Commemorating Indonesia’s 69th independence, it is interesting to look at the meaning of independence in relation to food. In his 1941 presidential address, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized that there are four forms of freedom that should be inherent in every individual – freedom of expression, belief, from fear, and from basic needs (clothing, food, shelter). Governance should always be based on this spirit of freedom.

In this regard, food security should also embody this spirit of independence. When we talk about food security, we are not just talking about the availability of food for the entire population. We are talking more broadly about human well-being in terms of nutrition, health, personal development and community life. This is what led Michael Carolan [1], a US expert in food sociology, to question the nature of food security: is it security of food, or security through food?

Security: ‘of’ or ‘through’ food?

If we are inclined towards the former definition (security of food), then this achievement will probably satisfy us. Post-Green Revolution, world agricultural production in the early 21st century has been able to produce 17% more calories for each individual than 30 years earlier [2]. Indonesia has achieved food self-sufficiency many times (1984 and 2008 to name a few), increased the calorie consumption of its population in the last 40 years, and reduced the percentage of malnutrition from 22% in 1991 to just 9% in 2012 [3]. What’s more, both Indonesia and the world are working hard to boost agricultural production to produce even more – be it by opening up new farmland, or through genetic engineering technology that can increase yields by orders of magnitude. In short, the world has gotten much better at achieving food security.

What’s wrong with the above argument? In reality, the issue of food security is more than just providing enough food for people. The FAO reported in 2009 that what causes the world’s one billion people to be food insecure is not insufficient production, but people’s lack of access to food, either because food prices are too high or incomes are too low. On the other hand, increasing calorie consumption cannot be a benchmark for achieving food security. In many developed countries, obesity due to overeating and unbalanced diets has become a very crucial issue. In the US, for example, more than 30% of the population is obese, and millions of people die each year from obesity-related diseases (cholesterol, heart attacks, diabetes, etc.) [4]. Furthermore, in many developing countries such as Asia Pacific and Africa, people are forced to change their diet (to wheat) under the pretext of food security, resulting in cultural transformation and loss of food independence. It is clear from this that the much-touted food fulfillment strategy does not fully achieve food security – the security to live a healthy, decent and full life.

Various definitions of ‘food security’

Debates about the nature of food security are not new. In 1992 alone, there were already hundreds of different definitions of ‘food security’. Food security was originally defined in industrial terms: ‘how much a society has access to food for their energy needs’. Food security was measured by the number of calories available compared to the calories needed. A root vegetable, legume, vegetable or fruit (each with different nutritional values) is reduced to a calorie number. This led to food homogenization, and narrowed the world’s food choices to just a few commodities.

In the Green Revolution, increased agricultural production was considered the best solution to achieving food security. At that time, ‘food security’ was often equated with ‘food self-sufficiency’ – how capable a country was of producing food for its citizens’ consumption. Indonesia used this definition to demonstrate its achievement of food security. It is unfortunate that self-sufficiency was later narrowed down to the commodity ‘rice’ – while we had enough rice, we still had to import sugar and soybeans at high prices. In the early 1990s, this view began to be challenged. A new definition of food security emerged: that food security is not only about availability, but also access to food.

Presumably, this definition is the basis for the rise of free trade in food. The WTO argues that food security lies not in a country’s ability to produce food for itself, but in international trade that allows food to be sold at competitive prices, and in the ability of countries to import food through the export of their superior products. Simply put, if countries compete to produce food as cheaply as possible, then the poor can easily access that food. This, of course, is not entirely true. African countries, for example, grow cash crops that they do not consume at all – not even from their local diversity. Through the logic of free trade, these countries imported (at the time) cheap food instead.  In fact, with climate change accompanied by the economic crisis in 2008, world food prices soared and their farms failed, leading to famine and unrest in many places.

In 1996, the World Food Summit formulated a new definition of food security, namely “the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and preferences, in order to achieve a healthy and active life”. This definition seems more comprehensive. ‘Nutritious’ means balanced in nutrients, and no longer just in calories. ‘Choice’ means in accordance with the cultural values of the community. ‘Healthy and active’ indicates that food security is more than just security over food, but through food; that food should be able to help people prosper to lead healthy and active personal and social lives.

This definition, while better than the previous one, is clearly still full of flaws. First, it is too broad a definition. Many parties have subsequently offered more tangible concepts. La Via Campesina, for example, declared the concept of food sovereignty (the sovereignty of states and local communities to determine their own food systems, based on sustainably managed local resources). Secondly, in practice ‘food security’ is difficult to measure. As a result, we often fall back on conventional methods of measuring how much we are food secure – calories, yields or income.

Closing remark

It is important to realize that food security, as a concept, cannot stand alone, and therefore cannot be used as a measure of food success. Food security is part of the larger concept of freedom and empowerment. It should be the spirit for food fulfillment that is oriented towards human well-being, and not towards caloric sufficiency; towards a full life, and not a full stomach; towards ‘resilience’, and not towards ‘food’.


[1] Carolan, M. 2013. Reclaiming Food Security. Routledge.

[2] Dillon, H.S. 1999. Trade & Food security in Indonesia. IAMA Conference, Florence.

[3] FAOStat. 2014.

[4] WHO. 2014.

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