Matthew Graziose is a PhD candidate in behavioral nutrition at Columbia University. Jennifer Denno Cissé is a PhD candidate at Cornell’s Dyson School. Both were members of the Junior Researcher Task Force at the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security following theme 1.
We are living in an increasingly globalized world, characterized by an ever more connected food system. While expanding global trade is regarded as a boon for ensuring the food security of the world’s poor, there are also many challenges associated with a more complex network of food and agricultural systems. Climate variability, price spikes and political instability all threaten the promise of a secure and stable food system. At this week’s 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security, many speakers addressed the regional, national and local drivers of food security and highlighted the challenges researchers and policymakers face when attempting to measure or improve food security.
The price of food directly impacts household access to safe and nutritious foods. Despite much research on the causes and predictors of food price spikes, much work remains to be done in this area. At this conference, Brian Dillon from the University of Washington explored how export restrictions in one country can have “knock-on” effects for staple food prices in an importing country. Other presenters found that different variables, such as financial speculation (Christian Otto) and biofuel policies (Harry de Gorter), also play a role in determining the international and local prices of food. A better understanding of the global drivers of price spikes would allow us to forecast more accurately, facilitating policy decisions and allowing policymakers to prepare for price shocks.
Qualitative and mixed methods
Political instability can be both a driver and the result of food insecurity. Food and agricultural systems today sprawl across geopolitical boundaries. Thus, food production shortfalls and policies in one area of the world are likely to have effects in disparate regions of the globe. Alison Heslin of Emory University explained how food insecurity and food price shocks combine with various factors to spark food riots. Using qualitative approaches in villages of Bangladesh and India, she analyzed the factors that caused food price shocks to turn into riots, including an analysis of the actors, livelihoods and disenfranchisement of workers and locations of riots. Her study will likely contribute to a better understanding of political unrest and could help us predict what local factors ignite manifestations. Other presenters used qualitative and mixed-methods approaches to improve understanding of local dietary changes in South Africa (Angela McIntyre) and coping during famine in Somalia (Daniel Maxwell). The insights these researchers bring to our understanding of food security will hopefully better inform quantitative food security work moving forward.
Methods and measurement
Understanding global food security is complicated by outdated methods and inaccurate data. For example, while we may be interested in the impact of new technologies on food security, evaluating those new agricultural technologies requires an accurate method to quantify yields. Stanford University’s Marshall Burke explained how crop yield estimates derived from farmer reports are often flawed due to field size and production mismeasurement issues, posing a challenge for our evaluations of new agricultural technologies. In his work, Dr. Burke shows that satellite images can help to properly estimate farm boundaries and harvests, together providing information about farmer yields. The use of innovative measurement methods, like this one, will help in the evaluation of local solutions to agricultural challenges, especially as climate variability increases the incidence of regional drought and flooding episodes. Other notable researchers presenting work on improving our ability to measure food production and food security included Birgit Meade, Mark Nord and Jennifer Denno Cissé.
As food and agriculture are gaining renewed interest amongst policymakers and practitioners, we must make use of our current knowledge to provide solutions to the challenges ahead. There is overwhelming agreement that assessing drivers of food security requires evaluation at several levels, from the global to the local. The work presented at this week’s food security conference shows the importance of ditching the one-size-fits-all approach and understanding how to tailor interventions to the local context without sacrificing rigor or comparability.