Act: Resources

What’s Secure About Food Security?

May 24, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I’ve worked as an analyst, practitioner, educator and consultant in the field of city-based food security for close to 20 years, and still found lots to learn from Pennsylvania State University historian Bryan McDonald’s brief and clearly-written book, called simply Food Security.

I will summarize and comment on three propositions in the book that really deepen our understanding of food security, and three omissions that are disappointing.

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Lots of words go into food security definitions. What do they mean??

Most useful to good food campaigners, McDonald’s book positions food security within the context of “human security” — a new way of framing the issues that boosts the chances of food getting the green light as a priority.

Getting politicians to put food on their shortlist for funding has long been a bigger problem for food security advocates than winning support for an actual program, which invariably comes in with great results for minimal costs.

The concept of human security may offer a shortcut to that funding shortlist.

As long as food security was seen primarily as a cause that helped the poor and vulnerable — especially in an era marked by austerity and government offloading of traditional social responsibilities, when politicians are quite tone deaf to social justice appeals — food security has been a hard sell. The brush off was always the same: “good cause, and I care deeply about it, but as a government, we have so many crucial issues competing for limited funding.”

Equity is a top issue for health promoters, but politicians don’t yet see it as a priority that government policy can do something significant about, even in such an obvious case as food insecurity that spills over into public healthcare costs.

McDonald’s book may just offer the framing to overcome political indifference, because when seen as central to human security, food security cannot be dismissed. Promoting human security through food programs, it turns out, is not a cost to governments, but another string on the bow of food’s abundant multi-functionalit

In McDonald’s assessment, food issues are now pivotal to the heavy duty issues of global politics. Food has gone from being “a discrete issue of international concern to one fully integrated into the core global governance agenda,” he argues.


What is human security and how does it boost recognition and appreciation of food security?

The term human security was coined to indicate that the world was so interdependent and interlocked since at least 1914, 1919, 1945, 1973, 1989 (pick your favorite year) that global management of, and a planetary perspective on, international relations became essential. There is too much interdependence for individual countries to look out in a narrow way for their own national interests and security. All these countries share a global interest as humans sharing a common planet — whence human security.

The formation of the League of Nations and then the United Nations indicated there was some understanding of this necessary adaptation back in 1919 and 1945. Since then, a swarm of new issues — communicable diseases [on which, see the latest here] terrorism, criminal drug rings, drought, famine, mass migrations, not to mention globe-trotting corporations beholden to no nation — have all needed to be managed in this new way; they are human security, as above national security, issues.

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Roosevelt put his stamp on food & human security

As far back as the 1940s, US president Franklin Roosevelt clearly saw food and hunger problems as trans-national issues that could impel countries, and then entire regions, to take desperate measures such as dictatorship, aggression and war. Roosevelt also saw the desire to end hunger as a symbol of the yearning of the world’s people for a better life. FDR actually used the term “security” when discussing such trends, which he saw as putting peace and stability at risk after World War 11. (I make this argument about FDR in my book.)

After the war, FDR also supported the Food and Agriculture Organization and UN declaration of rights, which included a reference to food as part of livelihood security, because he saw food as a tool and precondition of peace.

Once food is understood as a vehicle for global stability and peace, hunger is no longer an isolated problem concerning one group of people. In the past, hunger had been positioned as a problem of concern for people on low income. The term developed during the 1990s by the US Department of Agriculture, “household food security,” expresses that mentality — as if food insecurity is an individual, not community, problem.

Once human security enters the policy equation, such thinking is no longer possible. Hunger and insecure access to food become transformational issues for society, not transactional issues for individuals and groups.

Using McDonald’s insight, food insecurity can now be portrayed as an issue of community food security, and even global community food security. It’s much easier to gain a respectful hearing for transformational issues affecting everyone than it is to gain a hearing for an issue seen to only affect a marginalized minority of the population.

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Henry Kissinger, unlikely inventor of the term “food security”

During the 1970s, Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, also came to see food as a game-changing global issue, and used terms such as “food security” to address the havoc wreaked by quick rises in the price of oil, which ricocheted through the food system, alongside runaway price hikes responding to global grain scarcity in the wake of crop failures in Russia. These were classic cases of a world in which no nation was an island.

