by Marion Nestle
Aug 12 2011

Q and A: global food security

Q. I’ve just been thinking about this in light of the current situation – the worst drought in 60 years. Do you think that there is more awareness of global food security, the global food system and ‘our responsibility’?…I find this a complex issue and I think it is incredibly important we don’t forget it as other news items are prioritized.

A. Your question arrived just as the New York Times put another one of those devastating photographs of a starving child on its front page, this time to illustrate the famine in Somalia.

Like all famines, this one is politically induced.  What’s going on in Somalia these days is a consequences of a lengthy colonial history.  A colleague and I wrote a controversial paper about such issues more than 15 years ago (see Nestle M, Dalton S. Food aid and international hungerr crises: the United States in Somalia. Agriculture and Human Values 1994;11(4):19-27)

At the time, I was struck by how often the history of humanitarian aid repeats itself.  We keep making the same mistakes. 

This is because it seems—and in the case of Somalia is—much easier to deal with the immediate demand for food aid than to address the underlying politics that caused the problem in the first place.   

But if we don’t deal with the underlying politics, the same tragedies occur again and again.  

More awareness? I don’t see it happening—just increasing feelings of helplessness in the face of so much human misery. 

What to do?  I have no answers.  Somalia is too dangerous for amateurs. 

Readers: Thoughts?  Suggestions for action?

  • Roxanne

    Somalia needs a stable government. Until then, the famine will just continue. The issue isn’t having enough food to give to them; the problem is getting it to the people. As long as the EU and the USA are in dire economic straights, there won’t be enough collective energy for a global focus on Somalia.

  • There seems to be enough collective energy to focus on wars in other countries – why no energy for Somalia?

  • Joe

    I even agree with Ms. Nestle on this one.

  • Michael Bulger

    If any readers are Twitter users, I’d suggest they follow FAOnews. (I think this link might work:!/FAOnews).

    It has been very helpful to me, in that it has provided insight into how long-term agricultural and economic development can prevent this from happening again. The impression that is given is that immediate food aid would best be supplemented with constructive aid which allows the region to develop the practices and infrastructure needed to strengthen their food security. At issue is not whether the world desires to help. At issue is how that humanitarian effort manifests.

  • I agree that the issues are political…and it is funny (not in a ha ha way) how the propositions for solving the problem are usually about production and raising yields.

    I do think, however, rather than approaching the problem with assumptions of food security, the focus should be on food sovereignty. That shift in perspective can help change the assumptions about hunger and production. Food security represents a neoliberal approach to development, and the focus is on quantity and calories, while food sovereignty treats the ability to produce food for oneself as a human rights issue and as a cultural issue. It is more in keeping with approaches that are about fostering development with dignity.

  • Ben

    decrease use of grains (ie reduced meat consumption) could push down prices which would make them more affordable for third world nations.

    I’m not sure that would help somalia though

  • phil

    Thank you Stephanie, well said.

    It’s much more than perspectives (it is politics in fact) and the change you suggest is a necessary precondition to prevent similar tragedies from repeating times and again.
    Yet, sovereignty lies above the individual level (we the people, right?) and it is therefore the relevant communities’ ability to choose what/how to produce for themselves that is crucial.

    So, Ms Nestle, why not waging a food sovereignty campaign from your reputable pulpit? Awareness will not emerge unless we fight for it. Otherwise, we’ll keep talking in circles around problems that were brightly frames since the late ’70s, when Susan George flatly observed that “the problem of hunger is not one of technology or organization but of politics” and “that hunger will automatically diminish when food production increases is a common but naïve assumption”.

    After all, you could replace domestic charity/philanthropy for food aid and see how much more than famine in poor countries is at stake in this ‘change of perspective’.

  • Charlie L

    I’m not sure what to do with Somalia either. Even concepts like food sovereignty are still too abstract to be pragmatic when you consider the perfect storm of problems plaguing Somlia:

    -Years of civil war, lack of basic infrastructure (including social safety nets), and dislocation of people along with tightned borders for refugees from nearby governments.

    -Lack of a significant export sector, making Somalia more reliant on imports and more sensitive to the vagaries of the international trading scene.

    -A very small, limited government that doesn’t influence or control much.

    -The group actually in charge of the country is deemed a terrorist organization by the US, so we can’t deal or really acknowledge them.

    -Runaway inflation due to different groups outside the limited government printing the Somali shilling. This contributes to de-valuing the currency, which makes food prices rise, thereby reducing affordability and access to food for most Somalis.

    -Somali pirates and other local clans confiscating imports (including aid) and making it more difficult to ensure humanitarian workers can safely and effectively deliver food to the right people.

    -Unrest over famine conditions.

    -The area most experiencing poverty in Somalia experiences severe weather extremities between flood and drought every few years.

