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Dr Magnus Bjarnason

Food security: an unfashionable subject often taken for granted

Food insecurity still blights some areas of the world. But the main problem is not the overall amount of food. It is its correct distribution. Just changing this could save millions of lives and reduce conflict.

Food security does not come by itself. Citizens of many NATO member states have grown accustomed to taking food for granted, yet food supply problems in Europe are still within living memory. The Second World War caused serious food supply problems in many areas, and after the war, the communist system imposed on Eastern Europe until 1990 failed to deliver the full variety of food consumers expected. Food shortages can be caused by war, terrorist attacks on the supply chain, natural disasters, diseases, food poisoning, and economic mismanagement where planning fails and/or prices are out of reach for consumers.

© Reuters

Under NATO’s comprehensive strategic approach, member states must focus increasingly on the security requirements of citizens and civil societies, i.e. a total defence concept, rather than focussing narrowly on international diplomacy and military hardware for conventional conflicts of the past. Yet, food security is an almost exclusive prerogative of civilian institutions, e.g. the United States Department of Agriculture, the European Union’s Directorate General for Agriculture, and national ministries of agriculture.

Food security and food safety is not the same thing. Food security is a question of reliable food supplies for all the population, all the time, and under all circumstances. Food security is a very strategic subject because without food people do not last very long. On the other hand, food safety is more a “civilian” subject and deals with quality of food designed for human consumption, its nutritional value, food hygiene, long-term health effects, additives used in the production, and similar subjects.

Food can be used for warfare, both for conventional wars with a front-line and for modern day terrorist warfare. A recent example of food used as a weapon in a conventional war with a front-line is the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. During the Bosnian war, closing off an area or city under siege and restricting the food supply was just as efficient as a weapon intended for political coercion as shelling the area or city. In that particular war both means were often used in combination, strangling the food supply chain and artillery shelling.

An example of food terrorism was the quicksilver poisoning of the Israeli Jaffa oranges by Palestinians three decades ago. The Palestinian idea was to create a scare to damage Israel’s economy since Jaffa oranges were a well-known Israeli trademark. When the news of the quicksilver poisoning came out, the scare caused was indeed considerable, especially when seen in the light of how few oranges were in fact poisoned.

There can be little question that states must hold strategic food reserves in case of unexpected food security or food safety problems. In modern day Europe and North America this has been very successful. Food safety problems have emerged, e.g. dioxin poison in milk or Mad Cows Disease, yet the systems have coped with it with ease without any starvation or supply problems. But in order to guard against the unforeseen and unexpected, there must be a certain overproduction of food in case something goes wrong. Overproduction is expensive and must be paid for, but there is no way around it. It is like an insurance premium to be paid if the worst happens - and food is the most important good humans need, apart from air and water. This is expensive and agricultural policies in many industrialised countries often consume directly and indirectly 1-2% of national gross domestic products (GDP), an amount on par with military defence budgets in some countries.

To complicate matters, the overproduction of food must be disposed off and throwing food away is often considered politically incorrect in a world with many poor and starving. Private individuals clean out old foodstuff stored in their kitchens with regular intervals, and the governments occasionally need to dispose of and renew strategic stocks stored in national food supply systems. Some of the strategic overproduction is exported, often with subsidies from the taxpayer, and some is given as food aid to poor countries. Such food gifts - or food sold at dumping prices - sounds good at home, but in reality it undermines the domestic food production of the recipient country and breeds dependency on the rich and “generous” donor country. Helping poor nations to help themselves is better than just helping by donating stuff for consumption, except in strict famine emergencies that require urgent action.

Many wise men and women will now point out that overproduction of food is not necessary and if extra food is needed it can be bought in the world markets. It is correct that limited food rarely means any food at all and the rich can always afford to eat at will. However, there is a problem with the reliability of world markets. When food prices rose unexpectedly fast at the end of last decade, some governments put on export restrictions to keep domestic food prices down in order to assist their domestic population that was struggling to pay for daily food and could not compete with the rich westerners. In time of food panic, NATO member states cannot rely on international world markets as a reliable supplier of food. In the past, governments have often used food rationing amongst their citizens if the food supply is limited. Obviously food rationing is often supplemented by an illegal black market for those who can afford it. After all, food must not only exist, but must also be affordable and having abundant reserves keeps the price down.

From an economic perspective it is tempting to buy food from abroad that is cheaper than food produced at home. Such economic savings must, however, be weighted against the risk of becoming dependant on importing strategic goods. Being dependant on somebody else’s oil is bad, and having to depend on somebody else’s willingness to supply food is even worse. The economic waste in agriculture in industrialised countries - between 1-2% of GDP - would quickly be matched by increased military expenditure to defend vital food supplies, in a similar way the world spends billions on military hardware to secure the oil and gas supplies that cannot be produced at home. Trade is good, but it must be balanced with strategic intentions.

In the first years after the Second World War, Europe was a net importer of food. Today the situation is reversed and the current European Union is a net exporter of food - and so is North America. Being a net exporter does not mean just an outward flow with export only. The international trade in food, both imports and exports, is huge as different types of food are made in different parts of the world were natural conditions are better than at home. The full variety of food is only assured through international trade, although a strategic war reserve of basic foodstuff can and must be produced at home.

Having a national supply of strategic goods such as basic food stuff sounds good, but domestic food production and food distribution in the industrialised world is only possible as long as there are abundant energy supplies. Without oil, tractors in the field and lorries transporting food to consumers will quickly come to a halt. Bio-fuel is only a partial answer. Bio-fuel is essentially diesel fuel made out of grain. The idea of homegrown diesel may sound like an interesting option, but it is also a major factor in pushing food prices up. When cars start to compete with humans over food, the poorest in society will start suffering, as they will find it increasingly difficult to pay their food bill. On the other hand, the world oil reserves will at one point be used up and other energy must be found, but that time is still decades ahead, if not more.

The most serious long-term problem is the exponential world population growth, being at one billion (thousand millions) in the year 1800, 1 ½ billion in 1900, 3 billion in 1960, 6 billion in 2000, 7 billion as of this writing, and estimated to be 9-10 billion in 2050. The food and energy consumption of the 10 billion people in 2050 will not be 10-fold of the 1 billion consumers in the year 1800, but much beyond that. This is because the modern man is not satisfied with only a slice of bread or a bowl of rice as long as he can afford meat, fish, exotic vegetables or other variety of food. But “growing” a kilogram of meat requires much more grain than if Homo sapiens eat the grain themselves directly, rather than using it as animal feed and then eat the animal. As such, the pressure on both the basic production and distribution systems will be large in the future. It is time to think ahead and good agricultural land will become increasingly important in the coming decades.

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the Author

Dr Magnus Bjarnason is an indenpendent consultant at the OECD, working on economic competitiveness and development in Central Asia with focus on human capital development. With his political economics background, he has an experience in mid-level management, international organisations, government, academia, diplomacy and multicultural environments. He also wrote several books and articles.

Read more:
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790),
Poor Richard's Almanac, 1746
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