With the onset of the 2007-8 food price crisis, food security was put back on the international agenda. Threats of food insecurity had provoked civil unrest around the world and countries that had long been considered food secure were facing the threat of limited food imports as a result of export restrictions put in place by some food exporting countries. But these are complicated times, marked by great economic uncertainty, increasingly integrated agricultural, energy and financial markets and growing strain on natural resources and growing complications brought about by climate change. Not only this, but given the triggers of the 2007-8 food price spikes, the refocus on food security necessitated the introduction of added layers of complexity (e.g., price volatility, commodity speculation, investment in agricultural land) to an already complex and multi-faceted concept.
Since the World Food Conference of 1974, the concept of food security has evolved, multiplied, diversified and left us with a term that now represents “a cornucopia of ideas” (Maxwell 1996:155). This cornucopia has developed through a series of phases that can be broadly categorised as paradigm shifts (Maxwell 1996). These phases are not uncontested, but rather broadly define the dominant themes that inform and rationalise status quo food security research, policy, and practice at a certain moment in time.
The World Food Conference of 1974 was organized in response to the drastic rise in world food prices in the early 1970s. Not unlike the 2007-2008 food price spikes, the 1970s food crisis occurred in conjunction with a weakened US dollar, high energy prices, short-term climatic shocks, concerns over market information and growing export demand from transitioning economies (in that time, Spain, Korea and Taiwan) (DEFRA 2010:12). Convened by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the World Food Conference was “entrusted with developing ways and means whereby the international community, as a whole, could take specific action to resolve the world food problem within the broader context of development and international economic co-operation” (UN 1975). The Conference created the World Food Council, the Committee on World Food Security and launched the International Undertaking on World Food Security.
The 1996 World Food Summit resulted in a major shift in the concept of food security (Shaw 2004:348). At the Summit, consensus emerged around a new, highly negotiated definition: food security exists “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This definition has since remained the “gold standard”. The definition does not start anew but rather builds on the concepts evolution. The definition, which includes issues of availability, production and supply through “physical access” and “economic access”, highlights Sen’s contribution as well as that of the World Bank. Nutrition, preference and healthy life speak to livelihoods and hint at social access. The discourse of food security at the international level remains framed as a development issue. The inclusion of preference illustrates cultural sensitivity but fails to how preferences of wealthy consumers, or consumers in wealthy countries impact the food security of others.
More than 200 definitions and at least 450 indicators for food security have been presented (Mechlem 2004; Sage 2002; Maxwell 1996).