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The theory and practice of food policy

Food Policy: Frameworks for Analysis and Action, edited by Charles K. Mann and Barbara Huddleston. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1986, 243 p.

"Throughout the world there is a broad commitment to reducing hunger and malnutrition." With that striking sentence Charles Mann, former Associate Director of Agricultural and Social Sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation, opens a volume which seeks to develop an integrated framework for food policy. The various contributions, first aired at a workshop in Bellagio, Italy, in 1982, develop a dialogue between food policy analysts and practitioners from the advanced industrial societies and the Third World. They share a broad consensus that national food policy is weakened by the lack of an interdisciplinary approach and a failure to link micro and macro-level decision making.

In their introduction, Mann and Barbara Huddleston (Chief of the Food Security and Information Service in FAO's Economic and Social Policy Department) pose the major issues to be analyzed by the various contributors. Then Peter Timmer provides a general framework for food policy analysis centred on a distinction between a micro perspective, examining the behaviour of food producers and consumers, and a macro perspective, which focuses on the influence of monetary and fiscal policies on their behaviour. Several contributions address the nutrition aspects of food policy and the role of crops and livestock in relation to food systems. Joan Mencher's discussion of the role of women in agriculture is particularly interesting. She argues that "the question of women in agriculture is not a separate issue but is integral to all discussions relating to food policy." Policy prescriptions that do not recognize women's contribution to food systems will not be able to achieve an equitable supply of food for Third World people.

The debate on food consumption and nutritional status questions the conclusion of earlier surveys that low incomes lead to low levels of intake, which lead in turn to malnutrition. Lincoln Chen finds that in Bangladesh at least, the relationship between socio-economic factors and child caloric intake is weak. He suggests that community-wide behavioural or agro-ecologic variables may be more important factors than household wealth, income, or food availability. Hasan Gena writing of Turkey, argues that "there is also no apparent relationship between low incomes and quality of diet as measured by the minimum levels of animal protein contained in the diet." This lack of a causal relation between income and nutritional status may not hold in less developed countries. These findings are, of course, controversial and further research would be necessary before we could assert that mothers' education was more significant than household income in determining nutritional status.

Practical approaches. The second part of the book is devoted to practical approaches to developing national food-policy capabilities. There are contributions on the role of external agencies, the role of the university, and the training needs of food policy managers. A particularly topical element is David Dapice's "preliminary observations" on the use of microcomputers in developing countries. He warns against impressive tables based on weak data which mean nothing more than "garbage in, garbage out" for the computer. The rapid spread of microcomputers for practical problem-solving in the Third World is foreseen. Charles Mann adds "a tale of two computers" used as part of a food policy field project in Tunisia. The computer system with sophisticated outside programmers was less successful than the one which developed local expertise. Mann concludes that "the combination of user-friendliness and power of the microcomputer represents a qualitative difference from earlier computers." Productivity increased dramatically when the more routine tasks of the food-policy analyst could be carried out by a computer. In this context it is not surprising that some Third World countries, such as Brazil, are striving to create a strong national computer industry.

For the food-policy analyst, this volume contains many insights and a summary of the current state of affairs in this area. For the non-specialist, however, it is disappointing. The papers bear all the hallmarks of conference proceedings. No doubt there was much fruitful discussion and debate in Bellagio in 1982 after the papers were read, but there is no sense of this in the book.

Some papers seem curiously dated. Thus Edward Schuh (Director, Agriculture and Rural Development at the World Bank) notes that "central to the North-South debate is a belief on the part of the South that they have been exploited by international exchange," but adds, "Despite the persistence and vehemence of this allegation, there has been little empirical research on the issues." It is hard to believe that two decades of research on unequal exchange has failed to percolate through to the World Bank. Another writer refers to the problem of "political pathology" in the "rapidly developing economies of Latin America". One presumes he is referring to authoritarian military regimes but this is not at all clear. At any rate, it reflects a general political natunning through the book. Indeed, Mann's remark in the preface that "technical people in general have no appreciation of politics" seems to be true of this book as well.

A number of chapters do address the political dimension of food policy capabilities but it is within a rather restricted understanding of what politics means. Maurice Williams, for example, argues that "the elements of political action for reform are: conviction of the need for change, knowledge of how to respond to the problem which necessitates change, diffusion of that knowledge to policy makers and to the people who will be affected by the reform, and its sustainability through training and public education." There is nothing wrong with this statement except its narrow institutional view of politics. There is no sense of conflict or mobilization in this enlightened vision of social engineering. Later in the chapter Williams makes the plea that "people who are living on the margin of subsistence need help now". True, but there is more going on in Third World politics than the work of First World aid agencies.

Problems of food security can only be understood in the context of the whole social, economic, and political system. We need to understand how the international political economy affects the food system of Third World nation-states. Food policy analysis cannot develop in a political vacuum because food flows in a particular country are affected by decisions elsewhere. In short, we cannot divorce our discussion of food policy from the broader question of what causes food shortages in the Third World.

Ronaldo Munck