Kissinger actually coined the term “food security” at a special United Nations session of 1974, which he convened to deal with both uncontrollable food prices and desperate famines that carried a risk of destabilizing the international economic and political order. It was as if Kissinger understood the geo-political implications of Janis Joplin’s “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

The “Arab spring” followed food price hikes of 2007–8, which put bread beyond the reach of the population of northern Africa and the Middle East. This typifies the world-changing and collective impact of destabilized food systems — which in this case responded to a rash of stock market speculation on food commodities, coupled with diversion of grain crops from food for people to food for livestock and car fuel.

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Food shortages precipitated the Arab Spring, a major geopolitical shift

In short, food has ceased to be an issue which can be understood and resolved within the boundaries of any one country. It is a truly trans-national issue.

Moreover, given that food is a daily necessity of human survival, interruption of food availability and access quickly leads people to take bold and desperate measures. It is not just a trans-national issue, and not only a human security problem, but also has the makings of a trans-national crisis.

The capacity of human security issues to “go critical” provides food security advocates a powerful new argument and relevance with which to speak truth to power, and thereby gain resources to help precarious peasants, farmers, and city residents.


Hunger ain’t what it used to be, McDonald argues, in his second major contribution to the understanding of food security. As recently as 1966, progressive forces in the United Nations considered it adequate to issue a Economic, Social and Cultural covenant on human rights declaring the human right to be “free from hunger,” as if that were all that needed to be said on food matters, nutritionally or socially and culturally.

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food security is more than a choice between starvation and chronic disease

McDonald argues that what used to be called hunger or malnutrition now needs to be seen as a “triple burden.” Some people experience inadequate food as calorie (energy) deficiency — leading to unsightly, but obvious, signs of weakness and thinness. But many others experience inadequacy in less obvious ways — either as micro-nutrient deficiency, which leads over time to long drawn-out diseases, or as excessive net energy intake leading to obesity. The three are seamless results of malnutrition resulting from food insecurity, McDonald argues.

This is an important updating of the old stereotype of “hunger,” which evokes empathy from almost everyone, but which can lead to programs designed to fill tummies instead of supporting physical and mental health and personal dignity. Programs targeted against hunger, in both the Global North and South, carry the risk that calorie-rich diets based on staple grains may unintentionally foster hidden hunger that leads to debilitating disease (blindness from lack of Vitamin A, for example, or chronic anemia and exhaustion caused by lack of iron). The rise of obesity among people lacking income and access to a range of nutritious foods can cause a number of painful and damaging chronic diseases, which also have the power to exhaust family resources and bankrupt national health programs.

This second form of malnutrition is suffered in both the Global North and South, and is as much due to the food system and the realities of food processing, as it has to do with inadequate incomes. In effect, accepting McDonald’s definition of malnutrition transforms our understanding of hunger, and makes malnutrition a common and unifying global challenge, not a problem limited to the Global South.

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There’s not just a problem with inadequate incomes. The food and its promoters are also inadequate.

Thanks to this updating, food security advocates can argue that ending food insecurity is not just a matter of delivering enough calories to fuel bodily movement. Ending the food insecurity from malnutrition requires enough nutrients to both prevent chronic disease and support an active and healthy life. We must pay attention to what is called “hidden hunger” that may masquerade as obesity, and we must be ready to identify obesity as an expression of 21st century food insecurity.

The number of people in the world who lack sufficient calories to supply their body with energy for the day hovers around one billion. The number who suffer from nutrient deficiency that will impact their functioning and well-being is about two billion. The number liable to suffer from chronic diseases related to overconsumption of calories is close to two billion. To sum it up, today’s food system subjects five of the world’s 7 billion people to one or another form of food insecurity.

McDonald’s notion of a “triple burden” of malnutrition also exposes the falsehood behind the proposition that industrial methods of producing bulk grains and protein are necessary to “feed the world.” This claim misses out on the obligation to provide access to foods with tiny but essential amounts of complex nutrients, as well as satisfying tastes that do not rely on low-cost salt, fat and sugar. Filling and feeding are no longer enough, and may in fact cause more problems than they solve.


My one disappointment with McDonald’s treatment of this issue is that he sticks so closely to the physical and utilitarian understanding of dietary essentials — a set of reductionist assumptions known as “nutritionism,” quite at odds with the basic beliefs of the good food movement.

