Sunday, 16 October 2011

Wanted: Food Security in Southern Africa

This year's Blog Action Day topic is close to my heart. Food security is my thing. Well, my thing in the sense that it is what I study and work on. Which is why I sometimes get annoyed with those people who misunderstand food security. Food insecurity is not the same as hunger. Hunger is now. It's immediate. It may go on for a long time and sometimes it's deadly but it's about not having food now, with little concern for or awareness of antecedents.


Food insecurity can be more difficult to spot. It's about three things: Does food exist? Can I get the food? Can I use the food to stay healthy?

1. Does food exist?
The world has gotten better at measuring this, particularly at a nation state level. FAO tracks food production across countries and identifies shortfalls. FEWSNET picks up potential food crises way in advance. But knowing knowing what exists at a national level doesn't always help locally. The world currently produces enough food to feed everyone but that food isn't always in the right places. Many African countries are net importers of food. This doesn't mean that they don't produce any food. Often they produce some food, but it's not the right kind of food. Some food crops are really cash crops - they're grown (mostly) for export and to earn forex, not to supply local markets. When Mozambique had food riots a few years back, they weren't over locally-produced foods, they were over bread made from imported wheat. Similarly, many rural communities don't produce the food they want to (or should) eat locally - they travel to towns to buy food from far away. So, this question should really be: Does the right food exist locally? Food is grown, not manufactured - are there farmers producing the food that people will eat here? Globally, the answer is yes. Nationally and locally, it may not be.

2. Can I get the food?
I can get the food - I have money because I have a job. But lots of people don't have money because they don't have jobs - particularly in dramatically unequal countries like SA and Namibia. There are a limited number of ways of acquiring food: buying it, growing it, stealing it or being given it. When people have no income (or when their income is no longer enough to meet staggering food price increases), they can't buy food. Stealing food (including poaching) has serious disadvantages because people who own it tend to get upset. Hand-outs, like food parcels, soup kitchens and food aid can only ever be a useful short-term response in an emergency situation - they can stop the hunger right now, but they don't help with the fact that the hunger will come back tomorrow.

Which leaves growing food. Growing food has many advantages - you get to control what food is available, food price increases have less effect because no-one is trying to make a profit, the harder you work, the better your food supply (barring disasters, etc.). But growing food also requires 'things'. Like land, resources (including seeds and animals), skills, capital. Growing food is good, but lots of poor people can't afford to do it on their own, even though many of them in Southern Africa have land access. Farmers struggle to eat in Southern Africa because they can't afford to farm.

Growing food also has the advantage that you have something to sell. This is crucially important, but because no one person (no one small farm) is ideally placed to cost-effectively produce all the different kinds of foods and because some things (like school books) can't be grown).  Different people in a village produce different kinds of foods on their small (tiny) plots and trade with each other. That's probably where trade first came from and it is a system that evolved because different soils, skills, inclinations and talents mean different people in a tiny, rural village are good at producing different foods. Trade also makes it possible to live through lean seasons and to buy inputs for the following year, as well as school books. Small farmers who can sell some of what they grow have access to food in two ways - they're a whole lot more food secure. When people aren't growing food and they don't have an income, chances are they're food insecure.

3. Can I use the food to stay healthy?
Maize is great to fill your belly but it doesn't do much to fight off infection. All people need different kinds of foods to get energy, proteins, micro-nutrients. They also need to know how to combine and prepare the foods so that they'll be healthy. This is particularly important for children and pregnant women - the first 1000 days of a child's nutritional life practically decide if that person will be successful - and those who are ill, including the immune-compromised.

Food security means the right food, at the right time, in the right place and at the right price. Southern Africa doesn't face a famine right now like the crisis in the Horn of Africa. But there are still millions of people who are food insecure - who don't have regular access to healthy food, who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who can't get the kind of foods they need to keep their children healthy. People whose who days are consumed just trying to figure out what they'll eat.

People who buy their food from the nearest deli or an expensive luxury supermarket don't have a clue. They may be able to understand hunger, but they have no frame of reference to understand the perpetual terror and frustration of food insecurity. A women told me that when it came time to cook, there sometimes wasn't even maize for a simple porridge, so her children had to go hungry. She used to beg for work so that she would be able to access food. When you're food insecure, especially when you're trying to feed a family, your whole world becomes about the food. Every hour of the day is about finding food. You may be doing other things, but at the back of your mind, this is what consumes you. People who feel like they're solving a problem by giving someone a sandwich shouldn't be surprised when that person doesn't act as though you've saved her life - I'm sure she's grateful that you made today a little easier but her mind is already on tomorrow and how she'll find another person to give her a sandwich.

The only way to stop people from being hungry is to build a system, a situation, a reality where they have sustainable, resilient livelihood systems that make it possible for them to access healthy, appropriate food on a regular, secure basis. What does that mean? For rural people in particular, it means that they need to be able to grow food and sell food or labour so that they have two ways to access food - buying it and growing it. The foods that are produced need to be of high enough quality, so Departments of Agriculture need to be visiting poor areas and ensuring that livestock and crops are of reasonable quality and research needs to be going into breeds and hybrids that are ideally suited to small-scale, intensive production. Market systems need to be open to the products produced by small farmers, allowing for competition instead of unfairly (and at higher cost to the consumer) favouring large-scale, established producers. And someone needs to be investing in programmes, particularly NGO programmes, that give poor farmers the access to tools, livestock, skills and seeds they need to kickstart their farms.

As Roger Thurow pointed out at the FAO on Friday, smallholder farmers produce 60% of food in Africa yet are the hungriest, poorest people in world. Hungry farmers. How absurd, how obscene (via @FAOnews). Millions of women, children, men in Southern Africa don't have food security. They might eat today or they might not. In South Africa alone, 12 million people are food insecure, 8.4 million in rural areas. 12 million South Africans is 1 in 5.

Various organisations are working to do something about this but they need all the help they can get. A few of my favourites are Oxfam, IFAD and, of course, Heifer International.

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