Food security:

Drivers, a conceptual point of view



Availability of food is clearly a necessary condition for food security to occur. This means that in a given country, region or locality, food products are physically available in sufficient quantity to ensure the food security of its inhabitants. The origin of this food can be local or national or the food may have been imported from abroad. This implies the existence of a marketing system that links producers (local, national or from the rest of the world) to local consumers.


Production depends on climate, available land and its quality, labour (number of workers and their technical and managerial skills), capital - the equipment that is being used (tools, machinery, buildings and facilities) and livestock - and inputs (seeds and genetic material, water, inputs for the management of  soil fertility and plant and animal health, feed for animals, etc.). All this is combined  with production technologies that determine the level of productivity of land and labour, the two essential economic variables affecting the sharing between land, capital and labour of the value added arising from production.

Local (national) production therefore depends technically on the quality of these various ingredients and on the ways in which they are distributed geographically and socially. This distribution will largely determine the level of ‘‘optimality’’ of their combination and the result obtained in terms of availability of food products.

From a social and economic point of view, the level of production of food will also depend on conditions of competition or complementarity between food production and other economic activities (use of land for non-food production or for non-agricultural activities, involvement of the labour force in non-agricultural activities,  use of equipment or inputs for other non-agricultural activities, etc.). The extent of competition or complementarity will depend on the level of remuneration obtained from these alternative uses, the level of risk incurred, social relations, the level of prestige and other benefits that may be attached to them, or the added value that these activities may bring to food products (e.g.processing).

Drivers of food production: availability

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The level of production will also depend on the quality, relevance and availability of services to facilitate the use of the most adapted technologies (training, extension, research, finance, management advice, etc.).

All these dimensions will need be taken into account at the time of the formulation of a food security policy, which, as can already been inferred from what has been said, cannot simply be limited to an agricultural development policy.

Marketing and processing

Producers are linked to consumers by value chains. It is through them that products are made available to consumers. Their length and complexity is variable. They may be very short in the case of home-consumption, direct sales or Community Supported Agriculture associations (CSA), (in France AMAP - Associations pour le maintien d'une agriculture paysanne, in Japan Teikeis). They may become very long and complex when they involve processing and long-distance transportation. Factors affecting  food availability and costs will therefore include a large number of elements as diverse as several different types of traders (collection, wholesale or retail), the mode of organisation of producers (individual, cooperatives or groups, contracted growers), market infrastructure (real or virtual, spot or future markets), transport (roads, rail, air and  types of vehicles) and storage, information systems, processing technologies (conversion rate, costs, logistical implications), retail structures (small shops, supermarkets or hypermarkets), the level of competition at various stages of the value chain, etc. The institutional structure of value chains is also crucial: does it allow for proper dialogue among stakeholders and thus help to ensure a good level of predictability of behaviour, or does it operate opaquely and hence generate lack of trust? Is there a reasonable balance in the respective powers of the various players in the chain, or an asymmetry that leads to the emergence of exploitative relationships?

Price difference between producers and consumers

The difference between the price paid to the producer and that paid by the consumer may be extremely high. It is due to transport, packaging, storage, processing (if applicable) and to margins of the economic agents operating at each of the different stages of the value chain. In non-industrial countries, the cost of transport can be very high and may represent more than 30% of the price paid by the consumer.

Even in Europe, the price differences between consumer and producer prices can be quite variable, depending on the commodity and the country. It can range between 28 and 62% in the case of fresh milk and 42 and 82% for butter. In the case of meat, depending on the particular cut, it can vary from 12 to 92% for pigmeat, and 7 to 74% for beef, according to a study of the European Parliament. For fruit, the difference can range from 26 to 74% and for vegetables from 14 to 82%. These differences are mainly explained by: (i) the degree of concentration of retailers (ii) the extent to which producers are organised; (iii) the extent of handling, processing, storage and branding; (iv) the legal and regulatory framework.

Based on European Parliament, The gap between producer prices and the prices paid by the consumer, 2007

The efficiency of these value chains will largely determine the difference between the price obtained by producers and the price the consumer will pay. Prices vary a great deal according to the commodities and countries concerned, and they can be strongly influenced by policies in place (rules and regulations, taxes, subsidies). The smaller this difference is, the easier it will be to strike a balance between a fair remuneration for producers (that will provide an incentive for production) and a just price for consumers to whom it will give more purchasing power – and hence to achieve food security. The form and the mode of operation of value chains at different stages will also determine the extent to which signals given by policies and the world market are transmitted between consumers and producers.. The lower the levels of efficiency and transparency at different stages of the value chain, the more they ‘‘absorb’’ the signals that are sent through them.

Foreign trade

Imports are the other source of supply for a country when national food production is insufficient. Border measures (tariffs, various taxes, cost of freight, importers’ margins, sanitary and quality norms and regulations, modality of access to foreign exchange, etc.) will determine the conditions of this supply, its price and volume. The chain linking importers and wholesale markets is usually rather short.