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Putting people and sociability into food security

Yes, we need nutrients, as well as staples that provide calories. But we also need food that feeds the soul, as well as the body. Food has always provided convivial opportunities for people to gather and eat together, often in a celebratory mood — be it a celebration of birthdays, graduations, or holy days.

The link between food and celebration comes from the fact that humans are social animals with social instincts and social needs as vital as any other.

Food’s ability to address social, psychological, cultural, spiritual and mental needs of social animals should be included in any all-encompassing understanding of food security. That is why terms such as dignified, self-reliant and culturally acceptable are so critical to a capacious understanding of food security.

Instead of expanding on suggestive but imprecise references in the FAO’s 2006 definition of food security — which describes adequate food as “physical, social and economic” as well as “culturally acceptable” — McDonald sticks to the stock physiological understanding of food’s contribution to human health and well-being.


McDonald is equally strong on a third point common to advanced understandings of food security — the need to think in terms of systems, not silos.

Solutions to food insecurity must be environmental as well as social, he states in his conclusion. And they must help people live “secure, dignified, and sustainable lives.”

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Solutions must be ethical and equitable, says McDonald, long the view of FoodShare Toronto’s longtime leader, Debbie Field

Solutions also need to be system-wide or holistic. Short-term solutions only work in the short term. “As global, national, and human security become increasingly dependent on finding ethical and equitable ways to address issues like food security, it is vital that considerations of world food problems take holistic rather than piecemeal perspectives,’’ he argues.

Based on human security thinking, he sets out four characteristics of human security thinking that dovetail with food security.

First, the proposed solutions must be universal and relevant to people everywhere — as with his understanding of malnutrition, which may well apply to solutions proposed for any neighborhood in the world.

Second, they must deal with the interdependence of social issues. Third, they should prioritize prevention over cure.

Fourth, which warms my heart, “they must be people-centered and reach solutions by empowering individuals and communities.” He credits this wording to a report of the United Nations Development Program in 1994, when the notion of people-centered development was at its highpoint, prior to being “disappeared” by the forces of neo-liberalism.

Later in the conclusion, McDonald embellishes this by arguing that “a human security perspective suggests that policy making must reach across the academic and bureaucratic divisions that characterize many discussions of food and agriculture in order to protect and empower individuals and communities to create conditions for people to have the capacity and freedom to decide and participate in pursuing options to improve their human security.”

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Staff at Toronto’s Black Creek Urban Farm make food security a people power issue

As I understand these words, he has brought food security within touching distance of food sovereignty, which entered the global debate at the 1996 UN conference, one of the first to issue a classic iteration of the so-called post-modern food security approach.

This style of thinking, which highlights food security as a “people issue” and empowerment opportunity, is fundamental to an advanced understanding of food security. It is based first and foremost on the needs and rights of people, not the qualities of food promoted by dietitians or the quantities of food produced by industrial agriculture — particularly the food exports sold by those who deem themselves as “feeding the world.”


There are three silences in the book that I find disappointing.

First, there are virtually no references to food and cities — no references to cities as sites of food production, and not even references to recent hyper-migration to mega-cities as a factor in how food will be produced and distributed. In my view, the migration of a strong majority of the world’s peoples to cities — which includes the end of subsistence-based agriculture and foraging strategies to supplement what’s grown, and a change of appetites to desire greater varieties of foods , and many other shifts — is as wrenching a challenge to food system stability as any.

We should be long past the day when books can be written about food that do not take cities into account as a major factor in both supply and demand.

Though McDonald is a critic of what’s known as the productionist view of food (looking at food exclusively as an issue of production), and although he refers fleetingly to the US having produced some 40 per cent of domestic food supply in civic “Victory Gardens” during the World War 11 years, he in effect endorses the rural productionist view of food by leaving cities out of the book.

Secondly, there are virtually no references to global corporations, the dominant form of economic organization associated with agricultural inputs and food distribution, processing, and preparation. Food is one of the most monopolized and globalized sectors of the economy, and that needs to become a food security issue.

Until reading this book, I would have thought it impossible to write about food security without writing about the concentrated power of global corporations in one way or another. It would be akin to the famous saying about writing Hamlet without the Prince.

