ISD’s new working group on food security
Writing for ISD’s blog, The Diplomatic Pouch, ISD’s director of programs and research, Kelly McFarland, and research assistant Eleanor Hughes, lay out the parameters for ISD’s new working group on food security.
As part of our New Global Commons Working Group series on emerging diplomatic challenges, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Bridging the Gap Initiative, ISD is hosting a working group this spring on the nexus between food insecurity, instability, and conflict.
Our forward-looking group of experts from government, academia, NGOs, and think tanks is discussing threats to food security, how food insecurity drives instability and conflict, how this risks becoming a larger geopolitical stress point in coming years, and how we can try to overcome these challenges. Their insights and contributions will be a critical part of ISD’s effort to produce meaningful policy principles and recommendations for all those who work on this issue.
This blog post, the first in a series on the topic, lays out the main issues at play.
Food insecurity is most often framed as the lack of food availability to the very poor, whether in low-income countries or “food deserts” in the wealthiest.
Climate change, environmental degradation, conflict, disease, and other disruptions in global supply chains all negatively affect the global food system and predictable access to healthy food. But, food insecurity also drives geopolitical choices of some nations, as they seek to guarantee their future food security. It also gives rise to food nativism by major export countries. While access to resources and export/import patterns have driven conflict and cooperation — including over food — for millennia, today’s circumstances have the potential to usher in a new era of geopolitics shaped by food security.
Humankind has made phenomenal strides over the past century to combat hunger. Innovations in science, fertilization, and irrigation blunted visions of a Malthusian dystopia. The international community has remained able to feed a global population that increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to almost 8 billion today. At the same time, the number of middle-income states dramatically increased, most notably, but not solely, China and India, which exponentially increases demand for high resource-intensive foods, such as beef. But trends have shifted more recently. In 2019, nearly one in ten people on the planet — close to 750 million — experienced severe food insecurity. The COVID- 19 pandemic may add another 80–100 million to these ranks.
Increased droughts, floods, and other production disrupters have prompted major exporters to pursue food nativism, intent upon ensuring adequate food for their own populations ahead of others’. Supply chain disruptions as a result of the pandemic have only added to this global insecurity. Poor distribution networks and a host of other issues lead to vast amounts of food loss in low-income countries, while comparable amounts of food are wasted in high-income states. And, in a vicious feedback loop, the current food production and distribution system produces a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Academic research and evidence from recent decades demonstrate that food insecurity is a key driver of instability and conflict. In the last decade and a half, a global food crisis in 2007–8 led to riots in almost 50 countries. Similar weather-driven shortages have resulted in food price spikes which, along with domestic grievances and economic stagnation, were a driver of the Arab Spring across the Middle East, whose ramifications are still playing out today. From Afghanistan to Yemen, the collapse of the agricultural sector drove too many to join insurgent and terrorist groups. Across the Sahel, from Darfur to Mali, desertification continues to drive nomadic pastoralists and their herds into crop-based agricultural areas. Efforts to secure “virtual water” (food stuffs) have shaped Arab Gulf states’ policies in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, with the potential to reshape the balance of power and influence in target countries and the region.
These challenges all conspire to create a new dynamic of both instability and power projection. Governments and international organizations must ensure that the world’s hungry and malnourished have access to food as a right, not a luxury. But it goes beyond this core humanitarian impulse. Humanitarian intervention may not suffice in a world in which the food system no longer enables sustainable food distribution. The international community will not be able to grow its way out of this problem without significant major reforms to the food system as a whole. Policy innovations are needed to defuse today’s current conflicts, but also the latent conflicts that a lack of credible solutions may bring.
In the coming months, ISD will publish a report that maps out what constitutes the global food system, and the key causes of food insecurity and hunger. The working group also examines the nexus between food insecurity, instability, and conflict, and how state-level efforts to ensure their own food security as a national security priority, and the rise of food nativism, have the potential to trigger geopolitical instability.
The report will consider whether or not new technologies are focused on the best solutions; and which entities should lead or play a major role — governments, NGOs, international organizations, civil society, scientists and researchers, and others.
A second focus is on the strategies, policies, and steps the United States government and others should implement to most effectively ensure food security and mitigate the potential for instability and conflict in the future.
Kelly McFarland is a U.S. diplomatic historian and the director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Follow him on Twitter @McFarlandKellyM
Eleanor Shiori Hughes is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a master’s student in Asian Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is also a contributing writer for EconVue.