Definition and Operationalization of Food Security

Published Oct 27, 2021

Jose Victor M. Jayme

Integrated Rural Development Foundation

Agriculture and food security are two highly interconnected issues that demand public attention. They are of utmost importance as they have a direct effect on people’s lives. With this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting happening a few months from now, it is high time that we closely examine what the organization has done in order to address this issue at a regional level.

The first part of this paper discusses the definition as well as the operationalization of food security as formulated by APEC. The second part of the paper reviews and critiques the policy direction of trade liberalization, which APEC is currently taking in its efforts to resolve the problem. Finally, the third and last part of the paper presents the concept of food sovereignty as a viable alternative.

Definition and Operationalization of Food Security

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, havephysical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needsand food preferences for an active and healthy life” (APEC, 2014)

Food security is a multi-faceted issue. It shares a dialectical relationship with a country’s political, economic, and cultural atmospheres among other factors. However, in order for us to graspthe concept fully, let us focus on its five basic dimensions. Namely, these dimensions are availability, physical access, economic access, utilization, and stability.

Availability pertains to the supply of food for a particular population. Can the country produce enough food for its people? Is it export-capable? Does it have a stockpile of agricultural products, or does it have to resort to importation?In order to be able to answer such questions,one also needs to examine the rural conditions in order to put things in context.

There are a number of factors that affect the availability of food supply and agricultural productivity. For instance, poverty, unemployment, and landlessness among small farmers would lead to the underutilization of an otherwise productive labor force. There is also the matter of how much the state invests in the sector. Aside from these, there is also the matter of agricultural eco system’s fragility to consider as well as the sector’s resiliency against the changing climate.

Physical access is the second dimension of food security. It pertains to the stability of the market supply chain and its ability to ensure that food is within the physical reach of vulnerable households. This particular dimension can be negatively affected by internal conflict and war. There is also the efficiency of farm-to-market roads to consider for this particular dimension.

The third dimension, economic access, refers to the ability of households to purchase the food they require. The changes of food prices as well as the real incomes and the purchasing power of consumersis of crucial importance here. This is especially true in populations with great disparities in wealth. Let us keep in mind that poor consumers in low income economies are the ones hardest hit by spikes in food prices. This would include poor farmers who are not able to produce more than they consume. Additional factors that affect this dimension would be income security, employment, economic policies, and the effects of supply on food prices.

The fourth dimension, food utilization, refers to the ability of a household to fully maximize the food that they purchase/produce. Proper utilization of food refers not only to the quantity of food a household is able to acquire, but also to the quality of food. The nutritional value of food is utmost importance here as well as the general health status of individuals. This means that even though a household may have the ability to acquire food, it may not necessarily be enough to say that that household is getting all that they need from it.

Aside from nutrition, food safety is also another aspect of utilization. Establishment of safety standards is of key importance, as food freshness needs to be ensured as food supply is transported from its source to the consumers.

The fifth and final dimension is sustainability. It refers to the long-term feasibility of the different dimensions as it exists in a particular context. This is paramount importance because food security is not a short term commitment. This question of sustainability demands a serious examination of the dynamics of the previous dimensions.

Critiquing the APEC Strategy of Trade Liberalization

“The priority toward 2020 will include trade facilitation in food and agricultural products, and improving governance frameworks. It is an important task to resist protectionism, eliminate trade distorting policies, and promote harmonization of standards and adherence to internationally recognized, science-based standards. Incentives, for example in the form of lower or zero tariffs for products that contribute to sustainable and inclusive growth through rural development and poverty alleviation, should also be pursued.” (APEC, 2014)

APEC identifies Enhancing Trade and Markets among its chief strategies in order to resolve the problems of food security and rural poverty. It endorses the adoption of structural adjustments fortrade liberalization. As explained by the passage above, the so-called disruptive trade policies need to be eliminated in order to facilitate the free flow of products among its member countries.

At first glance, the logic behind neoliberal policies such as this seems perfectly sound. After all, it claims to provide the necessary policy space that governments need. It would seem that this policydirection presentsadditional options on how governments can address their food security issues.However, by looking at the concrete effects of trade liberalization over the past years, one can clearly see that this is certainly not the case.

It is important to understand that trade liberalization cannot be separated from the policies of privatization and deregulation. Instead of alleviating the effects of food insecurity and rural poverty, the combination of these three policies have succeeded in achieving the exact opposite of its supposed goal.These neoliberal polices have aggravatedthe conditions of poor farmers and compromised food security.

This is primarily caused by the massive influx of cheap food imports and the creation of an export dependent agriculture. The problems of landlessness and poverty are dramatically exacerbated. Let us keep in mind that by following this policy direction, small farmers are forced towards bankruptcy. Because they can only produce so much, they are ultimately unable to compete with the significantly cheaper food imports that flood the market.

Liberalization also pushes agricultural land and resources to shift towards the production of crops for export. Farmers who are lucky enough to not lose their land are compelled to move away from their original crops in order to produce high-input cash crops. This effectively compromises the production and consumption of indigenous crops.

The farmers who follow this exportation trend will have to do it on their own as they will have to bear the brunt of the additional expenses for agrochemicals and other inputs by themselves.Waiting on government support would only be an exercise in futility.This is because government support systems are subsumed under the category of ‘trade distorting policies’ and therefore need to be eliminated. This would come in the form of reduced subsidies, privatization of state enterprises, abolition of price controls as well as the elimination of marketing boards.

The policy direction of APEC raises serious questions with regards to the basic dimensions of food security as it is defined. First, there is the question of food supply. As stated above, the local agricultural production is severely damaged by the cheap imports. Second, there is the question of economic access. Trade liberalization puts the livelihood of small farmers at great risk. While they can physically access the imported food on the market, it would be highly unlikely that they would be able to access them economically without an alternative source of income. Aside from this, being heavily dependent on market forces leaves economies and peoples especially vulnerable as they would have no protection against market forces running amok. Third, trade liberalization creates serious issues regarding sustainability. Its environmental effects are especially bothersome. For instance, monocropping and the use of agrochemicals have led to severe soil degradation and massive loss of biodiversity. It is also relevant to state here that the trade incentives of zero tariffs can also easily lead to the overexploitation of marine resources.

Food Sovereignty as an Alternative

Food security through trade remains elusive. With this framework, it is certainly more of a myth than a fact. All in all, for APEC to adopt the strategy of trade liberalization in order to address the issue of food security is a great piece of irony. This is the reason why it is of crucial importance for people’s movements to demand food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty is defined as the right of communities, peoples, and countries to determine their own agriculture and food systems/policies that fit their specific contexts. This is the radical alternative to the neoliberal framework of trade liberalization and even goes beyond the mere concept of security. Investing in agriculture, supporting local farmers, regulating trade, and asserting land rights are just a few of the concrete steps towards its realization.


APEC Food Security Map Towards 2020