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A country’s food security conditions clearly have implications for the types of policies its leaders will try to enact and for the way that country interacts with international organizations and governing bodies. Much effort has been made to classify countries according to their food and nutrition security status in order to better guide policymaking, but determining such classifications is complicated. According to a recent IFPRI Discussion Paper, the variables and methods used to construct food security typologies differ depending on the objectives of the particular classification exercise.

For example, some typologies focus on agricultural development issues and thus use agriculture-related variables. Such typologies would classify countries according to their dependence upon agriculture for overall economic growth and upon whether their poor populations are based mainly in rural or urban areas. Other typologies seek to analyze the interaction of trade and food security; these would utilize such variables as production and exports but would likely exclude other food security-related indicators, such as wasting or stunting in children t, that would be important for more general food security policymaking.
Thus, policymakers need to take these differences into account to ensure the classification they use is appropriate for the types of issues they want to address, as well as for their country’s specific circumstances. This requires a consideration of a country’s current economic conditions, where the policy in question would fit into the country’s budget, the structural aspects of the country’s economy and society, the heterogeneity of the country’s economic actors, and the global economic environment; dismissing any of these factors will often result in ineffective or even detrimental policies, says the paper’s authors.

The study also conducts a new cluster analysis of food security conditions with an emphasis on trade. The analysis uses five variables: domestic food production per capita (constant dollars per capita), a combination of calories and protein per capita, the ratio of total exports to food imports (food trade), the ration of the non-agricultural population to the total population, and the mortality rate for children under five years of age. Data covers the period 2009-2011 for 155 developed and developing countries. In terms of methodology, the raw values of the variables from each country are transformed into z-scores, and then hierarchical and k-means clustering methods are used. The first method determines that the optimal number of clusters for this particular study is 10; the k-means method then classifies all of the studied countries into one of these 10 clusters based on how they rate in each of the five variables. Clusters 1-4 are rated as food-insecure, while clusters 5-6 are food security-neutral and clusters 7-10 are food-secure.

Looking at clusters 1-6, the authors then construct a typology of food insecurity based on the five original variables (in this exercise, however, the food production and calories/protein variables are combined for simplification). The types of food insecurity are labeled based on whether the values are less than -0.5, between -0.5 and 0.5, or more than 0.5, and then a ranking of overall food insecurity is created based on the simple average of the values of all variables. Types I, II, and III are considered food-insecure, while Types IV and V are food neutral.

This typology can be used to analyze countries’ conditions in terms of the variables used and to lay out potential policy options to deal with those variables. For example, countries in the Type I category show the worst indicators in terms of under-5 mortality rate, suffer from low food production and food availability, have larger rural populations than urban, and have high food import bills. Most of these countries from the study group are located in Africa south of the Sahara and are considered Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
For Type 1I countries, the authors suggest that policies should focus on the expansion of agriculture and food production, as research has suggested that agriculture-led growth has larger effects on overall poverty reduction than growth in other sectors in low-income countries. Such programs could include increased investment in rural infrastructure and agricultural R&D, appropriate input subsidy programs based on a country’s soil conditions and important crop needs, and public programs that buy food from small farmers in order to support social safety nets such as school lunches. Policymakers will need to take into consideration, however, the fact that just because these countries are mostly rural does not mean that all farmers will be net food sellers; more detailed analysis of household expenditures on food will be necessary to ensure that policies do not harm poor consumers. For example, protectionist trade policies that aim to keep domestic food prices high (to support producers) would be bad for consumers and could have a negative effect on the country’s overall poverty. This point highlights the fact that policymakers need to consider their country’s unique circumstances and structures, both economic and social.

Most Type III countries are located in Asia and have less under-five mortality and better food production and availability than Type I countries. These countries also are less trade stressed but remain heavily rural. The author suggests that these countries should focus on improving human capital, productivity, and sustainability. Such programs could include investments in infrastructure and agricultural R&D. These countries still have need for strong social safety nets for both poor consumers and poor producers to protect against failed harvests or sharp price movements (either upward or downward).

The study raises several avenues for future research. The authors suggest that it will be useful to identify countries that have moved to more secure or more insecure clusters and find the reasons for those transitions. In addition, the definition of food production could be expanded to include fisheries, which are important for several developing countries; this could also move countries from inclusion as net food importers (under a definition without fisheries) to net food exporters, which could have important implications for those countries’ policies.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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