The autarkic approach to achieving the first goal - of attempting to achieve national self-sufficiency in producing basic foods - is now recognized as a costly approach for most countries: 'it has been impossible since the early 1980s to speak credibly of food security as being a problem of food supply, without at least making reference to the importance of access and entitlement' (Maxwell, 1996, p. 157). Rather than pursue complete national food self-sufficiency, generally it is much more economical for a country to produce, and also export, the classes of goods in which it has an international comparative advantage, and import some of its food needs. If a hectare of land generates twice the income in export crops as in basic food crops, both farmers and the nation's balance of pay
101. FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2001, p. 4.
ments will be better served by producing the former and importing the latter, at least at the margin.
The danger of the autarkic approach is that:
quests for self-sufficiency may turn to extracting rural produce cheaply to feed cities, creating perverse incentives, harming food output and employment and worsening undernutrition.103
The discussion in the foregoing sections has underscored the fact that achieving food security in the sense of the total availability of food depends on pursuing appropriate trade policies and on measures to develop marketing systems, sometimes more than on food production itself. In addition, given the fluctuating nature of all harvests, attempting to satisfy all food needs purely through domestic production would mean the population would be forced to endure occasional shortages and the producers, surpluses.
The concern about nutrition levels is not a concern about total national food self-sufficiency, but rather about the food security of poor families. In the short run, malnutrition can be alleviated with food assistance programs, while in the long run raising income and educational levels of poor households is the most sure way to eliminate it. Using international evidence, it has been shown conclusively that the three principal determinants of nutritional intake are income per capita, educational levels, and health, in that order.104
Hence food production by lower-income rural families contributes to their nutritional levels primarily by generating income (purchasing power) for them. If such families have opportunities to raise their incomes by switching to higher-value, non-food crops, then the nutritional levels of their families can be expected to increase. Such crops are often more labor-intensive than grains and thus are well suited to the high labor endowments per hectare of labor that characterize low-income farming families. However, in cases where cash crops are not a viable option, as in many parts of the Sahel, whether because of agronomic conditions, lack of full market access or other reasons, clearly the main route to improvements in household nutrition levels is found in increasing yields of food crops.
A survey of rural areas in Ethiopia found a lack of correlation between the nutritional status of children and the areas their households devoted to crop production, and neither the altitude of the farm nor the size of the household provided a correlation. The conclusion of the study was that health care and practices were more important to nutrition than family food production itself:
. . . the results suggest that household food security is positively associated with child nutritional status in some regions, negatively associated in some regions, and shows no consistent association in other regions. These results are found even when variation in household size and altitude is taken into account in the analysis . . . Under this broader view of malnutrition, household food security is a necessary but not sufficient condition for maintaining adequate nutritional status. Health related conditions and child care and feeding are also necessary conditions. .. .105
The fundamental lesson here is that to achieve improved levels of nutrition in rural households, cropping patterns should be allowed to follow com
103. FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture, 2000, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2000, p. 237.
104. O. Knudsen and P. Scandizzo, 'The demand for calories in developing countries', American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 64, February 1982, pp. 80-86.
105. Reprinted from Food Policy, 20(4), D. L. Pelletier, K. Deneke, Y Kidane, B. Haile and F. Negussie, 'The food-first bias and nutrition policy: lessons from Ethiopia', pp. 293-294, Copyright (1995), with permission from Elsevier.
parative advantage, and farmers should not be given artificial incentives to grow basic foods. The surest way to enhance family food security, which is a concern of the poor, is through generating increases in their incomes. The production of food may have little relation to the food security of the poor, again with the exception of the more remote rural areas with few cropping alternatives.
Some of these conclusions have been summarized well by Simon Maxwell, in the form of proposing a 'consensus strategy' for food security in Africa:
A primary focus on supplying vulnerable people and households with secure access to food: individual and household needs take precedence over issues of national food self-sufficiency or self-reliance. .. . The importance of poverty-reducing economic growth: poor rural and urban people need secure and sustainable livelihoods, with adequate incomes. .. . Within agriculture, growth strategies are needed which lay particular emphasis on generating jobs and incomes for the poorest groups, including those in resource-poor and environmentally degraded areas. Agriculture and rural development strategies should usually favor labor-intensity. ... A balance between food crops and cash crops is likely to be the best route to food security, following the principle of long-term comparative advantage rather than of self-sufficiency for its own sake. .. . Efficient food marketing is needed, to store and distribute food, at reasonable prices, to all parts of the country in all seasons and in all years.. . . More effective and efficient safety nets need to be established, by strengthening community institutions, introducing new targeted food and nutrition interventions.. . . Finally, food security planning should follow a
'process' rather than a 'blue-print' approach, with large-scale decentralization.. . .106
In addition to these considerations, a basic factor in determining family nutrition is the education levels of women, as pointed out earlier in Chapter 3.
It may be asked, if aggregate quantities of domestic food production are not at issue from a food security viewpoint, then what about their prices? Clearly, higher food prices mean a more restricted ability to purchase food for many poor families. Here it is important to distinguish between rural and urban families. For the latter, food assistance programs often are essential in the short and medium term, while ways are sought to improve their income-generating power. In addition, such programs are all the more needed when food prices increase.
For the rural poor, who in developing countries usually constitute most of the low-income families, and also most of the extremely poor families, food prices may have a different significance. Magdalena Garcia et al. have shown for Honduras that even families with as little as one hectare of land are net beneficiaries of price increases of basic food products, and for those with two hectares and more the benefits are significant even with small price increases.107 For most countries, about one hectare of land is the amount needed for supplying a family's annual needs in a basic cereal, and additional land beyond that amount contributes increasingly to a farmer's participation in the market.
In addition, food price increases create incentives for more production and therefore create more employment, thus benefitting the landless as well. For this reason, unless the rural landless are very numerous in relation to those who have at least some land, increases in real agricultural prices are likely to benefit the rural poor as well
106. Reprinted from Food Policy, 21(2), S. Maxwell, 'Food security: a post-modern perspective', p. 164, Copyright (1996), with permission from Elsevier.
107. Magdalena Garcia, Roger Norton, Mario Ponce Cambar and Roberta van Haeften, Agricultural Development Policies in Honduras: A Consumption Perspective, special research publication of the Office of International Cooperation and Development, US Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, USA, 1988.
as the rural non-poor. As noted earlier, Schreiner and García found that the lowest-income strata in rural areas were proportionately the greatest beneficiaries of the real agricultural price increases in Honduras in 1989-1991 that were brought about by a real devaluation of the currency.108
Thus, the common reaction that higher food prices necessarily worsen the poverty situation in a country needs to be re-examined. Looking at the issue from an analytical viewpoint, Benjamin Senauer reached a similar conclusion:
The implication for nutrition is that higher food prices may actually lead to an improvement in the nutrition of farm household members, because of the effects of profits on income. Even if the consumption of the commodity for which the price has increased declines, the increased profits and income can be used to buy increased amounts of other foodstuffs, the result being an improvement in nutrient intake.. . . higher prices may improve the welfare and nutrition of agricultural households, and possibly even of rural non-farm families whose income depends on agriculture, such as agricultural laborers.109
In other words, as real agricultural prices increase, lower-income farm families may actually retain less of the crop for home consumption, and still they would be better off, in terms of both income and nutrition.
This conclusion supports a central thesis of this volume, for which empirical evidence was presented earlier: adequate real price incentives in agriculture are important not only for eco nomic growth but also for alleviating rural poverty.
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