Food security: When supply is not access

| Updated: February 24, 2018 11:35:42

Food security: When supply is not access

The causal connection between food availability and food security is amply found in available literature.  Mistakenly perhaps, it has long been presumed that availability of food automatically translates into access to food and once that happens, the fear of famine fades away. But the reality on the ground seems to be otherwise as revealed by empirical studies. Bangladesh is a case in point where food grain production has trebled since independence, but not much improvement in the area of child nutrition could be observed.

 The last layer of food deprivation is generally called famine - the last nail in the coffin of food crisis.  Ireland was once caught by a ferocious famine, called 'potato famine' devastating its socio-economic fabric. It dates back to about 200 years. The Irish population even today is reported to be very substantially smaller than it was in 1845 when the famine first began. The spectre of famine once used to haunt Bangladesh, India and China but, fortunately, the frequency of famine has faded gradually. The reasons are not far to seek: the advent of modern technology in agriculture, expansion of communication networks, falling population growth rate and various income-generating activities carried out by governments and private sectors are contributory factors.

It is said that more harvests mean less hunger or increased supply of food is an answer to the question of famine. By shifting the supply curve of food grain to the right, availability is augmented.

In the context of food availability and famine, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen draws on George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman - paraphrased below - to drive home the point that sometimes abundance of food may go with hunger.  Mr Malone, a rich Irish-American, refuses to describe the Irish famine of the 1840s as "famine." He tells his English daughter-in-law, Violet that his father "died of starvation in the black 47." When Violet asks, "The famine?" Malone replies, "No, the starvation. When a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no famine."  One could presume that the simple-minded Maloney might have missed the remarks from Shakespear's "Hamlet": there are more things on heaven and earth which Horishio you don't know. Maloney wasn't aware of many things that went wrong at that time. In many countries of the world, the primary cause of famine is not shortage of food availability but lower purchasing power of the people. The moot question is: what ensures entitlements?

Thus, food security should not be seen from the angle of the mechanical balance of only food and population. The most important dimension is the command that a person has over certain required bundle of food - be it from own production (e.g., farmer), or buying from the market (e.g., labour and service holders). It must be remembered that, even with augmented supply in the market, people might go without food if they are unable to purchase food or face a reduced capacity to buy food from the market. There may be many reasons behind such incapacity at work: lack of income or opportunities to sell products in the market.

On the other hand, a shortage of food availability in the domestic market may not always fuel famine if there are opportunities for imports or shared distribution. So entitlement matters the most as the Irish insights tend to tell us: "In this sense it can be reasonably claimed that the Irish did not simply die for lack of food, but because they largely lacked the funds to purchase food which was present in abundance in the Kingdom as a whole, but which was not sufficiently available to them." 

The entitlement of a household depends on a number of factors. First, it hinges on the command of the household on assets that have market value or can be exchanged in the market to purchase food (endowments). The bundle of assets could be diverse but the most important assets of human society is labour force or labour power that generates income to buy food. This way, labour, land and other assets enable households to raise their respective entitlements. Second, the degree of access to food by a household depends on production possibility and its utilisation. More land doesn't necessarily mean more food unless backed by appropriate technologies, knowledge, efficiency that expand the production possibility frontier to increase food supply for food security. Finally, access to food also depends on exchange conditions such as the price at which exchange of goods and services at which transactions take place or it depends on the rate at which wage rate rises against food items.

It may be mentioned here that during any economic crisis, one group of people could be hit harder than others. For example, during 1943 Bengal famine the exchange rates between food and non-food items changed radically overnight, and especially, other than wage-food price ratio, the relative price of fish and food swung sharply in favour of fish. At that time Bengali fishermen faced most hardship. Of course, fish is also a kind of food but high-quality food that had to be exchanged in the market to buy cheaper low-calorie food (rice) for their survival. "The equilibrium of survival is sustained by this exchange, and a sudden fall in the relative price of fish vis-à-vis rice can devastate this equilibrium." Likewise, crisis of the barber class could be compounded for two reasons:  (a) decline in the demand for following a postponement of hair cut by people in distress, and (b) a sharp fall in the price of haircutting. This class lagged behind in terms of the relative price of the service when, in 1943, in some districts the exchange rate of hair cut and food fell by 70-80 per cent.

(Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.

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