Food Insecurity and the Threat to Global Stability and Security in the 21st Century

By Michael DeFeo
2017, Vol. 9 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

In 2010, over 250,000 Syrian farmers were forced from their land due to water shortages. Lack of water left these farmers dangerously food insecure, so they moved, en masse, into Syrian urban centers. This strained an already overburdened infrastructure which increased tensions between urban dwellers and the displaced farmers (El Hassan, 2014). One year later, the Syrian Civil War began, which has killed over 500,000 Syrians and has destabilized the entire country. Since then, the Islamic State has conquered swaths of land through terror campaigns, rebel and Syrian military clashes have left thousands dead, while bombing campaigns by American, Russian, French, and Turkish air forces have reduced cities to rubble.

The conflict began as a civil war but has evolved to threaten the interests of major world powers. While limited access to food and water did not directly spark the violence in Syria, it was the underlying cause of the instability seen in that region today. Concerns about access to food can be applied to many of the world's developing countries. Developing countries generally have large agricultural sectors but may lack the infrastructure or government institutions to supply all of its citizens with adequate food. When people are hungry, they often fight their government, or they break into ethnic or religious factions and fight each other. Such conflicts can destabilize countries and even, as Syria has proven, entire regions. Regional destabilization in the developing world, in turn, threatens the peace and security of the international community. Rich countries such as the United States and Western Europe, must support developing countries through aid and trade policies so that food insecure countries do not become fragile or failed states.

Causes of Food Insecurity

Many developing nations experience food and water insecurity on a higher scale than developed nations because of irresponsible or malicious government policies, the effects of climate change, and rising food prices. The war in Afghanistan has left many rural Afghans without access to food because of increases in staple food prices. Using a multivariate framework, D’Souza and Jolliffe (2013) found that provinces experiencing declines in food security have been active hotspots for violence. The pains of food shortages have been felt in Afghanistan long before the American invasion in 2001, however. During the 1990s, civil conflict made it extremely difficult to grow and distribute enough food to feed everyone. Adequate supply and distribution of food may be more important than food production itself because it actually became a military strategy to starve off certain armed groups and civilian supporters (Clarke, 2000). More commonly, the flow of staple food was inadequately disrupted as a result of the conflict. Fighting closed roads and increased the cost of transportation, making it extremely difficult to reach rural areas.

Similar problems affected Syrian farmers in 2010. Destruction of roads and shutdowns cut off transportation of food in or out of the cities, which starved rural civilians. Their desperation helped bolster Islamic State ranks because joining the group provided a better promise of food (El Hassan, 2014). The displaced farmers in the cities found themselves relying on locally produced food to survive rather than their own harvests. This is a massive problem that follows food insecurity in rural areas. Insecurity leads to urbanization, thus forcing more citizens to rely on other farmers or the government to feed them. Such conditions strain already weak government institutions and can lead to internal conflict (Byrd, 2003).

Sudan dealt with urbanization very poorly in the early 2000s which helped continue the Second Sudanese Civil War. Sudan faced particularly brutal circumstances in the 21st century because of late rains, disruptions in trade,1 high levels of displacement, and higher food prices (Moszynski, 2009). The Janjaweed, who controlled the government, refused to provide certain areas with sufficient food, which increased violent responses from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (Moszynski, 2009). Higher food prices and potential effects of climate change also played roles in the Sudanese crisis. It was not just a lack of rain and high food prices that starved Syria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, it was their government’s inability to remedy these problems in the first place.

Poor Institutional Capacity

Although the developed world experiences food insecurity, it is the lack of infrastructure and government institutions in developing countries that contribute to civil wars and state fragility. Foreign exchange shortages can provoke food and fuel scarcities that force governments to spend less on essential services and public goods. Accordingly, citizens see their medical and educational entitlements melt away. Such circumstances create breeding grounds for internal conflict.

