In recent years, the issue of food security has taken on greater importance around the world. The food crisis that began in 2008, caused by a rapid increase in the price of basic foodstuffs such as corn, grains, and other products, forced politicians everywhere to pay attention to the interrelated problems of hunger and food production and distribution. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) price index, which takes into account the variations in the prices of grains, dairy products, meat, sugar and oil, rose 57% over the previous year. In addition, world food reserves were at their lowest levels since 1980.

Food security, a concept developed in the 1970s, was initially conceived as a problem of insufficient production and availability of food. In the 1980s, however, Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, showed that the problem was not a lack of food, but that people did not have access to the food due to prices and uneven distribution. Thus the concept of access was added to the idea. In the 1990s, other considerations were incorporated into the concept of food security, such as the safety of the food supply and cultural preferences. Additionally, the concept was recognized as a basic human right. The right to food was first recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It implies a legal requirement that the state guarantee access to a sufficient amount of food of acceptable quality for its citizens.

The current definition of food security, as established by the FAO at the World Food Summit in 1996, and renewed at another summit in 2009, is a situation in which “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to safe and nutritious food that meets their nutritional needs and consumption preferences so they can live active and healthy lives.” Four aspects are emphasized: adequate availability of food, direct access to food (ability to produce for one’s own use) or the ability to acquire it, the stability of the supply (without fluctuations or scarcity) throughout the year and good quality and safety of the food available.

In the United States, the European Union and other developed countries, the first three aspects are generally met, so the most important issue is the quality and safety of the food, including incidents of contaminated food, and problems of poor nutrition and subsequent obesity. By contrast, in the less developed countries, including Latin America and the Caribbean, the issue is mostly focused on the relationship between food security and poverty and the lack of access to sufficient food by the poorest sectors of society.

In recent years, some have proposed adding other considerations, such as the origin of food production (national or international) and the form of production (rural/family or commercial/corporate). This broader and more complex concept is generally identified by the term “food sovereignty,” which is defined as the right to food that is nutritional and culturally appropriate, accessible, and produced in an ecological and sustainable fashion, and the right to choose one’s own system of food supply and production. Proponents of food sovereignty are critical of neo-liberal free trade policies and corporate control of the food supply. They argue that these policies have led to the destruction of agriculture in poor countries, especially by small farmers, and have therefore weakened local food security.

Food security is intrinsically related to sustainable development, which is usually conceived as a development that balances intertwined social, economic and ecological elements. The lack of food security makes it harder for people to achieve a good quality of life and traps them in poverty, because hunger and malnutrition make it difficult to work. This affects social (and human) development, as well as economic development. According to the World Bank and the International Labour Organization, malnutrition in developing countries causes economic losses of between 2% and 3% of GDP and 10% of personal income. It is also estimated that well fed workers can increase GDP by approximately 1% per year. At the same time, ecological degradation, whether due to human or natural forces, also affects food security by displacing people from their land, destroying agricultural land and crops, etc. Social processes such as migration from the countryside to cities, spurred by a lack of jobs and social services in rural areas, also affect food security, because unlike in the country, where people can grow the food they consume, in the city they are almost totally dependent on buying food.

Food security in the Caribbean

In the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, access to food, determined by the levels of hunger and malnutrition among the population, is the most important measurement of food security. It is also closely tied to levels of extreme poverty, unemployment and price inflation.

The 2009 FAO report Outlook on Food and Nutritional Security in Latin America and the Caribbeannoted that between 1990 and 2005 the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were able to achieve progress in food security, reducing the number of malnourished people from 53 million to 45 million, in contrast to the global trend of increasing hunger during the same period. In terms of caloric energy availability (kcal/person/day), the Caribbean showed the most significant increase in the LAC during that period. Availability went from 2300 kcal to more than 2550 kcal per person per day (+10.8%). Among the Caribbean countries, Cuba achieved the greatest increase (20.6%), placing it in the top position in food energy level in the region for 2005 (3280 kcal/person/day). The FAO has determined that the minimum requirements for LAC countries are 1850 kcal per capita/day for 2003-2005. St. Vincent and the Grenadines achieved the second largest percentage increase (18.7%), followed by Jamaica (12.7%). Three countries showed a decline in this measurement: Antigua and Barbuda (-12.4%), Grenada (-5.6%), and St. Kitts and Nevis (-3.8%). In net terms in 2005, Dominica (3070 kcal/person/day), Barbados (2930 kcal/person/day) and Jamaica (2810 kcal/person/day) followed Cuba with the highest levels of food energy. The country with the worst food energy in the Caribbean in 2005 was Haiti (1,840 kcal/person/day), which fell into the “low income and food deficit” category. The next worst were Antigua and Barbuda (2200 kcal/person/day) and the Dominican Republic (2300 kcal/person/day), placing them in the risk category for availability of food energy.

