Food Security & Risk Communication


The food crises in 2007–2008 exposed the vulnerability and fragility of the current global food system and highlighted the increasing problem of urban food security and the need to effectively communicate to publics about food security issues. These represent a range of risk scenarios that the three paradigms of risk communication are well suited to deal with.

National governments and policy makers can apply three paradigms of risk communication in food security communications:

  • Application during food crises;
  • Application in public outreach via precautionary advocacy.
  • Application to promote R & D, including biotechnology in food staples;
WEF 2012 Societal Risks

Societal Risk Factors from World Economic Forum Risks Report 2012

The ultimate purpose of risk communication is to avoid crises. By recognizing the uncertainty of risk situations, we are better able to determine the wisest and safest course of action. The ultimate result of our inability or failure to recognize and act upon risk is crisis. The food crises across the Middle East resulted in falls of government. Effective risk communication, as an on-going, interactive process of dialogue with publics can prevent such catastrophic outcomes. The public should be Involved in decision-making on food security issues, so that consensus building and relationship development prevent uncertainty on these issues, stemming from a lack of credible information.

Risk communication is an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions. It involves multiple messages about the nature of risk and other messages, not strictly about risk, that express concerns, opinions, or reaction to risk messages or to legal or institutional arrangements for risk management.


Paradigm 1. Manage Crisis

Food Crisis—High Hazard High Outrage

During a food (shortage) crisis the public are both greatly stressed and concerned about the situation they are facing, one where the actual hazard (probability of loss—in this case of a supply of food) is correspondingly high. In many cases, food crises arise because government officials fail to embrace and enact best practices in risk communication. If food security communication plans—to anticipate, prepare and practice for all eventualities—had been in place the intensity of food crises could have been abated, and risk communication systems would have enabled leaders to accurately prepare for, manage, and mitigate the effects of food crisis. Once a food crisis has taken hold, governments must communicate quickly via multiple channels, whilst taking action steps to coordinate resources and facilitate collaboration. Officials need to provide honest, candid, open and accountable communication during the crisis, showing leadership with benevolent concern, empathy in the spirit of, “We’re in this together.”

Paradigm 2: Manage Advocacy

Food Security is High Hazard low Outrage

Most consumers in developed countries are geographically and conceptually removed from the food system and given this displacement, apathy towards issues outside of food safety and nutrition are common. Within the four dimensions of food security—availability, physical access, economic access and utilization—the price of food (economic access) is one area of major concern for consumers, with food prices at record levels. Public interest in food prices may provide an opportunity to firstly generate awareness, and then ‘resonance’ in other dimensions of food security. With the inherent apathy, risk communication provides a set of strategies and fundamental delivery techniques that are tailored towards overcoming audience apathy, and making the broader issues of food security, particularly food wastage, meaningful to otherwise disinterested audiences. Risk communication precautionary advocacy techniques urge action now, to prevent uncertainty and potential disaster later.

Paradigm 3: Manage Concerns

Increasing Productivity to meet food demands in the long term necessitates crop improvements via biotechnology.

In the medium to long term, public investments in infrastructure and agricultural research may help address many food security issues. However, how can agricultural output be raised given limited land and water, and anxieties over conservation and pollution? Uncertainty and controversy surround technical agricultural advances and little private sector attention has been paid to food grains. Biotechnology has yet to be exploited significantly for staple food production, but the promise of rising grain yields and higher prices may see countries embrace ‘GMOs.’ Whatever the promise, governments will need to carefully communicate to publics, and deal with the inherent outrage that accompany GMO debates. Will the benefits to society of biotech crops in the context of food security address issues of benefits, trust and fairness that have plagued commercialisation in many territories to date. Risk Communication outrage management addresses concerns so risks can be considered rationally.