Food, Land, and People
In a continuation of the series on the human dimension of the global food chain, we’re exploring the social and political impacts of stressors in the global food system.
We’ve seen how technological advances in agriculture and shipping have led to incredible increases in food production and distribution. Global trade has expanded at a rapid pace, and in whole the food system has become more stable. At the same time, our food supply remains vulnerable to sudden shocks, with significant consequences.
Food prices are expected to rise as a result of climate change…
While we’ve made significant progress towards reducing food insecurity in recent years, we can’t afford to be complacent. Climate change is forecast to contribute to rising food prices unless we act to sufficiently mitigate or adapt to its effects. The impacts of climate change could be particularly devastating to recent increases in food affordability.
According to research conducted by Oxfam, the impact of climate change on prices “would wipe out any positive impacts from expected increases in household incomes, trapping generations in vicious circle of food insecurity.”
Rising food prices are linked to social unrest…
Rising food prices have the potential to be a significant disruptive force for many countries around the world. We’ve already seen how high food prices contributed to the social and political unrest that fueled the Arab Spring. According to the Chicago Council, spikes in food prices—particularly wheat prices in 2008—sparked “food riots” and other events, and in some places claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Food security and conflict are connected in multiple, complex ways.
We can’t always predict the specific outcome of food insecurity. Experts agree, however, that food insecurity and conflict can lead to multiple social and political outcomes, including:
Disruptions to food production.
While the past decade has shown that rapid changes in food supplies and prices can contribute to conflict and unrest, the reverse is also true: conflict and unrest can create or exacerbate complications in meeting global food security needs, especially in developing countries. As we’ve previously discussed, the challenge of supplying food for more than 6 million people impacted by conflicts in Yemen and Syria in 2015 alone overwhelmed the resources of the World Food Program.
Conflict situations can inhibit the short-and long-term agricultural capabilities of entire countries and regions. One study by Ohio State University scholars demonstrated that, among other consequences, “In conflict situations, food-producing regions experience seizing or destroying of food stocks, livestock and other assets, interrupting marketed supplies of food not only in these regions but also in neighboring regions.” (Hitzhuesen, et. al)
Increased risk of political instability and lower economic growth.
Drawing together on the relationship between global food insecurity and foreign policy, the Lugar Center summarizes the challenge well: “Without sustained progress, recurring price volatility and food shortages will contribute to political instability…The hopes of the United States and other developed nations for economic development in poor countries will continually be frustrated if populations are unable to feed themselves.”
Heightened possibility of localized conflicts.
A recent report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) supports the relationship between conflict and food insecurity. The ODNI assessed that while it does not expect high-level food related conflict such as wars over the next decade, it does anticipate an increase in smaller scale conflict. This could come by way of farmers and pastoralists being pitted against one another over declining natural resources, lacking government policies, and effects of climate change; terrorists and other criminal organizations may also hold food sources hostage to increase recruitment and promote their own interests. For the maritime environment, the report foresees “Disputes among countries are likely to increase as fishermen are forced to travel further from shore into contested waters due to the depletion of marine fisheries, especially in the South China Sea.”
Image: AP Photo/Hossam Ali, via FCR partner Center for American Progress