Food Security

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Acute outbreaks of drought, civil unrest, and famine are periodic visitors to Africa, and cause immense human suffering. Chronic food insecurity is also common; Oxfam America estimates that 60,000 persons die of hunger each day, two-thir ds of them children. Many of these deaths, perhaps the majority, occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. Without assurance of food security, the sociocultural climate is conducive for households to bear many children. Larger households enhance food security:
(i) through the removal of labor bottlenecks at critical times of the crop calendar, and
(ii) through remissions of wages from seasonal migrant labor.
Bearing a large number of children also reduces the risk of destitution during the parents' old age. The consequences of such population growth are threefold:
(a) population densities are often quite high – as great as 148 km-2 in the arable lands of Niger, and agricultural land are frequently in short supply;
(b) more people ultimately means more mouths to feed and more livestock on grazing lands, which itself results in increased food insecurity in times of drought; and
(c) the pressure on the environment through overgrazing, overfarming, and deforestation very directly contributes to land degradation, colloquially termed “desertification,” and thence to a redu ced environmental security.

Definitions of Food Security

The World Bank (1986) provides a definition of “food security” as ‘access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life.’ I consider this an unsatisfactory interpretation, and prefer the follow ing, offered by Foster (1992). Food security is given by the following equation, where “hh” is short for “household”:
(hh food consumption requirement – hh food production) × price of food
< = income and liquid assets available to purchase food

The risk of food insecurity is the probability that the left-hand side of the equation is larger than the right. Foster proffers a list of factors that influence each element in the equation, a list I have modified below to reflect the fact that food security is a set of dynamic, rather than static, relationships (modifications in italics). It is the interplay among these factors, as well as the timed-release of assets, that ultimately determines whether a household is, and rem ains, food secure (see, for example, Frankenberger, 1992).
Household food consumption requirement
number of people in household;
age, sex, and working status of individuals;
health status of individuals;
childbearing status of women (pregnant, lactating);
activity status of individuals.
Household food production
long-term ecological sustainability (natural resource conservation); conservation of biodiversity (Cleveland, 1993);
endogenous factors: land (including land tenure), technology, education, risk assessment and management strategies;
exogenous factors: economic policies (tariffs, price controls, taxes, subsidies, research, etc.);
additional exogenous factors: shocks (climate change, long-term drought, land degradation, desertification, sedenterization).
Price of food
quantity produced;
seasonal availability;
size of population, income of population;
economic policies (tariffs, price controls, taxes, subsidies, research, etc.).
Income and liquid assets available to purchase food
a complex set including education of household members, capital available to the household, land position, employment opportunities, attitudes toward work, transportation costs, and health status of household members.

Food Security and the Link to Population Parameters

In her seminal monograph (1965), Danish economist Ester Boserup brought to the world's attention the concept that population growth itself can be the instigator of change from extensive to intensive farming systems. Thirty years have ela psed since then, thirty years of empirical observations on endogenous intensification processes (in Africa, see e.g., for Jos, Nigeria: Netting, 1993; Netting et al., 1993; for Kano, Nigeria: Mortimore, 1993; for Machakos, Kenya: Mortimore and Ti ffen, 1994). However, there is an accumulating body of evidence that an evolutionary trend toward further intensification runs into a very real barrier once population density violates environmental and technological limits (for an overview of Africa, see Norse, 1992; for a global perspective, see Ehrlich et al., 1993). Such limits do exist in both the resource and sink functions of the environment (Durham, 1991). “Carrying capacity” is the ecological concept that lin ks these functions to population size, and refers to the long-term capability of the environment to (a) detoxify pollution, (b) provide needed resources such as food, clothing, and shelter, and (c) provide a reasonable quality of life via the social envir onment. It is this adjustability of finite limits that proves so contentious in academic debate. As Nathan Keyfitz (1993) explains, “This notion of carrying capacity, so congenial to agriculturalists, is an irritation to social scientists. They see a b ig difference between cows and people. People can think of ways of getting around those limits set by nature.” Nevertheless, once these limits are reached, agricultural stagnation or involution occur (in Africa, see e.g., for Meru, Kenya: Bernard, 1993; for West Usambara, Tanzania: Feierman, 1993; for Imo State, Nigeria: Goldman, 1993; for Ngwa-Igbo, Nigeria: Martin, 1993).

If agricultural intensification causes a gain in overall prosperity, then it will also enhance food security. Boserup suggested that a gain in overall prosperity is a direct corollary to her hypothesis of population-density-driven agricultural intensific ation, “in sharp contrast to the causation from prosperity to population growth and poverty, which was suggested by Malthus.” However, as almost an afterthought at the end of her monograph, she mentions that “[t]his condition may not be fulfilled in dens ely peopled communities if rates of population growth are high.” The dilemma is in finding the balance between population growth that is ecologically beneficial (encouraging agricultural intensification and a reduction in cropping area) and popu lation growth that is excessive and ecologically harmful. Netting (1993) adopts the term Malthusian equilibrium node to define this balance: “[T]he point of environmental limit at which the diminishing return to fixed resources and the growing c ost of technology and labor outweigh the stimulus to intensification. At this stable point of higher technology, Malthusian checks of limited resources and high population demands prevail over the Boserupian growth dynamic.”

