As the deadline for the MDG’s and WFS’s Rome Declaration, 2015 provides an opportune moment to take stock of both the achievements and future challenges to global food security. Despite almost halving the proportion of the world’s undernourished over the past two and half decades, the number of undernourished people in the world remains staggeringly high. With their massive populations, it is clear that addressing global state of food insecurity must target China and India. In spite of the enormous achievements made in reducing hunger in both countries, it is estimated that India and China continue to have 191 million and 151 million undernourished people respectively, making them home to the world’s highest and second highest number of undernourished people.116 Furthermore, the contemporary challenges to food security in China and India – climate change, water scarcity and other environmental issues which directly affect the way food is produced; growing populations and increasing wealth which have placed greater pressure on food demands; and growing geographic and economic inequality which have led to uneven access to food even where there is sufficient aggregate food availability – reflect the broader challenges to food security faced at the global level.
In line with these contemporary challenges, we have witnessed a shift, over the past few decades, in how to approach food security. Traditionally premised on securing food availability by growing more food and reducing population rates to sustainable levels, greater attention is now being paid to food access and people’s entitlement’s to food. Since the late 1990s, greater global attention has been paid to the concept of the right to food with the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and an increasing number of countries beginning to incorporate the right to food in their domestic laws. More recently, the focus has shifted to a more human centred focus which places people’s capabilities to not only access but also to make adequate use of food for an active and healthy life at the centre of the equation. This newer approach places greater attention on the importance of nutrition, health and adequate sanitation.
Over the decades, food security policies in China and India have, in line with global trends, shifted from being predominantly pre-occupied with food availability, towards a greater emphasis on food access and more recently on food use through a greater focus on nutrition and health. On the back of significant increases in food production stemming from India’s Green Revolution and China’s introduction of a household responsibility system, both countries have used input subsidies, public stockholding and minimum government procurement prices as agricultural incentives to ensure food availability. Having invested heavily in attaining food self-sufficiency, both countries have, until recently, largely secured sufficient aggregate food availability for their populations. However, new challenges are now being posed to ensuring sufficient food availability, particularly in China, due to increasing consumption of animal products stemming from the growing middle class.
In contrast, the two countries apply markedly different approaches to address access to food. India has focused on making subsidized grains available to the poor through the country-wide public distribution system, while China has implemented an income transfer program and non-food based social safety net to help the poor. China’s approach focuses on poverty alleviation more generally, rather than specifically targeting food. In addition, the right to food movement has gained momentum in India through the work of civil society actors who have pushed their claims through the Supreme Court. The success of these claims have been used to enforce the delivery of subsidized grains through the public distribution system and push the expansion of government run nutrition programs. In China there is still no legal right to food provided in either law or policy. India’s readiness to embrace the right to food has had promising implications for ensuring public access to food and the expansion of government run nutritional programs. In spite of weaknesses in in State led interventions, an active civil society and a responsive and activist judiciary in India has ensured that the food security agenda stays on the forefront.
China and India, have both adopted measures to improve nutrition in the official policy documents on food security. In India, efforts to improve nutritional intake have mainly focused on government run nutrition programs target vulnerable segments of the population, notably pregnant women and young children. Although government policies have emphasized the need to strengthen nutrition and health education amongst the population, efforts are likely to be hindered by low education and literacy levels. In China, there are “very few direct nutritional interventions” with information dissemination on nutrition being limited in scale and usually unorganized. Instead food use targets continue to target the supply side to provide incentives for farmers to grow more healthy foods and increasingly by strengthening rural access to healthcare. This appears to be a missed opportunity given the enormous potential presented from the high educational capabilities of the country’s population.
A comparison of the approaches to food security in China and India ultimately reminds us that an approach centred on human dignity requires more wide-ranging investment in people’s capabilities. In terms of securing access to food, China’s broader poverty alleviation strategies have generally been deemed to be more successful than India’s more specific food subsidies approach, which is perceived to be less efficient and subject to widespread leakage and waste. China’s income transfer program and non-food based social safety ultimately places more choice in the hands of the poor in making their own economic decisions. Furthermore, China’s heavy investment in education and health, particularly for its rural populations, provides significant opportunities when it comes to public education on nutrition, sanitation and health. Education on food use cannot focus singularly on campaigns and knowledge transfer, but must address the broader issue of how readily the population is able to use and apply such information. Ultimately, a human dignity based approach to food security strategies must go hand in hand with broader tactics aimed at empowering people by enhancing their capabilities.
Nandini Ramanujam, D.Phil in Economics, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom; Associate Professor (Professional) Faculty of Law McGill University, Executive Director and Director of programs, McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, Montreal Canada. Contact: email@example.com
Stephanie Chow, LL.M in Comparative Law at McGill University, Montreal, Canada; Research Assistant at the Centre of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Contact: Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org
1 World Food Summit 1996, “Rome Declaration on World Food Security”, online: