Chapter 3: Food Security - a conceptual framework

What is food security?

When food security issues were first highlighted in the seventies, the question was whether a nation or a region could command enough food to meet the aggregate requirements of its people. Special attention was paid to fluctuations in aggregate food supply, and food security interventions were primarily concerned with providing effective buffer mechanisms against such fluctuations. In this context, food security measures came to be identified with macro-level instruments such as national and international storage of food and balance-of-payments support for countries facing temporary food shortages (see Valdes 1981).

It was soon realized, however, that this gave a very limited view of the food security problem. A large segment of a population could be living in hunger even if the country had sufficient food in the aggregate during normal times. Likewise, a sizeable section of the population could plunge into hunger during moments of crisis, even if the nation had an adequate ‘cushion' to maintain aggregate food availability. Adequacy at the aggregate level does not necessarily ensure adequacy at the household or individual level.

This point seems obvious enough, but it took some time to redirect the discussions on food security away from the macro level towards the household, and still further towards the individual. While the focus on the disaggregated has now become common, the various definitions of food security still differ.4 However, the following definition offered by a special committee of the United Nations seems reasonably comprehensive: "A household is food secure when it has access to the food needed for a healthy life for all its members (adequate in terms of quality, quantity and culturally acceptable), and when it is not at undue risk of losing such access" (ACC/SCN 1991, p. 6). Some salient features of this concept need a little elaboration.

Food security is a constituent part of the broader concept of nutrition security. A household can be said to be nutritionally secure if it is able to ensure a healthy life for all its members at all times. Nutritional security thus requires that household members have access not only to food, but also to other requirements for a healthy life, such as health care, a hygienic environment and knowledge of personal hygiene. Food security is a necessary but insufficient condition for ensuring nutrition security.

Furthermore, there is both a long-term and a short-term aspect of food security. When a household is persistently unable to meet the food requirements of its members over a long period of time marked by continuous, temporary blips of good and bad moments, then there is a long-term problem, which is known as chronic food insecurity. The short-term problem may afflict any household, regardless of whether it has a chronic problem or not. Crop failure, seasonal scarcities, temporary illness or unemployment among the productive members of the household or perhaps an emergency need for a large cash expenditure may all be reasons for the sudden reduction of a household's access to food to below the nutritionally adequate level; this is known as transitory food insecurity.

Chronic food insecurity is a trend in food consumption that involves an inability to meet food requirements over a long period, while transitory food insecurity concerns shocks that briefly push the level of food consumption below the requirements. A household can be said to be food secure only if it has protection against both kinds of insecurity. The average access to food over the long term should be nutritionally adequate, and a household should be able to cope with short-term vicissitudes without sacrificing the nutritional needs of any of its members.

Food insecurity in a household can be seen as a combination of two distinct problems: a problem of acquirement and a problem of utilization. As the name implies, acquirement refers to the ability of a household and its members to acquire enough food through production, exchange or transfer. But acquirement is only one aspect of food security or insecurity. A household that has the capacity to acquire all the food it needs may not always have the ability to utilize that capacity to the fullest. For instance, the housewife may be too pressed for time to prepare and serve food in a manner that yields the best nutritional value, or perhaps the household's storage facilities are insufficient for maintaining adequate quantities of food in good condition outside the harvest season. A household can be said to be food secure only if it is secure in terms of both the acquirement and the utilization of food.

A conceptual framework for analysing food security

The classification of food security difficulties into two areas – that of level and that of shock – and the consequent subdivision into problems of acquirement and utilization can be combined to yield a four-dimensional characterization of food security or insecurity. It is:

  • the ability to improve and maintain the level of acquirement
  • the ability to cope with shocks to acquirement
  • the ability to improve and maintain the level of utilization; and
  • the ability to cope with shocks to utilization

This fourfold classification provides a convenient framework for analysing the determinants of HFS. The identification of determinants is rather tricky, however, partly because there are different levels of determinants. Some have a direct effect on one or more of the four dimensions of food security mentioned above, while others work at several levels by operating through other determinants. In order to keep the analysis simple and systematic, it is necessary to begin by identifying the direct or first-order determinants. The impacts of all other determinants, including policy variables, can then be analysed by tracing their effects on the first-order determinants. A flow-chart setting out a list of the most important of these determinants and their relationship with the four dimensions of food security is given in Figure 1. Each of these determinants is discussed briefly below.

Determinants of the Level of Food Acquirement

Following Amartya Sen's entitlement analysis, the first two determinants of the level of acquirement can be described as the endowment set and entitlement mapping.5

The endowment set consists of all the resources a household owns or over which it has usufructuary rights, whether legal, or conventional. The resources include tangible resources, such as land, animals, machinery, water resources, trees, forests, and common property resources, and intangible resources, such as a household's labour power and the rights attached to membership in a community. By using these resources, a household can acquire food either directly through production, or indirectly through exchange and transfer. The richer the endowment set, the better the access to food.