Access to food by all depends on the condition of food markets, people’s incomes and, particularly for the poorer categories of the population, on the extent to which they are able to exert their “extended rights” (for example customary sharing of income or food) and can benefit from safety nets put in place to help those who do not have their own means to access adequate food supplies.


Besides those factors already mentioned above in relation to production, market conditions can also affect access to food by people. These conditions depend on the taxation and subsidy policies adopted by governments that impact on the level of food prices. The extent of freedom for consumers to organise themselves into associations or lobbies as well as other institutional measures (existence of special selling points or shops) may also play an important role.


Income, and the purchasing power it provides, is a major determining factor for people to have access to the food they need for them to be food secure. It is worthwhile reviewing here various sources of income that may have an impact on food security while making a distinction between the differing situations in rural and urban areas and bearing in mind that the urban population is bound to grow much faster in the coming years than the number of people living in rural areas. 

In rural areas, income largely comes either directly or indirectly from agriculture. Direct income from agriculture (in the broad sense) depends on the value of agricultural production - and therefore of agricultural prices -, and of costs of production of which a large part is constituted by the cost of agricultural inputs, fuel, depreciation of equipment and financial costs. Individual income is a direct consequence of the productivity of labour and of the technology used. For some farmers, a part of the production is home-consumed, the rest being exchanged or sold on the market. For agricultural labourers, income comes from wages in cash or in kind.

Indirect income from agriculture is more diversified and linked overwhelmingly to the multiplier effects of agriculture, through products, inputs and consumption. Through products, income is earned from activities conducted within agricultural value chains (marketing, storage, processing, etc.) which generate wages for employees and profits for business owners. To this, it is necessary to add income from non-agricultural activities such as services and government, primary activities other than agriculture (e.g. mining) and industrial activities. These activities are in part also linked to agriculture through inputs (services, production and marketing of inputs, production and maintenance of agricultural equipment). Income can also be earned from activities resulting from the consumption effect, i.e, activities due to consumption by people living from agriculture. Finally, income in rural areas may also come from sectors that have their own dynamics and are largely independent from agriculture: mining, manufactures, tourism, etc. All this non-agricultural income, although quite important, is often neglected by food security specialists who tend to consider that rural incomes come mainly from agriculture. Studies conducted several decades ago show that even in Africa a considerable proportion of rural workers are involved in off-farm activities. T. Reardon shows, on the basis of the analysis of 33 field studies that off-farm income is extremely important in Eastern, West and Southern Africa: it may constitute between 22 and 93% of total rural income. Income earned and remitted to their families by migrants (temporary or permanent) may also account for an important and growing part of off-farm income in some areas. 

In towns, income is mostly of non-agricultural origin, although some people may depend indirectly on agriculture, particularly through their role in agricultural value chains. A small portion may also come directly from agriculture, from peri-urban agriculture, from the use of land located at some distance from the city, from renting out land or from transfer of resources by relations living in rural areas. Urban income and the employment in urban areas that generates them, whether in the formal or informal sector, will play an increasing role in food security in the future, as world population becomes more urban and the number of persons living in cities who may find themselves in a situation of food insecurity grows. One can safely bet, when addressing food insecurity issues, that this evolution will progressively move the focus of attention from agriculture and rural development towards economic development and income generation in urban areas. This implies that most of the policies for improving access to food will be policies aimed at reducing poverty in urban or suburban areas.

Extended rights

The concept of extended rights used here refers to all possibilities an individual has, in addition to his/her income, to improve access to basic goods. This encompasses opportunities for support that can be obtained from the family (in the broad sense), the community and the state. These rights have institutional, social and cultural dimensions. Depending on societies, traditional solidarity mechanisms provide individuals with rights and duties of assistance within the family and community. Formally, depending on the country, some rights are legally recognised: the right to work, to housing, to food, etc.. This latter right is legally recognised in a growing number of countries, and implies the implementation of specific actions defined in the ‘‘Voluntary guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security’’ adopted by FAO in 2004, namely:

  1. ·Ensure that policies and laws respect and protect the right to food for each individual and build an enabling environment for people to feed themselves in dignity;

  2. ·Implement principles of good governance and give particular attention to the poor and marginalised, which implies the responsibility of the state to address situations unfavourable for food security that it can control (e.g. tolerance for monopolies that make access to food excessively costly), and for non-discrimination against certain groups of population.

The adoption by states of legislation supporting the right to food makes this right enforceable, enabling the population, associations or NGOs to hold the state accountable and to bring it to justice if it is confirmed that it did not take all measures within its power to help population groups who are in a situation of food insecurity. However, experience shows that incorporating the right to food into  a country’s constitution is not in itself sufficient to bring about lasting improvements in the food security situation. [read]

Main factors affecting access to food

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Safety nets

There are three main types of safety nets (sometimes referred to as social protection measures): (i) food distribution, (ii) cash transfers, and (iii) subsidies. Safety nets  entail transfers of resources towards beneficiaries to ensure that they can have adequate access to food. Eligibility to benefit from safety nets may relate to the economic and social characteristics of beneficiaries (target groups) or to the situation within which a country or region of the country finds itself (for example, emergencies triggered by soaring food prices, drought, flood, earthquake, etc.). Access to safety nets can also be subject to conditions (e.g. participation of children in an education or health programme). Cash transfers and subsidies can be financed by the state budget, private sources or external aid. Safety nets in kind can be supplied from three main sources: existing private or public stocks, imports or food aid in kind. Food can be channelled through special distribution programmes, dedicated shops or selling points, or through existing private shops. State financed school meals programmes offer another means for food transfers.


