When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was founded on 16 October 1945, it was the first major international organisation with the purpose of ‘ensuring humanity’s freedom from hunger’. FAO celebrates World Food Day every year on 16 October to commemorate this, and to raise awareness about hunger, nutrition and food security.
A brief history
Although ensuring citizens are sufficiently fed has been a key concern of governments and rulers since ancient times, a series of global and regional food shocks over the past 50 years – including two in the past decade – have spurred international efforts to eradicate hunger and ignited global interest in the concept of ‘food security’. This simple two-word phrase is now central to most government, business and NGO reports and policies addressing the future of food production and consumption.
The key difference between today’s challenges and those faced by early civilisations – such as the ancient Egyptians – is that the global footprint of humanity’s food consumption is overstepping sustainable limits. For example, since the year 2000, studies have estimated that nearly three quarters of global deforestation has been caused by commercial agriculture. The challenge today and for future generations is to secure sufficient food supply within increasingly tight resource and environmental constraints.
The term ‘food security’ itself came into use in the mid-1970s following the 1972 global food crisis. The most frequently cited ‘official’ definition is the one established at the 1996 World Food Summit: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
However, with the recent surge in popularity of the term, there is today a proliferation of interpretations and usages. Such is the influential nature of ‘food security’ that it has been used by organisations to justify policies and investments in all parts of the economy and society – from trade negotiations and agriculture regulations, to infrastructure development and national security.
To add to this complexity and confusion, the term is often employed by organisations on opposing sides of divisive arguments (read any campaign on genetically modified organisms or pesticides and you’ll see food security referenced by industry lobbyists and environmental campaigners as a basis for supporting mutually exclusive world views).
Food security and biodiversity
Regardless of who is ‘correct’ in such arguments it has become clear to WWF-UK that the concept of food security – and how it is understood by policymakers, businesses, investors and citizens – is of increasing relevance to its mission to protect global biodiversity. Because of this, WWF-UK asked 3Keel to examine how organisations are using the concept of food security in their communications and how decisions made in the name of food security have the potential to impact upon biodiversity. One of the outputs of this work is a toolkit for navigating the topic of food security and the links to biodiversity.
This toolkit is the result of an extensive review of research and publications in this area, as well as numerous discussions with businesses, researchers and WWF staff around the world. Amongst other things it gives a fascinating insight into the many ways people ‘frame’ the challenge and solutions to food security now and in the future – many of which you will recognise from reading the newspaper or watching the television.
Twelve frames for understanding food security
But why should we be interested in how people ‘frame’ issues?
How policymakers and agri-food businesses address food insecurity – and what solutions citizens support – will be influenced by the frames that dominate the debate around a contentious topic. Framing is therefore a really important tool to enable organisations to understand and influence debates and policy decisions (read more about framing in this excellent summary commissioned by WWF-UK).
For example, if the dominant framing of food security is about insufficient agricultural production then policymakers and citizens might conclude that the expansion of agricultural land into natural habitat and the over-exploitation of water resources are an acceptable price to pay to keep food on the plate. Alternatively, where access to food is identified to be the problem, policies would more likely focus on reducing post-harvest crop waste, improving diets, reducing poverty, encouraging fair trade, etc. Currently the mainstream framing of food security in policy and business is the well-known appeal to the world to “double production to feed 9 billion in 2050” – or some variation on that theme.
Worryingly, our review found that many framings of food security likely to be used by key decision-makers do not put biodiversity ‘in the frame’. Our analysis also identified that biodiversity loss and food security have many shared drivers – and that policy responses to the latter may damage the former, if not carefully designed and implemented.
The good news is that there is an increasing appreciation that long-term global food security and sustainable development cannot be achieved without protecting the world’s natural capital. The challenge will be finding ways to balance the many powerful and often competing environmental, social and economic interests that will accompany efforts to keep the world’s citizens well fed for millennia to come.