Entitlement mapping refers to the rate at which the resources of the endowment set can be converted into food. There are three main components of entitlement mapping: a production component consisting of various input-output ratios or production functions, an exchange component made up of the rates of exchange involved in trading and a transfer component.

For example, the available technology of food production and the quality of the land determine the production component or aspect of a subsistence farmer's entitlement mapping, meaning the rate at which he can acquire food from his land. An example of the exchange component is the wage rate at which a labourer can find employment. The real wage rate, that is, the money wage relative to the price of food, determines the rate at which labour power can be exchanged for food. An example of the transfer component would be social security benefits or the free distribution of food grain to the poor through public funds. Consequently, the more favourable the entitlement mapping, the greater the amount of food that can be acquired through given endowments.

The endowment set and entitlement mapping together determine a household's ability to acquire food. But there still remain the questions of whether and to what extent the ability to acquire food will be translated into actual procurement. An important consideration here is who controls the household's income and expenditures.

A large body of evidence suggests that the greater the degree of control exercised by women over the family income, the greater the proportion of income spent on food.6 To some extent, the men's profligacy may be culture specific, and even within the same culture some men would certainly be less culpable than others. But to the extent that such a tendency exists, greater control by women over income and expenditure tends to improve the level of food acquirement.

Determinants of Ability to Cope with Shocks to Acquirement

Shocks to acquirement can come from several sources, including crop failure, unemployment, higher cost of food, and so on. Some households are better able to cope with these shocks than others. The determinants of coping ability can be classified as follows: determinants that reduce fluctuations in income and determinants that reduce fluctuations in consumption given the fluctuation in income.

Perhaps the most important determinant within the first category is the degree of diversification of a household's livelihood strategy or, in other words, the way in which household members allocate their time in pursuit of various means of earning a living. Poor rural households seldom allocate the entire labour time of all their members to a single pursuit. The harsh experience of life has taught these people not to put all their eggs in one basket. Diversification is an essential feature of their livelihood strategy. However, the degree of diversification differs from one household to another depending on household resource constraints and the constraints and opportunities presented by the external environment. In general, the greater the degree of diversification, the greater the ability to cope with temporary shocks to acquirement. For example, in a situation of crop failure, the shock to the household income can be absorbed at least in part if a portion of the household's labour time is engaged in an activity other than agriculture, such as a job in the public sector. Or, in a situation of failing food crops, the income shock will be minimized if part of the labour time has been devoted to the production of cash crops.

The second category, namely, the scope for consumption-smoothing, refers to the ability of a household to maintain the normal level of food consumption in the face of an income shock. A whole range of determinants is included in this category.

Figure 1
Flow Chart of the Determinants of Household Food Security

Figure 1 - Flow Chart of the Determinants of Household Food Security

A fundamental element in this category is the household's asset base. A household with several assets can more effectively maintain its consumption level by disposing of some of these assets. Its ability to do so increases according to the proportion of assets held in liquid form. Thus, the value and liquidity of assets are important determinants of a household's ability to cope with shocks to acquirement.

The nature of the credit market is an equally important factor. In theory, a perfect credit market would minimize the effect of an income shock by allowing the household to achieve whatever degree of consumption-smoothing it desires. But credit markets, particularly rural credit markets, are far from perfect. While in most rural societies the existence of informal moneylenders and a reciprocal system of mutual help among friends, relatives and neighbours provide some scope for consumption-smoothing, access to these mechanisms vary enormously.

At the macro level, the important determinants of consumption-smoothing include the operation of buffer stocks and the public food grain distribution system. If the shock to acquirement is the result of higher prices and the reduced availability of food on the market, then the operation of a food buffer stock would ensure consumption-smoothing by infusing a greater supply into the market and lowering prices. A well-functioning public distribution system, especially one that provides free or subsidized food, would also contribute to consumption-smoothing under most shock situations.

Determinants of the Level of Food Utilization

Given a certain basic level of food acquirement, a household's food security level would depend on how well this food was utilized. The ‘utilization' of food encompasses both preparation and storage. Differences in the quality of preparation or storage will yield different levels of food security given the same level of acquirement.

Perhaps the most important determinant of food utilization is women's time constraints. Poor rural women are severely pressed for time – much more so than men. In the Indian and Nepalese villages in which the surveys were carried out, it was found that, counting the time devoted to production-related work, market transactions and domestic chores, wives worked for more than 16 hours a day, compared with their husbands' 8-9 hours. Moreover, the difference is not explained away entirely by the addition of domestic work, as women seem to spend more time on productive activities also. The extreme demand placed on women's time may not only ruin their health and condemn them to a life of drudgery, but it may also have an adverse affect on HFS by forcing them to compromise in terms of the quality of food preparation. The following examples may clarify this point.

The first example relates to weaning. It is well known that weaning is one of the weakest aspects of child nutrition in rural South Asia. Ignorance and local cultural practices are often blamed for this. But it is quite possible that a major problem lies in the mothers' time constraints. Even if there is access to food and to the right kind of knowledge, the overburdened mother may simply not have the time to prepare the weaning food in addition to the normal food for the household. It is more convenient for her to breastfeed the toddlers, while carrying out other activities.