Food security requires availability and access to food at all times. This concept addresses stability both of production and of access. Stability may be threatened by extraordinary climatic, health or economic shocks, but also by  the seasonality of agricultural production and markets. Agricultural technologies and infrastructure that are likely to stabilise production, private and public food stocks, financial services and as safety nets, are among the main factors that may contribute to ensuring stability.

Stabilisation of production

Factors that contribute towards stabilisation of food production include improvements in land and water management, infrastructure and services (e.g. soil and water conservation, irrigation infrastructure, services to prevent and combat diseases - quarantine zones, dip tanks, etc.); adjustments in cropping techniques (e.g. integrated pest management, weed control) and genetic resources improvement (e.g. short cycle drought resistant varieties, disease resistant varieties). Diversification of farming systems may also increase resilience to shocks.

These factors can be used as instruments to better manage water resources, reduce dependence on rainfall, prevent diseases and increase plant and animal resistance to health and climatic shocks.

    Main factors of stability


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Public or private stocks

Stocks have a key role to play in inter-seasonal and inter-annual stabilisation of food supplies. The issue whether to hold strategic public food stocks has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. Even though they may be expensive to keep in terms of physical loss of goods, maintenance and funding, stocks are amongst the few instruments that the state can use to intervene in food markets and to influence prices, either by releasing some part on the markets (which contributes to bring down prices) or by using them to supply safety nets. Private stocks, which generally contribute mainly to a better distribution of supply throughout the year, are profitable to hold only if there is sufficient difference between the price at time of harvest and that observed during the lean season: this difference is used to pay for storage costs and remunerate the storage function.

Financial services

Financial services have a central role to play in stabilisation of markets. On the one hand they help to finance storage costs, and on the other hand they supply funding and insurance in case of an economic or natural shock. Many different instruments are used for financing  food stocks from the funding of individual storage to that of large scale commercial storage, and including that of community bonded warehousing or warrantage.


The concept of food utilisation relates to the conditions that assure that, once food has been consumed, it is efficiently converted by the body into energy, growth and good health. The capacity of the body to make full use of food is very sensitive to disease affecting the digestive system (e.g. diarrhoea, intestinal parasites). Improvements can be brought about by good sanitation and hygiene, particularly access to safe drinking water and human waste disposal as well as the availability of health services.40. Food utilisation is also affected by food quality and safety, preconditions for a balanced and safe diet.

Nutritional quality

There are two sides to nutritional quality: (i) the nutritional balance and diversity of a diet in terms of nutrient content (carbohydrates, fats and protein), vitamins and trace elements; and (ii) food hygiene and safety standards.

The balance of a food diet has implications for the physical and mental growth of children, maternal health including the health of the unborn baby and the working capacity of people. It also has an impact on health (emaciation, obesity, resistance to diseases, prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, etc.). It has been proven that a shortage of vitamins, and more generally the absence of certain micronutrients, is an obstacle to proper mental and physiological development, weakens the immune system, generates handicaps at birth, and leads to a life in which the full physical and intellectual potential of an individual is never achieved41.

Food standards, such as those defined in the framework of the Codex Alimentarius of FAO and WHO fix the tolerable level in foods of certain elements that are potentially harmful to health, such as pesticide residues, heavy metals, microorganisms, etc.. Any presence of these elements above authorised norms risks causing illnesses that will be an obstacle to the good utilisation of food. These norms are, however, criticised by some scientists on the grounds that they do not take into consideration interactions among various elements which may aggravate the negative consequences on health even at doses below the established standards. Application of these norms has considerable implications on food production, processing and conservation technologies. It also provides the basis for the regulation of food safety  in catering businesses (collective, formal and informal, street restaurants or others) which are foodsources of growing importance, particularly in urban areas. Increasingly Codex Alimentarius standards are being applied to assure the quality of food being traded internationally.

Factors affecting food utilisation

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Water and sanitation

Infrastructure that provides access to quality drinking water, along with sanitation, plays a critical role in the cleanliness of the environment in which people live, particularly so in urban areas.

Health assistance

Health services that can manage disease prevention and act rapidly in case of disease, are a key factor of food security. It has been proven that bacterial and parasitic diseases, including diarrhoea and intestinal worms are important causes of food insecurity even when adequate quantities of food are eaten42. Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria also impact on food security both at the phase of assimilation of food elements and on the working capacity of affected populations, determining their capacity to earn a living that will allow them to have access to food,.or to produce food If they are engaged in farming

Materne Maetz

(May/June 2011

updated in December 2013)


Last update:    December 2013

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