Food security involves a lot more than agriculture and food

Ruerd Ruben was recently appointed programme manager at LEI with special responsibility for food security. With World Food Day on the horizon he talks about his vision of food security and the best way to research it.

What is food security basically about?

In my vision food security is built on three pillars.

  1. The first is the nutritional value of food. Health is the keyword here, and the enrichment of food via the addition of micro-nutrients is another important aspect.
  2. The second is to get the produced food as efficiently as possible to people’s mouths and stomachs. This makes food security a chain issue. Interestingly, productivity is sometimes increased and product quality is improved early in the chain – in the primary production – but lost in later stages.
  3. Third, it concerns incentives to change behaviour in a way that will promote the availability of high-quality food, more conscious consumption and less waste. These behavioural aspects make food security a socio-economic issue as well.

One of the greatest challenges, as I see it, is to involve the nutritional pillar more. There is already synthesis between the chain and the behavioural components, but the integration with health needs to be stronger. You can see this in research as well as in the disconnection between agriculture and food on the one hand and health on the other in many national policies.

How should we approach global food security?

I always follow the Tinbergen Rule, which says that every objective needs its own instrument. So don’t try to kill two birds with one stone, because you will fail. This quest – which is basically about finding an answer to the question of what works – revolves around identifying the limiting factor. Knowledge of what does and does not have an impact lies, in my opinion, at the core of LEI research on food security. Underpinned answers to these questions form the basis of recommendations on which dials need to be turned in which direction – and where the positive and negative factors lie.

We must widen our horizons and not narrow down our search. This brings me to the second spearhead of my approach: Apply a broad perspective and dare to look beyond agriculture. I do not believe that the solution to a problem always lies in the same domain. I see examples of this all the time. Malnutrition among children in India is not caused by lack of food but by unhygienic latrines that cause diarrhoea. The problem is not the food itself but poor absorption by the body. Here’s another example. The food supply in Ethiopia could be vastly improved if there was better infrastructure. There are simply not enough roads. So, you see, the answer to better food security does not always lie only in the domain of agriculture and food. Interventions and investment in other areas can be crucially important. To see these outcomes you need to look beyond your own expertise. I call it ‘knowledge of the system’. I see it as essential in research on food security because it embraces much more than agriculture and food.

Is it right to stress the importance of food security by drawing attention to a projected rise in the world population from 7 to 9 billion by 2050?

Doom and gloom about a burgeoning world population will further endanger food security and are totally misplaced. The growth in the world population is an endogenous, not an exogenous factor. The increase is greatest in countries with limited food security. A better supply will create a buffer against continuing population growth.

Why is food security so important to the western world?

Although we are assured of food security here in the West, it is still a matter of concern to us. Food shortages lead to migration. More food security will lessen the chance of communities coming adrift. Food shortages also hinder the development of a healthier world population at the lower end of the market. Aside from the instability this causes, growth markets get fewer opportunities to unfold. And purchasing power needs to be created in lower market regions to keep food producers in business. The growth is not, after all, in the number of customers in prosperous countries where the population is stable or shrinking and the food market is more or less saturated.

Where will you place the emphasis in LEI research on food security?

I will try to combine the rich individual knowledge in the institute into larger units. I want to take this expertise outside. At the same time, I will draw the interests and knowledge requirements of society and politics into the institute. This is the interface I intend to work on. I will point out that agriculture is not the only driver behind the economy, and that national economic strategies are dictated by other forces and influences. To make an impact it is more likely that we will be cooperating with players from the world of finance than the world of agriculture.