All violent conflicts destroy land, water, and social resources for food production. Developing countries do not have massive industrial machines that can remedy such losses, therefore, the population will suffer. Food insecurity is a recruitment tool for violent extremist groups. Promising food and water to a starving population, especially in urban areas, makes recruiting young and disgruntled youth easier (Messer & Cohen, 2015). Syria had limited institutional capacity to deal with the mass displacement, and that lead to a civilian revolt and recruitment into the Islamic State.

Countries that fail to provide their people with basic services often experience gross economic inequality, and even human-rights violations, as was the case in both Syria and Sudan. Both countries are classified as Least Developed Countries (LDCs). LDCs are distinguished not just by their widespread poverty, but also by their structural weaknesses in economic, institutional, and human resources that make them unable to maintain stability during a drought. The combination of drought and political instability or violence led to famine in Somalia (another LDC) in 2011. Even with urgent humanitarian action, the country still plunged into chaos and violence (Messer & Cohen, 2015). Severe drought, like Somalia's, may result in crop failure in major food producing areas, which in turn is a significant threat to social stability and peace (Wischnath, 2014).

Sometimes droughts of exceptional severity (and the civil unrest that follows) are attributed to climate change, especially in particularly arid regions. Scholars are divided on whether climate change actually impacts civil conflict. That is why African countries like Somalia and Sudan are prime case studies. Africa has the lowest percentage of irrigated land in the world. Agriculture is the most important sector of most African countries. Very high percentages of civilians in African countries live in rural areas. Those characteristics combined with low economic and state capacity make African, particularly sub-Saharan African countries the most vulnerable to climate change and civil instability. Africa experiences more civil conflict than other parts of the world, therefore, it is possible to argue that a lack of climate variability effect on civil conflict in Africa would make it unlikely to cause civil conflict in other parts of the world (Koubi et al., 2012). Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon attributed the conflict in Darfur to an ecological crisis arising “at least in part from climate change” (Ki-moon, 2007). The Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed that climate change will continue to worsen. As it does, it will increase food shortages, which may lead to conflict (AR4, 2007). The report also stated that forced displacement and rising social instability is the most likely result of food insecurity. This is almost exactly what happened in Syria. The first step towards conflict might be food riots, which often occur during a food shortage or when there is an unequal distribution of food. These are usually caused by food price increases, food speculation, transport problems, or extreme weather. In 1977, Egyptians became so desperate for food that they attacked shops, markets, and government buildings just to obtain bread and grain (Paveliuc-Olariu, 2013).

Moreover, civil war can create economic opportunities for certain groups, so they try to avoid resolving the conflict. Urban elites in Somalia profited tremendously off of internal conflict because of the absurd amount of foreign aid that was pumped into the country and then largely stolen (Shortland, Christopoulou, & Makatsoris, 2013). Once a country experiences a food shortage, it may lead to protests, riots, and violence. This all contributes to state instability, but it is not the state alone that suffers. If one country fails, it creates a crisis that could destabilize an entire region.

State Failure and the Threat to Regional Stability

Although fragile governments in developing countries are at a heightened risk for internal conflict that could topple them, that risk also threatens the country’s neighbors. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Afghanistan found itself alone in regional trade. Without a guaranteed source of cereal, the government had to turn to Iran and Pakistan for support in order to avoid its own collapse (Clarke, 2000). Unlike Afghanistan, many other developing countries have been unable to work together on food and water security. Thirteen of the twenty-two members of the Arab League rank among the most water-scarce nations on the planet. Food cannot be grown without water. The majority of the world is engaged in some sort of agreement with neighboring countries to share water supplies, but thirty-seven countries still do not share their water resources (El Hassan, 2014). Lack of cooperation can cause civil as well as interstate conflict. South Sudan legally has no share of the Nile River and the effects of that lack of water access have been mass starvation and violence.

