Food Security/Insecurity 101


A ‘Food Security Teaser’

By Ken Ross

The Covid 19 lockdown period might have heightened our awareness, and then, the Ukrainian and Gazan crises may have pushed it to the background, but it hasn’t gone away. That’s right, I’m talking ‘food security’ –or more specifically, ‘food insecurity’. Of course, it’s a strange topic for us in Godzone, because we’re awash with food, and the notion of food insecurity in Aotearoa/NZ could even be laughable if it weren’t for the numerous and persistent food banks and the hungry kids turning up at school each day. So maybe, we have something to talk about.


However, it could be that the problem lies with how we are reading it. The United Nations defines food security as follows: “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.”


Perhaps, that’s the problem in a nutshell – in the crazy definition of ‘food security’ itself. Isn’t it a totally unrealistic expectation (and an unrealisable situation in the ‘real world’), to claim that ALL people, at ALL times, should have an adequate supply of safe and good quality food that
also satisfies their (cultural?) food preferences? It is, isn’t it? Isn’t it? And so, as per usual, it turns out that it all depends on where you make your stand.


The fact you are reading this article, and have now started the fourth paragraph, tells me
something about where you stand, so, this could pose the risk of being a sermon to the converted. However, this wee missive is intended to be the start of a longer journey of exploration, so let’s start with a little unpacking, and a game of ‘Let’s Pretend’.


Let’s start by assuming the notion of providing food for “all people at all times”, is something we should be striving for, and that it is sensible that this food meets dietary requirements. If we don’t accept this notion (challenge?) then we have to accept a position where some people will be deprived of adequate food for all or some of the time. Whose task would it be to decide the ‘who and when’? A wealth of global statistical data indicates that each year, the earth provides humanity with more than enough food for all the human inhabitants. That this food doesn’t reach all its human inhabitants in adequate amounts is not a failure of the earth’s ability to produce, but a failure of many of the human systems involved, and possibly a lack of will to meet this need. As above, so below. This global, macro view is also reflected in the micro view level of Aotearoa/NZ. We are definitely (however you measure it) one of the countries of the world that does produce more (far more) food than it consumes, and at the same time, is
incapable of ensuring every person in this country has an adequate share of it,
all of the time. Indisputable – and the causes, while being many, would fall into either, a lack of physical and economic access, in the main.


So, where’s the ‘Let’s Pretend’? The ‘pretend’ for the moment, is that, what we are producing as ‘food’, fits the second part of the UN definition, in that it is, “safe and nutritious”. Not only ‘safe and nutritious’ enough to meet human dietary need, but also ‘safe’ enough that its production and treatment doesn’t destroy environments or sectors of society. For many people, the jury is out on that one for two, basic reasons. Firstly, the production of raw food materials in Industrial Agriculture involves the use of practices and chemicals that make the food ‘unsafe’ for the environment, for society, and for the individual consumer. Secondly, the storage and transport practices, and in particular, the processing of raw food materials into a ‘final product’, can make that product unsafe for the environment, society and the individual consumer. A complicating factor at this ‘qualitative’ end of the definition, is the difficulty the average consumer has (even with the best of intentions), of determining how safe the production, storage, transportation and processing of a single food item, has been.


Re-visiting the UN 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,” leaves us with this:


1        The UN definition, appears to be, the only official definition in current global, and
national (Aotearoa/NZ) use.

2        Globally and nationally, all people do not have adequate quantities of food at all
times, even though, sufficient volumes of human food are produced globally and
nationally to achieve those ends. Failures of physical and financial access are instrumental in people not having adequate amounts of food, all or some of the time.

3        We have good reasons to question the safety and nutritional value of some (many?) food
items in common use, but it is really difficult to obtain reliable data on food safety and nutritional value that satisfies all perspectives.


Therefore, a brief scratch of the UN definition of ‘Food Security’ indicates a net food producing
nation such as Aotearoa/NZ, is falling short of providing food security for its people.


What does that mean, to you?

Watch this space.