The second example concerns the reduction in the number of cooking hours in a day. Women who have to spend a lot of time outside the home in production activities and market transactions are often obliged to cook only once a day, requiring household members to eat the left-over food many hours later. Since methods of hygienic preservation of cooked food are rarely used in these households, not only do the members not derive the full nutritional value from the food they eat, but whatever nutrition they do obtain is often offset by illnesses related to the eating of food stored unhygienically.

For these reasons, anything that eases women's time constraints has the potential to improve the food security of households, especially that of young children, quite apart from improving the quality of life of the women themselves. Thus, measures to improve access to fuel wood and water shorten the process of food preparation and provide alternative child-care facilities and facilities to take care of the sick and the old should all be seen as contributing towards HFS by easing women's time constraints, in addition to whatever other benefits may accompany them.

Women also face health constraints. If their health is poor, this not only lowers their quality of life, but also reduces the food security of the household because food preparation tasks cannot be carried out in the best possible manner.

The other determinant of utilization level concerns the facilities for food storage within the household. Most rural households that produce their own food (and also some that do not) store food for at least a part of the lean season. In most cases, however, the storage facilities are woefully inadequate, resulting in substantial losses both in the quality and the quantity of food. Improved facilities for food storage would raise the level of a household's food security given any level of acquirement.

Determinants of the ability to cope with shocks to utilization

In view of the key role played by women in ensuring the proper utilization of food, shocks to utilization naturally arise, mainly because of shocks to the ability of women to play this role. A wife's sudden illness is one obvious example of such a shock. The ability to cope with these shocks depends on two sets of factors: the availability and the quality of women's health-care facilities and the existence of a support network that can provide help to women in the performance of domestic chores.

The first determinant is to some extent an external phenomenon, depending as it does on the willingness and ability of external agencies to provide the right kind of health-care facilities. But it is also largely a phenomenon internal to the household. In a culture rife with gender bias and where women's status within the household is inferior to that of men, women's needs, including their health-care needs, tend to be neglected. This is not merely the fault of the men; women themselves are guilty of such neglect, conditioned as they are by the local culture not to take as much interest in their own needs as men do in their own. Anything that raises women's status within the household and thereby contributes towards sharpening their perceived self-interest will enable women to cope more effectively with health-related shocks and, in turn, will enable households to cope more effectively with shocks to their food security.

The second determinant, namely, support for women in the performance of domestic chores, is largely dependent on the household's make-up: whether there is more than one woman in the home, especially if other females are children, and the extent to which the household can draw on the support of an extended family. But social actions may also have a role to play by raising men's consciousness so as to help them become more willing to provide support in the performance of domestic chores, not only for the sake of the women, but also for the sake of the protection of the household's food security.

The organizing framework set out above can serve multiple purposes. It can be utilized both for the conceptual analysis of food security issues and for the empirical analysis of the impact on household food security of policy interventions and changes in the economic environment. The present report uses this framework to assess the impact of market integration, and the impact of IFAD-assisted programmes in three regions of South Asia, with a view to drawing lessons for the future. The general methodology is based on the recognition that the food security impact of any change in the economic environment – be it market integration or programme intervention – must operate through the first-order determinants of the four dimensions of food security discussed in this chapter.

However, limited time and resources have made it impossible to collect data on all four dimensions of food security and their first-order determinants. In particular, it has not been possible to collect any direct information on the quality of food utilization. The report therefore deals primarily with the problem of food acquirement; in so doing, it examines both the level of food acquirement and the ability to cope with shocks to acquirement.

With regard to the first-order determinants of food acquirement, information has been collected on endowments (of households and of women), the degree of diversification in livelihood structures and women's control over household decision-making. No quantitative information has been collected on the other two determinants, entitlement mapping and the scope for consumption-smoothing.7 However, both should play an important role in any interpretation of the observed effects of market integration and project participation on HFS.

Although the study has not collected any direct information on the quality of food utilization, it has collected data on one set of determinants, namely, women's time constraints. Analysis of these data, undertaken in Chapter 6, provides at least an indirect indication of how the utilization aspect of food security has been affected by various factors, including participation in IFAD-assisted projects.

Exactly how the information on these determinants has been used to assess the food security impacts of market integration and project intervention is explained in the appropriate sections. Below is a brief description of the food security situation in the three project areas.

4/ For an excellent discussion of alternative definitions, see Maxwell (1990).

5/ A detailed discussion of entitlement analysis can be found, inter alia, in Sen (1981) and Osmani (1995).

6/ See Blumberg (1988), Engle (1989), Garcia (1991), Haddad (1992), Hopkins, Levin and Haddad (1994), and many other studies cited in Quisumbing et al. (1995).

7/ Actually, some information has been collected, but it has not been sufficient for a rigorous quantitative analysis.