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The Global Food Security Index (GFSI), a report published annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), measures how “food secure” countries are. The assessment includes three main pillars: affordability, availability, quality and safety.

As such, countries that lack any sort of agricultural production could still top the rankings and be called food secure as long as they can import the food from food-producing countries and possess the means to pay for those. Food security here is warranted by its availability and affordability, i.e., access to food.

Access to food is key when trying to fathom food security, which can represent an adequate measure whether at the national level or at the individual. To illustrate, consider a farmer in a rural area and a non-farmer in an urban area. The former is food secure as long as there is nothing to prevent food production and hence access to food.

Or alternatively, the same farmer could plant non-food commodities, like cotton, and exchange the proceeds for food. For the non-farmer, being food secure is dependent on income generated and how much of that income goes into purchasing food.

The same logic can be applied to countries. What is perceived to be a measure of food security — i.e., the GFSI — is rather a measure of access to food and food diversity. Therefore, findings of the GFSI for the most food secure countries produce a mix of countries that can produce their own food and those that rely on importing it.

As long as food is affordable, both at the country level and at the individual’s, then countries have nothing to worry about. However, and for such affordability to be made possible, a food-importing country, like a non-farmer individual, must generate enough income to import food or to subsidise prices of food commodities that are sold domestically. This is especially important in times of high global food prices like in 2008.

The model behind the GFSI measurement, as explained above, could trick countries into the belief that over-reliance on food imports, when affordable, could in fact add to the food security of countries. But are they really food secure?

In 2017, the EIU introduced a fourth index category: “Natural Resources and Resilience”. Prior to its introduction, the GFSI could be criticised for lacking a mechanism to assess how various factors, related to agricultural production, impact a country’s food security. As such, countries that are ranked top in this fourth index are actually food producing countries rather than countries that depend on food imports and are financially capable of importing food.

Not only that, the fourth index provides a whole different perspective when assessing food security, not only through the prism of access to it, but also the ability to produce it as an approach towards securing access to food. Moreover, such production capabilities will not undermine a country’s food security in times of high international food prices, accompanied by tariffs as well as export quotas and bans.

So, is the fourth index the optimal approach towards measuring and quantifying food security?

The fourth index is considered an adjustment factor to the EIU’s overall GFSI’s scores and ranks. That is, when scores are calculated and ranks assigned, the fourth index can be applied, or not, based on the purpose behind analysing the report and its findings. This is why there are countries that rank quite high on the overall GFSI measure in being food secure, but are at the bottom of the list when taking the fourth index into account.

In other words, the fourth index serves as a reality check for countries ranked high on the GFSI’s overall score, but are solely dependent on food imports.

While GFSI is probably the go-to report to understand food security status for countries, it is not the ultimate score and rank. The introduction of the fourth index is itself a clear indication of flaws in the GFSI that the fourth index aims to address.

Evident from the significant disparity between the overall GFSI scores and ranks compared to those of the “Natural Resources and Resilience”, there is no question that the pursuit of a definitive measure of food security is far from over. That being said, a better assessment of food security will require a better assessment of what can countries produce advantageously, added to the risks identified in the fourth index.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: What can food importers do to enhance food security?

Abdulnasser Alshaali is a UAE based economist.