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Scoping Workshop on Future Activities of ICSU on Food Security

January 25-26, 2002  Paris

Osman Galal, M.D., Ph.D.
Director and Professor
International Health Program
Secretary General, International Union of Nutritional Sciences

The term “food security” originated in the international development literature of the 1960s and 1970s, and at that time (and still in many usage’s) referred to the ability of a country or region to assure an adequate food supply for its current and projected population.  Food supply was measured as dietary energy supply, and issues of distribution and quality of the food supply were generally not considered.  Since that time there has been a great deal of attention to the concept of food security and its determinants within populations and at the household level as well as to issues of measuring food security (or its inverse, food insecurity) at the household level in large surveys.  Additionally, food security as a basic human right has been affirmed by a number of international conventions over the last two decades and elaborated in the international legal literature.

The most commonly accepted definition of food security at this time was promulgated by the Life Sciences Research Organization in 1991, as: “sustained access at all times, in socially acceptable ways, to food adequate in quantity and quality to maintain a healthy life.”  This definition can be operationalized at the individual and household level, and with minor modification can be applied to whole populations.  The definition incorporates several concepts —

  • Access (economic and social)
  • Sustainability or security of access
  • Availability of food supply, both quantitative and qualitative
  • Quality of food supply to include nutritional adequacy and safety

Defined in this way, food insecurity applies to a wide spectrum of phenomena ranging from famine to periodic hunger to worry about safety or security of food.

The definition of food security noted above also recognizes that hunger is a managed process at the household level – that many decisions and management strategies are used to assure food security by households at the expense, where required, of foregoing or postponing utilization of other basic goods and services including medical care, education, and in extreme cases, housing.  Thus stated, food insecurity can be measured and graded in populations; at the present time measures of household food insecurity are being incorporated into large national surveys and determinants and consequences of food insecurity are under active investigation in a number of cultural, ecological and disciplinary contexts.

Assuring food security for the world in the future depends on large-scale issues of food production, processing, and distribution as well as issues of economic and social accessibility within populations.  ICSU, as a federation of international scientific unions, is in an excellent position to focus efforts of the worldwide scientific community toward assuring that the basic human right to food security is met well into the future.  Scientific unions that comprise ICSU include those that deal with natural and human resources in agriculture, genetics, food policy, economics, marketing, food habits and behavior, and human nutrition.  There are few other integrative agendas for the international scientific community with as much commonality and immediate urgency as that of food security.

The closely intertwined problems of poverty, hunger, environmental distress and population increase, continue to press on us, demanding resolution.  Redoubled efforts to develop sustainable agriculture, particularly in the world’s poor regions where agriculture is a main occupation, is vital to their solution.  ICSU federation of international scientific unions is in a position to define and implement a research agenda that is innovative, appropriate, and effective.  This task involves a shift in the research agenda.

The IUNS is partnering with the United Nations Environment Programs (UNEP) and is planning to develop an econutritional solution for human subjects with a focus on the African population.  The aim is to work towards a shift from the food-health paradigm towards an ecological approach for a new policy direction, which takes into account poverty alleviation.  IUNS/UNEP are working together for establishing an environmental monitoring system to reinforce food safety. This activity will include the efforts of IUFoST as a member of the ICSU family.

The IUNS is pursuing a new policy of stressing the fact that regional/national problems need regional/national solutions.  Food security problem is not an exception and needs to be discussed under this notion. It is clear that agriculture reforms to increase food production is important to ensure food security to the millions in the world and must be seen important but it is not sufficient towards achievement of our real goal – the betterment of the human condition.

The role and plans for IUNS as a member of ICSU in dealing with the issue of Food Security will be presented at the workshop by Professor Mark Wahlqvist, the President and Professor Osman Galal, Secretary General. They will also set the stage on how other ICSU members could be involved.