    There are probably more items that could be included in this list of problems, but short of going in Iraq or Afghanistan style and trying to completely restructure such a country, what else do you do?

    My wife donated $50 to the International Red Cross because of what she’s seen on TV, but it’s not clear how much of it will actually help those most in need in Somalia.

  • Cathy Richards

    In 1992, or sometime about then, there was a lot of starvation in Somalia. There were regime coups in the works, and those in power or fighting for power knew the best way to control the masses was by keeping them hungry, and all the food aid dollars and food donations were basically redirected to finance/feed those leading the civil unrest. The US & UN sent in troops, and were making ground and getting food to the masses when “Black Hawk Down” happened in October ’93. The public outcry over the incident led to US withdrawal, and famine returned.

    I wish I could suggest a solution to this round of severe famine (is there any other kind? it seems there is). Usurping local government does not seem to work. War does not seem to work. Aid does not seem to work.

    Perhaps the answer lies in education of the masses, clean water. But how do we attain/maintain that?

  • Alexander

    Why don’t they just do organic farming and eat local? They have dirt. They have sunshine. Lord knows they have idle time on their hands. Perfect for subsistence farming! Just tell each of them to plant a herb garden alongside their swimming pools.

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  • “Even concepts like food sovereignty are still too abstract to be pragmatic when you consider the perfect storm of problems plaguing Somlia:”

    Yeah…at this point, the ability to engage in any sort of livelihood (beyond banditry) is compromised. Furthermore, there’s barely any sort of extension of aid since no one wants to work there. But, my point goes to food and agriculture programming in general. The ability to produce food should be treated more as a human rights issue. As it is now, the focus is really on the food itself, and it is divested of all cultural and social meaning. It even seems a little dissonant that the title of this blog is FoodPolitics, and that Dr. Nestle would favor a food security approach rather than a food sovereignty approach. Food security pretends as if there are no politics associated with food; it treats food mainly in quantitative ways. A food sovereignty approach explicitly recognizes the cultural and political aspects of food.

    I’m not clear, Charlie, on why food sovereignty is any more abstract than food security. We can look at lots of food systems, especially in the developing world, and discern how they are sovereign and where they are losing that sovereignty/where that sovereignty is being challenged. I’d venture to say that most foreign ag programming rests on the assumptions of food security, rather than food sovereignty.

  • “When you are starving you tend to approach food quantitatively.”

    Food emergency aid and agricultural development are quite different things. I just said that a food security approach informs ag development…I’m not talking about starving people. Yes…people who are starving (where is not where the majority of ag dev aid is going) are probably not too worried about where the food is coming from.

    I’m not speaking from a spiritual and preachy place. I’m speaking from a pragmatic perspective. Food sovereignty is about people building/keeping the means of production locally, and not depending on a global corporate food system.

    Furthermore, I don’t speak as a westerner without any knowledge of food production in the developing world. In fact, I just finished up research on an urban food system in Senegal. People there very much want to hold onto the means of producing their own food, but land is being allocated to westerners who come in and produce food for export (though some of it remains local).

    Food sovereignty has nothing to do with being spiritual and preachy, and everything to do with pragmatism and self-sufficiency.

  • phil

    Stephanie, thank you again for holding up but do not let petty arguments intimidate and confuse you. There’s nothing nobler than (to try) being spiritual – at least you have been overfed for a good reason. And preachiness is in the ear of the beholder, especially in blog comment section. On the other hand, pragmatic perspectives bring us back to the gist of the problem. Pragmatic (i.e. that works) for whom?

  • ” Pragmatic (i.e. that works) for whom?”

    I guess my main concern here is that people write off food sovereignty as being pie-in-the-sky idealism based on faulty knowledge. Much of the rhetoric in ag development positions local food systems as deficient, backwards and impoverished. That’s just not the case. Even if they don’t produce like an industrial system and don’t subscribe to that brand of efficiency, there are other factors that circumscribe the character of food production. Ag development often tries to impose a certain kind of ag system based on a certain notion of what is good. Local food systems, OTOH, are emergent and *practical* based on local notions of pragmatism. What works, and what can be used to improve food production system, varies…as do the specific qualities of pragmatism….but if we are following a food sovereignty approach, then it is the people in a given area…the producers and the consumers who should be directing the way the food system develops.

  • Kathy

    I would also argue that in addition to a stable government, many countries will benefit from birth control, clean water, infrastructure for addressing waste products, and vaccinations before they will substantially decrease the hunger problem.

    And Alexander, can be the only one who reminds you of their severe water shortage problem???

  • Fascinating 1994 article on the ethical and humanitarian issues of food aid to Somalia. Marion, I studied your work in one of my Health and Society courses in university. Your voice and research are very enlightening. Thank you.

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