Maximizing the impact of food security

Food Security01 Feb 2013Ferko Bodnar, Ruerd Ruben

Food security is about making the right choices for food insecure people. Many interventions have had an impact on these people’s lives, but with significant differences in costs and benefits.

It is encouraging to see how many people contribute to an overall vision or to particular aspects within that vision of how to improve food security. Many arguments hold true, but the uncomfortable feeling remains: where should we start when we cannot do everything? Based on a recent systematic review of food security interventions by the IOB in 2011, we make this pragmatic recommendation: choose interventions that have a maximum impact given the limited financial resources available to us.

Before attempting to prioritize what to do, we should clarify what we want to achieve in food security. The ultimate goal of food security is that: ‘all people, at all times, have economic and physical access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a active and healthy live’ (Rome, World Food Summit 1996). This implies that food production or food availability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for food security. What is needed is that people who are currently food insecure have sufficient food and/or income in the near future to have access to food. Furthermore, they need food of good nutritious quality, and good water, sanitation and health care for optimum food utilization. In principle, it is acceptable to support an intervention that seems remote from this objective or target group, e.g. large-scale farming or international trade, as long as there is a logic of how this will eventually improve the situation of currently food insecure people. In practice, it may be easier to directly involve food insecure people in the intervention.

The systematic review showed that many interventions have had an effect on household food security. A surprising finding was that there are significant differences in costs and benefits per targeted household. A simple comparison between the cumulative project costs over several years and the benefits in the year of evaluation showed some very good value-for-money interventions, especially where agricultural production losses were reduced. The introduction of a cassava mealy bug predator, as biological pest control, benefited millions of farmers in Africa, cost about $5 per household and reduced annual production losses by $19 per household per year. The distribution of disease-resistant cassava planting materials to hundreds of thousands families in Mozambique cost $9 per household and reduced production losses by $25 per household per year. The annual maintenance breeding of rust-resistance in wheat benefits 90 million wheat-growing households in developing countries, cost $2 per household per year, and reduces crop losses by $13 per household per year. On the other hand, some interventions such as capital-intensive irrigation schemes or dairy development had high costs per benefiting household ($1,800 and $3,600 respectively) and relatively modest benefits per household ($225 and $340 respectively). This was not so much due to the sector (irrigation or dairy) but was more due to the small number of beneficiaries in these particular projects. As a reference, if we divide the total ODA available for agriculture, $8.4 billion in 2010, by the 0.5 billion smallholder farmers in developing countries, we only have about $17 per farm household per year to spend.

There is obviously a lot more to say about how to improve food security effectively and efficiently. Making the right choices, starting from the analysis of food insecurity in a particular country, via the identification of pathways to improve food security, to the decisions about who can best do what, and what to fund with ODA, is a complex process. Within this process, we recommend considering the costs and benefits per currently food insecure household, given the limitations of ODA budgets and the magnitude of food insecurity, to make sure we maximize the impact of food security.