How to Fast From Hunger

Catholic Relief Services’ Sara Fajardo sat down with food security advisor Megan McGlinchy to get an expert view on what is perpetuating hunger and lack of access to food in East Africa.

Fajardo: What are the main obstacles to food security?

McGlinchy: Food security has three components: availability, access, and utilization. Problems with availability mean that there is not enough food to meet the needs of a particular area. This might happen when there is a flood or drought which decreases the amount of food that is produced locally or regionally and inefficiencies in the market do not attract food imports to fill the gap.

Food access is the household’s ability to acquire sufficient amounts of food, either through their own production, market purchases, or other means such as gifts, barter, or aid. Often, there is plenty of food available but people don’t have enough money to purchase it, resulting in a lack of access at the household level.

The third pillar is utilization, and this is tied directly to health. A person may be eating sufficient amounts of foods, but poor sanitation and health issues, such as amoebas, affect a person’s ability to retain vital nutrients leading to malnutrition. Other problems with food utilization result from poor feeding practices (due to lack of knowledge or cultural practices), food storage and preparation, and how food is shared within the household.

How do food prices affect food security?

Food prices affect food security by influencing the amount and quality of food that consumers are able to buy. When food prices increase, poor households can either: buy less food, switch to cheaper and potentially less nutritious foods, and/or increase their food budget. Increasing their food budget means that less money is available for other essential expenses, such as education and healthcare.

Rising food prices result from both supply- and demand-side issues. Food prices, in part, are driven by supply shortages caused by recent climatic conditions and poor harvests in Russia, Australia, China, and the US. When there is a decrease in available supply, prices go up.

Economic growth in populous countries like China and India increases the demand on the global food supply, as households consume greater quantities and more diverse types of food, including meat which in turn diverts food crops to animal feed. The diversion of corn from food markets to ethanol production also increases total demand and increases the prices of corn and other crops. When demand increases without a corresponding increase in supply, prices subsequently increase.

What impact do gasoline prices have on food security?

When gas prices increase the price of food also increases due to the higher costs of agricultural inputs, processing and transportation. Oil, for example, is used to make fertilizer, and gas fuels tractors and other farm machinery, as well as the trucks and boats which transport food from the field to consumers.

When gas prices increase, there is a corresponding increase in the demand for ethanol for bio-fuels. Ethanol is derived from corn; therefore, the demand for corn for ethanol production directly competes with corn for food. When more corn shifts towards ethanol, less is available in food markets, resulting in higher food prices.

What are some of the consequences of food insecurity?

Impacts of food insecurity include malnutrition, health problems, and lower work productivity. When people have insufficient quantities of food they develop coping strategies, such as decreased number of meals per day or consuming cheaper, less nutritious foods. More serious coping strategies can compromise longer-term income generation and food security. Examples of negative coping strategies include selling female goats that provide milk and offspring for household consumption and/or income, selling land or seeds that could be planted to produce a future harvest, and pulling children from school so they can work and contribute to household income. In all these cases, the household is sacrificing their longer-term food security to meet their immediate food needs.

Food insecurity also results in the commonly known negative consequences associated with malnutrition; stunted growth, learning disabilities, and lower work productivity.

There can also be negative environmental impacts such as people cultivating lands not well suited for agriculture production or clear-cutting forests to produce charcoal for sale.

How does urban and rural food security differ?

Rural communities depend both on local production and markets for their food security. Many households will consume the food they produce for part of the year and purchase food when they run out – often during the lean season when food prices are highest. Food security in rural areas is routinely impacted by local conditions including: drought, floods, insects and plant disease. Poor harvests decrease a household’s production and increase prices in the markets. This is particularly true where markets do not function well.

In urban areas, people are much more dependent on markets to meet their household food needs and food insecurity is almost exclusively an access issue. Food is available in the markets but people do not have sufficient resources to buy it. Improving food security in urban areas is largely a function of improving people’s ability to earn an income. Where markets and food distribution systems are inefficient, food prices can be decreased by improving local infrastructure, market competition, and policies.

The market has a way of compensating for local production fluctuations. In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, when there is a decrease in locally produced food coming into the markets, traders can fill the food gap by importing food from other surplus areas like South Africa; although not necessarily at the same price. In rural areas, however, it’s going to depend on how well markets are integrated with other markets.

In an integrated market, a shock such as drought that decreases the availability of food will cause prices to increase. This will in turn attract traders from other markets who want to sell at the higher price. As more food enters the market, prices will go down. However, if the market is not well integrated, information about local prices may not be transmitted to other markets or the costs of transporting the food to the market might be too costly. In this case, there is no economic incentive for the traders to move food into the area.

What is the U.S. connection to global food security?

The rise of global food prices is generally felt less by US consumers than those in developing countries. U.S. consumers typically spend 10-15 percent of their budgets on food, so price rises can be absorbed with fewer consequences. By contrast, households in Africa and other developing countries may spend 50-80 percent of their budgets on food. Any increase in prices will therefore require greater sacrifices of other essentials such as healthcare, education or items that would help generate future income such as livestock, machinery, and seeds.

Decisions that we make in the U.S., both as individuals and as a government, can impact food security in other countries. One important factor in recent high food prices is increased demand for foodstuffs as wealthier countries switch to a higher protein diet. The consumption of one pound of meat can require up to 16 pounds of grains to produce. Another contributor is speculation in food commodity markets that result in volatile food prices. Similarly, policies concerning bio-fuels and agricultural subsidies can impact prices and production in other countries.

Megan McGlinchy is Catholic Relief Services’ Markets and Urban Food Security Advisor. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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