The effects of climate change, water shortages, and mass migrations have resulted in acute food insecurity not just in Syria, but across the region (El Hassan, 2014). Food insecurity, plus an increase in the prices of staple foods have destabilized much of the area. The Arab Spring was the beginning of multiple conflicts that have affected countries like Syria, Egypt, and Libya. In Syria, food insecurity resulted in mass violence and has now created an international crisis involving multiple world powers.

Food insecurity is such a threat to entire regions because people cannot live without food and people want to live. When a region experiences food scarcity and that population feels threatened by hunger, it will relinquish dependency on any political authority and take up arms in order to ensure its well-being (Paveliuc-Olariu, 2013). This is human survivalism. It is important for developing countries in areas that are at risk for food insecurity to formulate policy that ensures aid goes to the food insecurity hotspots so as to maintain stability.

South Sudan experienced what happens when countries do not work together to feed their people. After gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011, 360,000 South Sudanese refugees returned to the country. This influx of human beings, coupled with drought conditions exacerbated economic strain and drove food prices up. The increases were the result of trade restrictions between Sudan and South Sudan. The overall reason for the food crisis, however, was the government's preoccupation with fighting a political and quasi-ethnic civil war rather than negotiating fair access to the Nile River (Tappis et al., 2013). Because of South Sudan’s weak institutions, it has done little to address the food shortage. That inability to solve the problem fuels insurgent recruitment that continues the bloodshed in South Sudan. The conflict is keeping regional rivalries alive with Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan; all of whom have attempted to intervene in South Sudan militarily to bring about stability (Council on Foreign Affairs 2016). Aside from South Sudan, multiple conflicts across Africa are consuming massive amounts of diplomatic, political, and humanitarian resources in a region that faces a multitude of threats.

South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria are all failing states that are experiencing huge food shortages, humanitarian crises, and most importantly, extreme civil violence. South Sudan is mired in a civil war. Somalia is controlled by warlords and terror organizations. Syria has both of those problems. Conflict has turned these countries into “breeding grounds of instability, mass migration, and murder” rather than sovereign states with a monopoly on violence and control over their borders (Rotberg, 2002). To be sure, failing states are a concern because of their ability to destabilize entire regions, but states at risk for failure are also very important. Countries like Pakistan that are politically unstable and have food and water shortages could result in uncontrollable civil upheaval (The Fund for Peace, 2016).

Global Consequences of State Failure

Failing states and destabilized regions are not just a problem for the developing world. They are a very real concern for the United States and other developed countries as well. The Islamic State fed off of the Syrian Civil War and helped destabilize Iraq, Syria, Libya, and even Afghanistan and the Philippines. They have at also inspired terror attacks in Europe and the United States. They are a threat to both the developed and developing world. State instability allows them to recruit and train without government interference, which in turn allows them to plan attacks outside the region. An important source of income for the Islamic State has been agriculture from Iraq and Syria. While this revenue has received less media attention than oil extraction, it is still an important part of their economy (Jaafar & Woertz, 2016). It is also a key aspect of their political legitimacy because it allows them to feed their soldiers and those they control. Controlling some of the most fertile regions of the two countries has also helped the Islamic State starve off areas that have resisted them (Jaafar & Woertz, 2016). If Syria or Iraq are ever going to stabilize, those breadbaskets must be retaken and the food must reach the civilians in the cut off areas.

In the 20th century, state failure had few implications for international peace and security. Thanks to globalization, that is no longer the case. Failed states pose a threat to themselves, their neighbors, and the entire international community (Rotberg, 2002). Islamic State - inspired terror attacks in Belgium and France are a direct result of state collapse in Syria and Iraq. Preventing states from failing, rather than having to intervene militarily when they do, ought to be a top priority in the foreign policy of rich nations. Although the situations in Syria, Somalia, and South Sudan seem beyond repair, nation-building projects have had success in the past. Tajikistan, Lebanon, Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor are all examples of relatively successful attempts to put failing states back on the right track (Rotberg, 2002). Developed countries must have the political will to ensure that people in developing countries are fed so that they remain pacified. It is often severe food insecurity that precedes ethnic or religious violence, as has been the case in South Sudan, therefore, adequate food is paramount to avoiding humanitarian crises that accompany ethnic and sectarian conflict (The Economist, 2016).

