New Global Food Security Index Ignores Key Issues, May Lead to Wrong Policies


I am very happy to be publishing a new editorial by the Human Rights Director of FIAN, Rolf Künnemann. In this piece, Künnermann applies a critical lens to the new Global Food Security Index, launched by the Economist Intelligent Unit and sponsored by Dupont. He very clearly highlights some of the limitations of this index, especially in the context of future policy developments.
New Global Food Security Index Ignores Key Issues, May Lead to Wrong Policies
Rolf Kunnemann*

The Economist Intelligence Unit refers for its “Global Food Security Index” to the 1996 World Food Summit Definition: “Food security is defined as the state in which all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for a healthy and active life.” Very important here are the words “all people at all times.” A food security index would therefore have to indicate how far a community or country deviates from the “all people at all times” standard. National averages are of very limited use in this context.
The methodology of an index reveals a lot about the mind set of those who constructed it. As indices are often (wrongly) used for guiding policies, it is important to make sure that indices measure what they pretend to measure- and not what they want to measure – in order to bring about the policies favored by their authors. It is also well known that composite indices are nearly useless. And such indices hardly merit attention, if not for the political damage they could bring about.
A useful way to approach the state of food security (and its background) is to find, on a country-by–country basis, those parts of the population that lack food security, investigate where these deficiencies come from and listen to those peoples’ concerns and proposals. Only such an approach (that may, of course, contain certain elements of sampling) can provide reliable and politically useful data to address food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. It is in the context of such an approach that some of the indicators in the Global Food Security Index, under the categories of affordability, availability and quality and safety, could be useful – while others still don’t make sense.
The affordability indicators assume that all people are consumers. In reality, most of the food insecure people are mainly producers and only partially consumers buying food on the market. A careful methodology, therefore, has to be applied to determine “food consumption as a share of household expenditure.” Similarly, the world poverty line misses out (at least on a whole range of countries) what people harvest, collect, etc. to feed themselves. Simplistic monetization may lead to wrong data for “poverty” and to wrong policies for addressing peoples’ needs.
GDP per capita is rather useless for finding out about food security – it is a crude average and highly contested as a measure, even for describing welfare in a state. Agricultural import tariffs have nothing to do with food insecurity per se – unless one assumes that these tariffs are always good or bad for food security. Vested global interests pretend that such tariffs are always bad as they increase the consumer cost of imported food. It should be recalled, however, that rich countries have used such tariffs in the past – and still do– to develop their own agriculture and foster food security.
The financing of farmers is also not necessarily good or bad for food security. Financing could be structured to drive the farmers to plant non-food crops for exports – which is seen as good by vested global interests – but bad by many others that point to the need to strengthen domestic food production (and vice versa). Many forms of farmer financing have turned out detrimental and are used for the eradication of peasant farming. The presence of a safety net program tells us very little about food insecurity. Some such programs are indeed insignificant or exclude parts of those who lack food security.
The availability indicators contain the supply of food and food aid. A supply indicator tells us little about whether people have access to supplies – and whether this supply has replaced local produce (as food aid often does), and is sustainable or leads to sustainable solutions, as it should under the definition of food security. The indicators that are related to public expenditure for R&D fail to investigate what is this expenditure/infrastructure and how this is related to food insecurity.  Similarly, with agricultural infrastructure: facilitating access of export crops to harbors is very different from facilitating access of locally produced food to local markets. The first stands for colonial type policies that may cause food insecurity, while the second type of infrastructure is what is urgently necessary.
The volatility of agriculture growth – another indicator used – is surprising as an indicator chosen. One may have expected that the volatility of food prices related to global speculation and hoarding may be somehow correlated to food insecurity – but such an indicator is missing.
The quality indicators are ambiguous as long as they do not inform national agricultural food production policies. In some areas the reason for nutritional deficiencies are essentially poverty – in others it is people’s eating habits (and sometimes both reasons are related). This is true for the U.S. and for European countries, as much as for other countries. And it is these issues that need attention. Products from local peasant agriculture tend to be nutritionally balanced, whereas imported junk food, GMOs and nutritional additives may be lucrative future business endeavors for vested interests (along the lines of “Scaling Up Nutrition – SUN” program), but fall short of establishing sustainable food quality and, instead, abuse human rights.
The human right to food requires going beyond food security by also considering how people’s access to adequate food comes about (or is destroyed) and, in particular, whether States meet their obligations as outlined in the 1999 UN General Comment on the Right to Food. This requires considering questions of food sovereignty, people’s participation, access to land, control over seeds and water, cultural adequacy and ecological sustainability, among others – that are simply ignored in the food security index.
The food security index produces numbers, but these do not give a meaningful indication of food security. The underlying assumptions for the choice of component indicators reveal a certain ideology and business model of vested interests that is detrimental to food security.
*Rolf Kunnemann is the Human Rights Director at FIAN International, an international human rights organization which fights for the right to adequate food. This editorial is the personal opinion of Mr. Kunnemann and does not necessarily reflect the view of FIAN International.

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