Food security between supply and demand

with Aeyal Gross

Is food security a problem of supply or demand? If the two can be separated at all, that is. This paper will consider this topic through an examination of two different cases studies, one from within a national context, and the other a context of armed conflict, pointing to the similarities and differences between the contexts.

National context

Before the focus shifted to the housing process, the social protests in Israel in summer 2011 (around the same time as the rise of the global Occupy movement) started with protests about food prices.  But despite this, the issue of the right to food was almost completely excluded from the social reforms suggested by an informal think tank that came out of the protests. Instead, most of the discussion of food as a result of the protests actually took place in discourses from government bodies that tried to address the process, in a way that focused on the price of food. As a result, various reforms were suggested, and began to be implemented, to increase competition in the food market, based on the assumption that this would lead to a decrease in food prices. Another suggested reform that has not been implemented yet was initiated by the National Council on Food Security, and focused on the institutionalization and financing of food handouts to poor families, something already being carried out by various charities.

This paper considers food insecurity in Israel based on quantitative and qualitative research, and argues that the various reforms suggested after 2011 deal with supply, whereas some of the major causes of food insecurity lie with demand, i.e. the reduced buying power of poor families. It points to how general economic policies, including cuts in welfare, are at the root of the increase in food insecurity, and how reforms on the supply side are limited in what, if anything, they can achieve when it comes to food insecurity among the poor.

The paper further examines why the issue of food, although it triggered the protests, almost disappeared from the social discourse, pointing to how food is thought of as something occurring within the market paradigm, and that this is harder to fit into the discourse on rights, compared to, for example, health care, where the demand for rights is usually focused on the provision of public services. It also points to how the right to food is generally not considered something that needs to be addressed in “developed” countries, as reflected by the Director of the Israeli Ministry of Welfare in 2013, when he said that there were no children dying of hunger in Israel. According to this discourse the right to food and food security are not an issue if there are no children “dying of hunger”—making “hidden hunger” and “food insecurity” invisible and relegating the issue of food to the market sphere, where the suggested reforms do not challenge the neoliberal ideology, on the contrary focusing on more competition and food handouts by charities.

Armed conflict context

Since 2007, Israel has been imposing a closure over the Gaza Strip, which restricts the passage of goods in and out of the Strip and limits the movement of people in both directions to the “humanitarian minimum.” By maintaining a level of “just above minimum,” which was sustainable largely due to the massive involvement of international aid organizations, Israel managed to pacify the international demand to lift or ease the restrictions.

The Turkel Committee, appointed to investigate the events of the flotilla in May 2010, determined that since the closure was never intended to starve the civilian population, and given Israel’s monitoring and protection mechanisms designed to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, the closure cannot be said to be unlawful and that the proportionality requirement is met. The committee largely downplayed the data presented by human rights organizations attesting to extremely high levels of food insecurity in the Gaza Strip.

This paper explores the blind spots in Israel’s stance, which alludes to the minimum standard. These ignore power relations, and overlook the larger context.  It is proposed instead that food power can be exercised not only through direct control over food supply and food availability, but also by affecting people’s ability to access adequate food, i.e. the demand power. Arbitrary restrictions on the entry of foodstuffs undoubtedly played an important role in Israel’s demonstration of power. But by successfully crippling Gaza Strip’s economy, Israel’s closure policy has also impoverished the civilian population, considerably decreased food security in the Gaza Strip and increased dependency on international aid. Using this analysis, the paper examines how food power mechanisms work and are sustained over time and explores the relations between “food security,” “food power” and “food sovereignty.” It looks at how the discussion of whether there is—or is not—enough food in Gaza, which by examining the supply questions, misses the causes of food insecurity deriving from a demand problem, in other words the weak buying power of the population.

Looking together at the two cases, even if the contexts are very different, we can reconsider how the need arises in both to address buying power—the ability to demand—in order to guarantee food security.