Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger Is So Hard

Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger Is So Hard

Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger Is So Hard

Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger Is So Hard


In countries that have managed to confront and cope with the challenges of food insecurity over the past two centuries, markets have done the heavy lifting. Markets serve as the arena for allocating society's scarce resources to meet the virtually unlimited needs and desires of consumers: no other mechanism can efficiently signal fluctuations in scarcity and abundance, the cost of labor, or the value of commodities. But markets fail at tasks that society regards as important; thus, governments have had to intervene to stabilize the economic environment and provide essential public goods, such as transportation and communications networks, agricultural research and development, and access to quality health and educational facilities. Ending hunger requires that each society find the right balance of market forces and government interventions to drive a process of economic growth that reaches the poor and ensures that food supplies are readily, and reliably, available and accessible to even the poorest households. But locating that balance has been a major challenge for many countries, and seems to be getting more difficult as the global economy becomes more integrated and less stable.

Food Security and Scarcity explains what forms those challenges take in the long run and short term and at global, national, and household levels. C. Peter Timmer, best known for his work on the definitive text Food Policy Analysis, draws on decades of food security research and analysis to produce the most comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of what makes a productive, sustainable, and stable food system--and why so many countries have fallen short. Poverty and hunger are different in every country, so the manner of coping with the challenges of ending hunger and keeping it at bay will depend on equally country-specific analysis, governance, and solutions. Timmer shows that for all their problems and failures, markets and food prices are ultimately central to solving the problem of hunger, and that any coherent strategy to improve food security will depend on an in-depth understanding of how food markets operate.

Published in association with the Center for Global Development.


This book draws on well over three decades of thinking about food security and the difficulty in achieving it. Even in the wake of the world food crisis in the mid-1970s, it was obvious that the problem was not the total amount of food produced, but the access of poor households to that food (Timmer 1977). Nevertheless, societies that had rapid increases in domestic food production also had dramatic gains in food security. In some fundamental sense, this is the food security dilemma. More food does not guarantee greater food security, but increases in local food production clearly help.

The dilemma can be resolved by identifying the population that has insecure access to food. It is largely rural households, engaged in agriculture but without enough land to produce enough food for their families. Efforts to raise their productivity (even if not directly in food production or the rural economy) have a dramatic impact on food security. Increased food production on small farms is just one way to raise their overall productivity and provide improved food security.

I have been trying to understand the food security dilemma for some time, and this book draws on much of my research and writing over the past several decades. Inevitably, given my experience, it has an Asian bias and a focus on the world rice economy. That is not all bad: Asia still has most of the world’s poor and food-insecure households, and rice has increasingly become the foodstuff of the poor. The lessons on how Asia has coped with these problems are well worth understanding for the light they shine on similar problems in other regions.

Part of the rationale for the long-term perspective of the analysis here is the opportunity to update my earlier writings to reflect transformational changes in the world food economy since the 1970s, in both food production and consumption (and, of course, the two are linked). Another rationale is to point out that “voices in the wilderness” were arguing decades ago that the development profession had misjudged the critical role of agriculture in . . .

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