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A distribution network puts food on the plate

ht view Updated: Mar 25, 2014 21:30 IST

It’s interesting how some concepts can be mobilising, and their relevance apparently self-evident, while they probably escape any simple analytical definition. ‘Happiness’ could be one, despite the celebrated Bhutanese innovation in producing statistics on gross national happiness.

‘Food security’ is another. It has been associated with a concern over food price volatility, and the movement of prices was also instrumental in sustaining the debate in India that led to the adoption of the food security Bill in 2013.

In many places, food security is equated with the challenge of producing ‘enough food’ to satisfy the needs of the world’s population. In a nutshell, though, prospective studies about global supplies seem to suggest that there is little global technical concern on quantities, but the real issue seems to be one of distribution and access.

More than a concern over global quantities, there is a legitimate concern about access to food, which calls on economics (price and market conditions, which already introduces the demand side) and logistics (infrastructure to deliver food). Nonetheless, the idea that nations should produce enough food for their citizens suggests that the economic and logistical unit of analysis is and should be the nation, which is misleading.

Given the respective distribution of demographic pressures, climate change issues and productive potential, imposing a balance between production and consumption at the level of each nation would create undue and costly constraints.

This means that international trade will have to play an important role in the future. Another dimension of the ‘supply’ equation is the ability to face food crises, and to shift supplies of food in large quantities and short spans of time to populations affected by these crises. Here again, logistics and trade arrangements will matter.

This is not to say that a focus on food productivity is not necessary. In many developing countries, higher farm productivity is key to raising national income and to allowing the process of urbanisation to proceed efficiently. This is how developed countries managed the structural transformation from primarily rural economies to industrial powerhouses. Beyond supply concerns, though, demand also matters, and focusing on demand widens the horizon from an approach mainly concerned about dietary energy (how many calories are available) to one also determined by the quality of nutrition.

Pierre Jacquet is president, Global Development Network
The views expressed by the author are personal