While it is true that many developed countries, especially the United States, are weary of providing so much financial aid and intervening militarily in war-torn, developing countries, it is imperative that the rich do not abandon the poor to a fate of internal destruction. Money must not be thrown blindly towards humanitarian crises and military intervention must be the last resort. Developed countries provided $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid in South Sudan in its first year of independence, but without specific conditions, that money went to kleptocrats rather than infrastructure projects or public services (The Economist, 2016).

Paying to help developing nations is expensive and will continue to be so. Afghanistan and Iraq are proof of that. But the war on terror, repeated military intervention, and humanitarian aid are expensive as well. In 2002, Robert Rotberg suggested that a new Marshall Plan was required for places like Afghanistan, the DRC, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan. If it is true that food and water security are the keys to keeping relative peace in new and developing countries and their collapse threatens the safety of the developed world, it seems logical that assisting those countries is wise.

In 1999, Susan L. Woodward argued that military leaders focus too much on force versus force combat rather than the issues of insurgency and terrorism in failed states. In 2017, military leaders have adjusted their strategies accordingly. Woodward believed that globalization made states less important, but their failure would still be felt around the world. Failed states cannot exercise their monopoly on violence and they cannot control their borders, thus threatening more than just the failed state (Woodward, 1999). Because state failure is so consequential, the United States military must continue to look into measures it can take to prevent it.

The Threat of the Future

Finally, the threats from food shortages in South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are important to the United States and the international community at large, but there is one country that, while it is not a failing state right now, could easily become one if the wealthy nations of the world do not ensure its stability. That country is Pakistan. The Fund for Peace ranked Pakistan as the 14th most fragile state in the world in 2016, giving it a “High Alert” designation for state failure (The Fund for Peace, 2016). Its Demographic Pressure Indicator was an 8.9 - 10.2 Although it improved by one-tenth of a point last year, its decade trend is worse by seven-tenths of a point and its five-year trend is worse by four-tenths of a point, suggesting that the food situation is actually worsening overall (The Fund for Peace, 2016). If internal conflict and potential state failure at its most basic level begins with food and water insecurity, then Pakistan could become a real problem very soon.

Considering the risk of state failure, Pakistan poses the greatest threat to the rest of the world because of the existence of nuclear weapons within the country. Pakistan is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, yet it has about 120 nuclear weapons. It also has a Shaheen 1A ballistic missile that can reach targets 550 miles away (Pakistan Defence, 2015). Should a food crisis arise in Pakistan that results in civil war and governmental collapse, those weapons could end up in the hands of a group that intends to use them maliciously as an act of terror. That prospect should be incentive enough for the developed countries to realize that they cannot and must not leave food insecure countries to devour themselves.

While it is difficult to argue that food insecurity immediately and directly causes civil conflict, there is no denying that people need food and water and will fight to survive. In South Sudan, ethnic and political armies fight one another. In Syria, rebels and government forces fight each other while also fighting the Islamic State. And in Somalia, warlords and their armies fight. The Syrian Civil War began six years ago after a water shortage forced thousands of migrants into urban centers. Developing countries tend to be most affected by climate change, poor governance, and food price increases. Therefore, they are the most prone to instability that may lead to outright violence. Without the wherewithal to handle civil conflict, these countries may become fragile or even failing states. Once that happens, they represent a threat not just in their region of influence, but the whole world. That is why the developed Western nations must pay attention and provide aid to the developing world in order to maintain stability. There will be more food crises in developing countries in the future, but if the North has the strength to continue aiding the South, perhaps it will be able to curb mass starvation and avoid the horrendous violence that consumes starving countries.


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1.) Due to ethnic violence throughout the country.

2.) This indicator takes into account food and water shortages, disease, pollution, and malnutrition.

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