Thirdly, there are virtually no references in the book to the World Trade Organization, which unilaterally, without a vote by citizens of any country in the world, treated free trade rights as superior to human rights adopted through a prolonged process of open discussions in the United Nations.

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Farmers around the world opposed the WTO, which goes unmentioned in this book

The World Trade Organization was the engine room for one of the central, if least-known, propositions of what is called neo-liberalism. Many have heard of standard neo-liberal propositions such as free (deregulated) trade, deregulated governance of transportation and communication companies, de facto deregulation, or ignoring of competition and anti-monopoly laws, and downloading of social programs once operated by well-funded national governments to less securely-funded regional or local governments.

But few have heard of what is called “supply-side economics,” the counterpoint to Keynesian or “demand side” economics. During the demand-side era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, governments ostensibly stimulated demand by loose lending policy and support for affordable housing and other construction infrastructure — all designed to bolster demand for goods.

By contrast, during the neo-liberal era, governments moved to drive low-cost supplies by deregulating practices and industries that once protected living standards from the harshest winds of global competition.

Parallel to that, Joyce Kolko was one of the first to note in her book, Restructuring the World Economy, monopolies had to give up their monopoly. Instead of using their monopoly status to avoid competition on price, as was the norm during the 1950s and ’60s, they used their size and staying power to compete against other equally huge competitors, as well as small and medium-sized businesses. They had the resources and scale to compete by dropping prices, which both deregulation and the WTO encouraged.

This “race to the bottom” was particularly true of the food sector, where small and medium-sized producers, distributors and retailers — often bound to particular regions — have almost been driven to extinction. The disappearance of this business grouping — sometimes referred to as agriculture of the middle or infrastructure of the middle — is now a risk factor in the food security of communities.

As a result of the victory of supply side economics, and to some extent the triumph of a series of powerful new technologies, real prices for clothing, transportation, communication, fuels and food have dropped dramatically since the 1940s, and even since the 1970s. That is why many people have been able to maintain their rate of buying consumer goods and travel despite the fact that incomes have stayed static for almost 50 years.

With the price decline of many basic goods have come marked declines in the global wages and working conditions of food workers, farmers and peasants. This trend has been very pronounced in the food sector — more so than other sectors of the economy — because falling food and agriculture prices dovetail with falling costs for clothing (cotton and wool, for example) and also converge with collapsing costs of transportation and fuels.


One reason for the triumph of supply side economics is that industries have “externalized” many of their environmental costs to the environment. This has taken a variety of forms, including pollution from pesticides, overuse and abuse of unpriced goods such as water, soil and air, and degradation of resources such as antibiotics — all of which lowered costs of production dramatically.

The bill for such externalization has yet to be paid by today’s producers, consumers or governments, which accounts for widespread complacency and inaction around issues of declining environmental and public health standards.

But there is little doubt but that food production will be foremost among industries to absorb the bills for externalization when they come due.

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Climate change makes food security a hot topic

Climate change, to take one example, is already emerging as a number one cause of a threatened depletion of fisheries and threatened undermining of productivity of food production in fisheries and agriculture. “Food-related mortality rates will far exceed all other climate-related human health effects,” says University of Guelph professor of Population Medicine Sherilee Harper, now managing a major federal grant to work with First Nations Communities.

To take another example, that of inequality — which has festered as a result of declining wages in foundational sectors of the economy, such as food and clothing — has been defined by Klaus Schwab of the elite-based World Economic Forum as “the biggest risk facing the world.”

Widespread unemployment and underemployment of youth throughout the Global North, and bankruptcy and impoverishment of former farmers and peasants in Africa and Asia, create classic conditions of both human insecurity and food insecurity.

I am decidedly not arguing that all the world’s catastrophes and food insecurities can be blamed on hyper-concentration of global food monopolies or hyper-inequalities among the 99 per cent.

But in a book filled with so many powerful insights, it is passing strange that driving forces of corporatization and deregulated governance of the economy should be all but ignored.

Lots of grist for a new and improved edition of this important book.

(If you like this post, please keep up with others like it, shared regularly, along with other material, in my free newsletter. You can sign up at )

PS — Since posting this, a publication from FAO on trans-border communicable diseases has been released at [on which, see the latest at]

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food policy, food security