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The ‘securitiness’ of food

Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom | 14 January 2013

There is a need to consider food as human security, says Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom. Technological problem-solving approach is no panacea as it does not truly address the root causes of hunger. 

‘Food’ has a strong normative connotation with ‘security’, which inexplicitly links the notion of ‘food security’ to the political realm. This explains the tremendous amount of time and resources devoted towards achieving the desirable situation that we refer to as ‘food security’. Even so, the actual meaning of the term ‘food security’ unfortunately remains problematic in that it presents semantic as well as conceptual challenges.

The cornucopia of ideas that underlie the notion of food security has practical significance for considerations pertaining to which measures, policies, interventions and investments are most appropriate to realise a situation of food security. But notwithstanding the importance of critical consideration of food policies, at the same time the emerging securitisation of food raises the notion of a fundamental, perhaps even existential, relation between ‘food’ and ‘security’. In other words, can – and should – ‘food’ be considered as a matter of security?

To be secure, the human species is highly dependable on food – like any other species. In recent years, however, the social unrest and political instability generated by major events like the Global Food Price Crisis of 2007–2008 and Arab Spring of 2011 have demonstratedseriousvulnerabilities and confirm the relevance of such a ‘security’ assessment of ‘food’. Yet, counter-intuitively, contemporary debate about food and the future of the world often lacks any discussion of the ‘security’ factor. Instead, discussions revolve by and large around the ‘food’ part of the food security equation, and not so much – if at all –the relation with ‘security’. Only on the odd occasion are attempts made to comprehend the concept of security in relation to food. The recent workby Brown emphasises the need to seriously consider the ‘geopolitics of food’, whereas Fullbrook sensibly suggests that “food security will only improve when values and perceptions adjust to reflect food as security”. But bringing the polysemous concept of food security into the security paradigm necessitates a thorough and comprehensive approach and methodology.

When placing food in the perspective of the mounting challenges the world is facing (e.g. population growth, climate change, environmental destruction, shifting diets), there is certainly a normative obligation and a practical sense of urgency in addressing this security question. More so, in a world of finite and constrained resources we need to start thinking seriously, strategically and sustainably about the role and availability of food in the remainder of this century. We need to ask ourselves when the time comes to consider food as more than a habitual part of our daily existence; namely, when should we perceive it as a political priority and, perhaps even, elevate it to the realm of existential threats? The answer to these questions will hinge upon how we explain and understand food in terms of being a challenge, a threat, or even a security measure. In other words, is it practical, logical and theoretically sound to bring food into the realm of security studies?

Prudence demands a rather cautious approach when commingling the concept of food with the concept of security. Looking at the roots of ‘food security’, Gibson offers three reasons for conceptual concern: ‘food as security’ could misunderstand what is meant by security; it could lead to more political expediency than objective analysis; and by aligning food with security, there is an inherent connotation with risk management. Against the first concern, however, can be brought that discussing whether food can or should be seen as a matter of security does not impede on the meaning of the concept of security, rather it is a debate about broadening and deepening the security agenda, and whether this is a good thing or not. The second concern seems to overlook that political prioritisation at times actually drives objective analysis, for which the polarised climate change debate serves as an example. The ‘three debilitating flaws’ Gibson points at in the potential association with risk management are not unfounded. Indeed, sparsely available data and subjective experiences in combination with probabilistic ‘what-if’ scenarios can indeed artificially construct impact indicators that are not meaningful or objective.

To conceptualise food as a matter of security also propounds the notion that achieving ‘food security’ on a global scale will in effect function as a precautionary principle of security by reducing human suffering and preventing food-related conflict and violence. Falcon and Naylor conclude, therefore, that “perhaps the most direct ways to security and democracy, as to love, may be via the stomach”. ‘Food as security’ therein deepens the security agenda vertically by highlighting and emphasising the existential type of threat that food poses against national security, human security, and environmental security.

Practically this means that in terms of national security we may need to consider a return to the debate on ‘food power’. During the 1970s there was particular interest in the potential of food as a political or economic weapon. The then US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, made great effort to make food power part of the American diplomatic toolbox. He contended it would be an eloquent way to influence world politics. At the time, this move was far from surprising as the notion of food power came to pass as the obvious response to the 1973 oil embargo in which Arab oil producing states used ‘petropower’ as a geopolitical tool. However, one of the key arguments against the potential utility of food power was the reality of a world food market characterised by abundance rather than scarcity – with the latter a structural condition required to turn an economic asset into a political instrument. Now, more than three decades later, there appears to be an emergingconsensus that we have reached the end of the era of cheap and abundant food. With the crucial comprehension that food, water, and land are finite resources that face a mounting demand, perchance this century will see food power truly assume the potential as a powerful geopolitical weapon.

More urgently, however, is the need to consider ‘food’ as human security. There were still some 870 million people classified as hungry over the period 2010–2012. Solutions are sought, amongst others, in increasing food production, enhancing distribution channels, state-of-the-art agricultural technology, and accelerating economic growth. Yet, such a technological problem-solving approach is no panacea; some would even suggest that it does not truly address the root causes of hunger. Hence, what is needed in addition to these technological fixes is a critical re-conceptualisation of ‘food security’, one that transcends traditional conceptualisations of food security as a measure of national availability by advocating for a stronger focus on the household and individual level. The idea of ‘food sovereignty’ has therefore been presented as a logical precondition for achieving genuine food security. While hard to define, food sovereignty amounts to the cosmopolitan human right to maintain and develop one’s own capacity to produce basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity, in the absence of social injustice, speculation, and violence. In practical terms this means providing small-scale farmers assistance in many forms: better infrastructure and refrigeration to reduce pre-market food-waste (from field to market), closure of rural technology gaps, the empowerment of (female) farmers with education and (micro)credit, fair market-competition conditions, agrarian reform, improved land tenure rights or even ‘land sovereignty’, and sustainable use and protection of natural resources.

That said, in pursuance of food security, we thus need to accept that the contemporary challenge of feeding the world is as much about sustainable development as it is about security and survival. In other words, the idea of ‘food as security’ supports, and even promotes, the quest for global food security, but it does so by emphasising the ‘securitiness’ of food. The raison d’être for this approach is captured best in Fullbrook’s assertion that “putting food first will strengthen the security in food security”.

In conceptualising food as a matter of security we ultimately come to the point where three overarching realms require further exploration: the philosophy of science, security theory, and the empirical reality of food as security.

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About the author

Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

PhD Candidate at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

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