Staple Foods Are Becoming More Secure in the South

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Finding ways to ensure food security in countries experiencing profound economic and social change and stress is critical to achievement of development goals.

Food security is crucial to ensuring economic development is sustainable, and it is vital to long-term human health. Just one bout of famine can damage a generation of youth, stunting brain development and leaving bodies smaller and weaker than they should be.

Thankfully, many innovators are working on this problem and are making significant progress. A report from the Asian Development Bank, The Quiet Revolution in Staple Food Value Chains (, found improvements to security of rice and potatoes – common staple foods in many countries. It said the so-called value chains – the various activities a company does to deliver a product or service to the marketplace ( – for potatoes and rice have seen significant improvements in Bangladesh, China and India.

This is important because improvements in access to staple foods will mean better food security and less threat of extreme hunger events. This matters because it just takes one extreme hunger event and a generation is scarred for life.

The human brain is a heavy user of energy: it uses between 20 and 30 per cent of a person’s energy intake. Failure to consume enough calories means brain functioning begins to  be altered (

Hunger and starvation slow a person’s mental responsiveness. Low energy intake from minimal diets leads to apathy, sadness and depression. Fetuses and infants are especially sensitive to brain damage caused by malnutrition. A malnourished child can suffer life-long low intelligence and cognitive defects.

More than 70 per cent of the world’s 146 million underweight children aged five and under live in just 10 countries, with more than 50 per cent located in South Asia alone (UNICEF). A quarter of all children – roughly 146 million – in developing countries are underweight, and it is estimated that 684,000 child deaths worldwide could be prevented by increasing access to vitamin A and zinc (WFP).

Undernutrition contributes to 53 per cent of the 9.7 million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries (UNICEF).

Food insecurity also shows on the faces of people who experience it. This extreme stress scars people and harms their prospects in the labour market and their ability to improve their incomes.

Why is access to staple foods improving? It seems, according to the report, to result from innovations such as rapid modernization, with the increasing roll out of supermarkets, the use of cold storage facilities and large rice mills. It also cites the impact of small farmers taking on modern technologies, such as mechanized farming, and making the most of soil by using fertilizers and efficient techniques.

Supermarkets by their nature encourage highly sophisticated supply lines to ensure a steady stream of fresh produce coming in from farms to urban areas. Because of the variety and vast range of produce on offer, they require finely-tuned organizing models and information technologies. In short, they radically alter the way people buy their food, and what people will expect from food providers.

By negotiating deals with farmers, supermarkets create stability, as well as low and competitive prices. They allow for better traceability for food and give consumers more confidence in what they are purchasing. They use cold storage, which means food lasts longer and there is less waste than if food is left to spoil in a marketplace without refrigeration – a revolutionary change in hot countries.

The downside with supermarkets, as has been the case in some countries, is they can quickly dominate the marketplace and push out all other competitors with their economies of scale. When this happens, farmers can also find themselves with little bargaining power again and be hostage to the price the supermarket tells them to sell their product at.

Another critical improvement is the rapid spread of mobile phones. Armed with a mobile phone, small-scale farmers are able to access critical knowledge and information. This means they can make better decisions and quickly adjust what they are doing when mistakes are made.

The survey found that India is a country where the food-supply game has changed dramatically. In the past, traders would advance cash to farmers in the form of loans. But since the use of mobile phones has increased, the balance of power has shifted: farmers now have many other options to finance their operations than turning to middlemen and traders. This means they are no longer as easily manipulated by the traders and can negotiate better prices. Also, better roads, combined with greater competition to provide services to farmers, are improving farming of staple foods in general.

Among potato farmers in rural areas, 73 to 97 per cent have mobile phones and use them to organize deals with traders or receive market information. The take-up of mobile phones was also a recent development for the farmers: most had acquired a mobile phone in the last four years.

It is clear this quiet revolution in food security for staples is a result of greater use of innovative technology and taking on of new techniques.

Published: July 2013


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4) The hidden tricks behind making a successful supermarket: Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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