In virtually all rural Sub-Saharan Africa, fluctuating food security is, for most people, a fact of life. Cultures have adapted to the uncertainty by adopting a suite of coping options (coping strategies). Pastoralists hedge against catastrophi c animal losses during drought by building up their herds during wet years. Farmers experiment with intensification, polycropping, agroforestry, and new plant varietals. When disaster strikes, most households are able to survive by gradually selling ass ets. When assets are exhausted, however, people have no alternative but to migrate. The initial objective of coping options, then, is to conserve household resources; the ultimate objective may be the preservation of life (Hutchinson, 1992).

The figure below shows the coping options curve – the temporal sequence and organization of household responses to food shortages and food security emergencies. The curve uses data collected by Watts (1983) and augmented by studies undertaken by The Office of Arid Lands Studies.

There are still two factors missing in understanding the full set of consequences inherent in food insecurity. First, this simple model of household response to food insecurity is mitigated by community-level responses in many cultures, such as India. Indeed, this was also often the case in pre-Colonial Africa, but these mechanisms were largely destroyed by the Europeans. Those that survived intact were unable to contend with the massive scale of the dislocations resulting from the mid-1970s and mid-1980s long-term Sahelian droughts. Second, as households descend the copi ng option curve, they exact an increasing toll on local natural resources, one that reduces local and often regional environmental security.


Bernard, F.E., 1993. Increasing variability in agricultural production: Meru District, Kenya, in the twentieth century. In: B.L. Turner, G. Hyden, and R W. Kates, eds., Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. Gainesville: Universi ty Press of Florida, 8 - 113.

Boserup, E., 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth. Chicago: Aldine Press, 124 pp.

Cleveland, D.A., 1993. Is variety more than the spice of life? Diversity, stability and sustainable agriculture. Culture and Agriculture 45-46 (winter/spring), pp. 2 - 7.

Durham, D. F., 1991. Notes on “carrying capacity.” Population and Environment 13:2, 119 - 120.

Ehrlich. P.R., A.H. Ehrlich, and G.C. Daily, 1993. Food security, population, and environment. Population and Development Review 19:1, 1 - 32.

Feierman, S., 1993. Defending the promise of subsistence: population growth and agriculture in the West Usambara mountains, 1920 - 1980. In: B.L. Turner, G. Hyden, and R.W. Kates, eds., Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. Gain esville: University Press of Florida, 114 - 144.

Foster, P., 1992. The World Food Problem. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 367 pp.

Frankenberger, T.R., 1992. Indicators and data collection: methods for assessing household food security. In: S. Maxwell and T.R. Frankenberger, Household Food Security: Concepts, Indicators, Measurements. UNICEF and IFAD, New York, 73 - 135.< p> Goldman, A., 1993. Population growth and agricultural change in Imo State, southeastern Nigeria. In: B.L. Turner, G. Hyden, and R.W. Kates, eds., Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 25 0 - 301.

Hutchinson, C.F., 1992. Early Warning and Vulnerability Assessment for Famine Mitigation. Famine Mitigation Strategy Paper AFR-1526-P-AG-1129-00, U.S. Agency for International Development, Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Washington, D.C. 28 pp.

Keyfitz, N., 1993. Population and sustainable development: distinguishing fact and preference concerning the future human population and environment. Population and Environment 14:5, 441 - 461.

Martin, S., 1993. From agricultural growth to stagnation: the case of Ngwa, Nigeria, 1900 - 1980. In: B. L. Turner, G. Hyden, and R. W. Kates, eds., Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 302 - 323.

Mortimore, M., 1993. The Kano close-settled zone, 1964 - 1986. In: B.L. Turner, G. Hyden, and R.W. Kates, eds., Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 358 - 400.

Mortimore, M. and M. Tiffen, 1994. Population growth and a sustainable environment: the Machakos story. Environment 36:8, 10 - 20, 28 - 32.

Netting, R.M., 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 389 pp.

Netting, R.M., G.D. Stone, and M.P. Stone, 1993. Agricultural expansion, intensification, and market participation among the Kofyar, Jos Plateau, Nigeria. In: B.L. Turner, G. Hyden, and R.W. Kates, eds., Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 206 - 249.

Norse, D., 1992. A new strategy for feeding a crowded planet. Environment 34:5, 6-11, 32-39.

Watts, M., 1983. Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 687 pp.

World Bank, 1986. Poverty and Hunger: Issues and Options for Food Security in Developing Countries. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (The World Bank), Washington, D.C. 69 pp.

The correct citation for this page is:
Milich, L., 1997. Food Security.

The Table of Contents of my work on Sahelian food security is available.

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This site last updated July 17, 1997.