Haiti has by far the worst food security in terms of the percentage of the population (59%) suffering from malnutrition (see Table). It is followed by the Dominican Republic (24%), Antigua and Barbuda (22%) and Grenada (20%). Barbados, Cuba and Dominica are now in the best positions with less than 5% of their populations malnourished.

Country% Malnourished
Antigua and Barbuda22
Dominican Republic24
St. Kitts and Nevis16
St. Lucia8
St. Vincent and the Grenadines5
Trinidad and Tobago11

Source: FAOSTAT 2011

The FAO report cited above shows that the food security situation in the region has significantly worsened since 2005. The increase in international food prices, along with the financial and economic crisis, has affected family finances, reducing access to food and other basic goods and, as a result, increasing poverty and hunger. Natural events (climate change and natural disasters) have increased the uncertainty and vulnerability of the poorest households. Unexpectedly, agricultural producers did not respond to the price increases by raising production. On the contrary, increased input costs and natural events led to a decline in production. Meanwhile, declining exports and sources of external financing (due to the economic crisis) reduced the governments’ abilities to provide support to strengthen food security.

This crisis has reversed many of the advances in food security over the recent decades. For example, in 2008 and 2009, malnutrition in the LAC region increased by 12.8% to a total of 53 million people, the same number as in 1990-92. The most affected countries are net importers of food and energy and those with high levels of poverty. The magnitude of the crisis could increase even more, as it is expected that higher food prices and weak economic conditions will continue.

At the same time, other studies have found that free trade has decreased agricultural production in the Caribbean, especially due to cheaper imports from the United States. This has transformed the region from a net exporter of food to the region that is most dependent on food imports in the world, according to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture. In Antigua and Barbuda, for example, the import-export ratio tripled from 1995 to 2000. Currently, the Caribbean imports about 75% of the food its population consumes, at a total cost of $3.5 billion a year. Barbados, for example, pays about $350 million a year for food imports. It is predicted that this production deficit will continue to increase unless sustained actions are developed to increase production.

Finally, there are several influences that threaten the availability of food and stability of prices (and therefore food security) in the future: the region’s demographic changes, in particular the aging of the population; the growing concentration of production, processing and distribution of food in a few businesses (supermarkets, for example), which facilitates monopolistic pricing practices; the quality or safety of the food; climate change; the high costs of agricultural inputs (for example, fertilizer); producers’ lack of access to credit; and the rapid expansion of the production of biofuels.

Food security policies in the Caribbean

Most of the LAC countries do not have food security plans. All have policies and programs, however, that address some of the related aspects, such as projects and programs to support small and medium-sized farmers and rural development, social security and nutrition (for example, “Eating is First” in the Dominican Republic). In the face of the crisis, all countries have tried to strengthen these programs and control the internal prices of basic foods. At the regional level, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has begun to develop strategies to strengthen food security in the region, such as collaborating in the reconstruction of the agricultural sector in Haiti, implementation of protocols that guarantee health and phytosanitary certificates for businesses, and a project in cooperation with McGill University (Canada) to implement sustainable agriculture technologies that increase availability and diversity of agricultural products.

In the medium and long terms, the FAO recommends that the LAC countries focus on increasing national agricultural production by supporting small-scale agriculture, developing more competitive markets, improving agricultural labor conditions, developing policies to manage risk (climactic and financial), and strengthening social protection systems. Finally, international aid is crucial for overcoming the crisis and ensuring food security.


Author: Gustavo García Lápez
Published: September 02, 2014.

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