Published on The Jakarta Post (http://www.thejakartapost.com)
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 19:05 PM
Food security and the freedom for all
Agus Pakpahan, Jakarta | Sun, 06/26/2011 7:00 AM
The issue of food shortage and food price increase recently has drawn attention from national and world leaders.
The attention has mainly been focused on its adverse impacts on consumers, especially those in developing countries who spend most of their income on food.
Importing food to satisfy short-term shortages has usually been chosen as the most feasible option because people cannot wait for harvests to arrive in four months time.
The greater the demand for imported food, the higher international food prices will be.
So, increasing food imports is not necessarily favorable for exporting countries because it may backfire on them.
When stocks of food get below the minimum level that keeps prices at an affordable level for poor consumers, market mechanisms will no longer be the appropriate tool to balance food supply and demand.
If food prices are allowed to increase according to market mechanisms, there will be a significant number of poor families facing starvation, as was the case in Bang-ladesh in 1943, when more than a million people died. Amartya Sen proved that Bangladesh’s famine at that time was not a result of insufficient food supplies, but because of the inability of poor consumers to buy the food.
In my opinion, following Sen’s argument, in order to avoid such bad experiences, a short-term solution is to develop efficient and effective food distribution and delivery systems under a rationing mechanism. For Indonesia, the functional capabilities of the State Logistics Agency (Bulog) and households’ care, attitude and discipline toward just and fair distribution and delivery of food play a key role.
Where does the concept of freedom fit into our discussion?
In this context, the concept of freedom is conditioned by two situations. The first is the meaning of freedom in a situation where food is abundant; and, second, freedom where there is a shortage of food.
The concept of freedom has two dimensions, namely individual, and social (which could be national or global depending on the boundary we use for analysis) levels of freedom. Freedom is referred to as a situation where there are choices or opportunities available to households, a society or a country according to their capabilities and what they want.
In a rationing model when foods are in deficit then, for example, creating an orderly and just household line will ensure that everybody receives an equal amount of food. However, when food is abundant then the meaning of freedom is where households can choose food according to their preferences, in an orderly market. A disorderly market refers to a situation such as the famine that struck Bangladesh in 1943.
Of course, we understand that an abundance of food is better and preferable. Here we are talking about a longer-term point of view. In production economic literature, we are taught that a long term is a situation when a fixed input becomes a variable one.
From a more pragmatic point of view, if we can change a given situation for example improving access to water through building dams and irrigation networks, we can successfully solve our long-term problems. What we do here is a form of public investment.
So, investment in agriculture and food systems is the minimum we must do to ensure an abundance of food in the future.
We can learn from the experiences of developed countries such as the US or European Union. Food abundance in those countries not only reflects functions of land or technology availability. One of the most important strategic factors is also laws and regulations behind the supply of food.
In the US, the basic institution created by president Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act of 1862, was responsible for agricultural land distribution to farmers, and the Morrill Act of 1862 was responsible for the application of science and technology, through Land Grant University systems, and the United States Department of Agriculture that was formed to draft and implement agricultural policies for the best interest of farmers.
In my opinion, an abundance of food in developed countries is a result of a broader and deeper conceptualization of the meaning of food security. Food security is understood to be a kind of public good, and food insecurity is a sort of public bad. Therefore, the approximate cost (price) of famine is equivalent to the amount the public is willing to pay to avoid famine. Agricultural subsidies that go to farmers in developed countries can be viewed as the cost borne by all consumers to avoid hunger or famine.
As we have seen, food not only serves a biological function, but also serves as the minimum requirement for the functioning of democratic societies and freedom for all citizens. Therefore, investing in an abundant food supply simply translates to maintaining freedom and democracy for all.
The writer is a researcher and chairman of the Union of Associations of Indonesian Estate Crops Farmers.