system for everyone.


[2] https://www.wfp.org/our-work/preventing-hunger/focus-women/overview.

[3] Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development, FAO, 2011

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