The concept of food security is a relatively recent twist on a much-older set of concerns about rural development, agrarian change, hunger and famines, and processes of modernization and “de-peasantization.” The rapid rise of the concept of food security—reflected in early-21st-century journals (Food Security was launched in 2009) and an avalanche of publications (515,000 Google Scholar “hits” since 2010, compared to 121,000 between 1990 and 1995)—is the product of a confluence of factors. These include a food price spike and fears about food scarcity in 2007–2008 (accompanied by food riots in many countries); increased fears about the long-term impacts of climate change on global agriculture; the global population passing seven million, and rising living standards in countries such as China and India, meaning rising demand for meat and dairy products; changing cultural norms and discourses about food consumption and their intersections with race, gender, and religion; and a broadening of the security agenda and academic discipline since the Cold War to encompass “new security threats” and issues such as food, water, environmental degradation, and so on. It is in this context that long-standing concerns over the supply and safety of our food (concerns that have mobilized political action since the earliest human societies) have been prominently “securitized” in the early 21st century. Securitizing food means framing it as a security issue—perhaps even an existential threat of some kind, requiring exceptional responses—rather than an issue of development, trade, agricultural science, or natural flux, for example. The concept of food security is therefore broad, drawing on a range of disciplines and concerns, as well as being located within a relatively narrow tradition of thinking about security within international relations. The most-important strands of research on food security within this tradition can be divided into approaches that are focused more on problem solving or on more-critical methods, and all have made some contributions to thinking about the causes or drivers of food insecurity. They have also contributed to the study of the range of political interventions or responses intended to ensure food security, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization as the condition where “all people at all times have access (including physical, social and economic access) to sufficient, safe and nutritious food necessary to lead active and healthy lives.” Critical perspectives in particular have drawn attention to some of the unintended consequences of these interventions, and the risks of securitizing food. Some measures to ensure food security have produced resistance and protest, and counterdiscourses of food sovereignty have emerged in the early 21st century to challenge the concept of food security. The influence of these counterdiscourses has been profound, and food sovereignty movements have led to a broader transformation of how the politics of food is understood and practiced.
Discussions of food security are necessarily interdisciplinary and involve economists, natural scientists, sociologists, political scientists, historians, anthropologists, geographers, public health experts, and scholars in international relations. Orienting oneself in these debates can be difficult, therefore, because much of the research assumes some knowledge of subdisciplinary debates. Kiple 2007 provides the most wide-ranging account of ten thousand years of food history. Shaw 2007 delivers an accessible introduction to the previous seventy years of international attempts to govern food security, and Brown 2012 gives an overview of the current “state of the world” for nonspecialists, with a particular focus on more recent geopolitical competition over land, water, and food. Dupont and Thirlwell 2009 is a good overview of the different dimensions of the 2008 food price crisis, while Barrett 2013, Carolan 2013, and Devereux 2007 are useful introductions to the broader range of issues and debates within the field. Drèze and Sen 1991 is a good route into some of the more complex and specialist debates about food security politics. Shepherd 2012 provides a nice take on linking food security debates to theories of international relations.
Barrett, Christopher B., ed. Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
A collection of essays by a wide range of experts from across disciplines, including economics, climate science, agricultural science, development studies, and international relations. The theme is the impact of food price rises and food scarcity on sociopolitical stability: Will food riots cause more governments to fall?
Brown, Lester R. Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. London: W. W. Norton, 2012.
The latest book from one of the world’s most famous environmentalists, and founder of the WorldWatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute. Accessible and written for a popular rather than specialist audience, this gives a good overview of the relationships among food, water, climate, and politics. “Food is the new oil,” according to Brown.
Carolan, Michael S. Reclaiming Food Security. Earthscan Food and Agriculture. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013.
This is a sociological and conceptual take on food security, reviewing the evolution of the concept and arguing that it is necessary to reclaim older meanings of the term that assess the degree to which our food systems actually make us better off, rather than simply providing us with cheap calories.
Devereux, Stephen, ed. The New Famines: Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalization. Routledge Studies in Development Economics 52. London: Routledge, 2007.
A collection of essays that explore the paradox of the persistence of famine in the modern world: How is it possible that more than one million people have died in famines since the world declared “never again” after Ethiopia in 1984? Chapters discuss concepts (e.g., “food priority regimes”), cases (e.g., Sudan in 1998), and issues (e.g., the technology of genetically modified [GM] food).
Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action. Studies in Development Economics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
A classic text drawing on theories of entitlements and capabilities to explore what public authorities can do to alleviate or prevent hunger and famine. Cases discussed include India and China, and the authors emphasize the importance of social action on basic health care, elementary education, and food programs.
Dupont, Alan, and Mark Thirlwell. “A New Era of Food Insecurity?” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 51.3 (2009): 71–98.
Accessible and detailed explanation of the 2008 food crisis that places it in its historical context and draws out the implications for policymakers and business. Good data on prices, production, trade, water, population, climate, GM crops, and government policies in all these areas.
Kiple, Kenneth F. A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Ten thousand years of food history are wonderfully synthesized and related here, from one of the world’s leading historians of food. The shift in human food production from foraging to farming is told with a light touch, and chapters on more-modern topics discuss food art, fast food, obesity, and genetic modification of crops.
Shaw, D. John. World Food Security: A History since 1945. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Seeks to provide a comprehensive history of the numerous attempts made since the Second World War to provide food security for all, and discusses why some succeeded and others did not. Organized chronologically with a focus on international organizations and conferences.
Shepherd, Benjamin. “Thinking Critically about Food Security.” Security Dialogue 43.3 (2012): 195–212.
Useful introduction to conceptual debates about security within the field of international relations, and their relevance to food. Explores the tensions between human security (e.g., alleviating the hunger of populations) and state or corporate security (e.g., state sovereignty or economic growth) and defends an approach to hunger that uses the “emancipatory realism” security project of Ken Booth and the Welsh school of critical security studies.
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