To Tackle Instability and Conflict, It’s Time to Elevate Hunger as a National Security Priority

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Food has long been a weapon of war, and the prospect of starvation is a powerful motivator for citizens to take up arms. The humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ethiopia, where nearly six million people face famine as both government and Tigrayan forces weaponize food access against the Ethiopian people, is just one of many examples that necessitate the elevation of hunger as a U.S. national security priority. According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate food insecurity, along with other issues in a handful of countries “probably will exacerbate poverty, tribal or ethnic intercommunal tensions, and dissatisfaction with governments, increasing the risk of social, economic, and political instability.”

The Biden administration, and future U.S. administrations will have to deal with food security and hunger as a national security issue whether they want to or not. Proactive steps today to build on the latest National Intelligence Estimate and integrate food security into policy and strategy will be inherently beneficial down the line. Such steps will help end conflicts, prevent new ones, and generate goodwill among foreign populations toward America through U.S. efforts to increase food security.



The unraveling situation in Ethiopia, where the conflict that began a year ago now risks humanitarian disaster, demonstrates the interconnected nature of conflict and hunger today. Renewed fighting is likely to cause these numbers to spike further, as fighting and famine approach Addis Ababa. According to the United Nations, “the cascading effects of conflict, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets” have also contributed to the current situation.

In the past, governments and international organizations have overlooked food as a means to both prevent and end conflict. As President Joe Biden’s team prepares its first national security strategy, the team should focus more on food security as a positive pillar of security, alongside efforts at nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, and climate change. Creating food security can be a key tool to ward off future conflict and help end ongoing conflicts. According to former National Intelligence Council official Rod Schoonover, a more sophisticated conception of national security “would better anticipate threats with no proximal actors, such as those from climate change, ecological disruption, and pandemics.” This should include food insecurity, as it “is an important driver of political instability and other adverse security outcomes.”

Food security, therefore, is more than a humanitarian concern. Food received only three mentions in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, but as global supply chains fail before our eyes, food insecurity is rising as a result of COVID-19 and climate change. As our recent report demonstrates, conflict and food are intricately related. But as policymakers focus on food as part of the U.S. government’s broader conception of national security, they should also avoid the risks of a nativist approach or the weaponization of food. The pandemic has only exacerbated the temptation to embark on a protectionist approach to domestic food security — by shutting borders to food imports and exports or by aggressive acquisition of farmland in poorer countries, for example. Instead, the U.S. approach should be based on values of openness and an understanding of food security as a transnational problem that nationalist policies cannot solve.

Rising Hunger Won’t Abate on its Own

Humans today produce more food than the world needs overall, but nearly a billion people, at a minimum, are malnourished. The unprecedented confluence of worsening anthropogenic climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation: Those who were already hungry have faced disproportionate harm as a result. According to the United Nations, the number of food insecure people in the world increased by an estimated 318 million in 2020, due in large part to the impacts of the pandemic. In May 2021, global food prices rose at their fastest rate in more than a decade, and the food price index hit its highest levels since September 2011. Climate change, and the need to end this pandemic, are two of the most pressing national security concerns for the Biden administration. Food security relates to both.

Higher temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and more frequent extreme weather events all drive increased food insecurity. A doubling in the number of extreme events in the last 30 years poses problems across multiple regions. This is especially disconcerting when you consider that the world depends “on four key crops with high geographic concentration of production”: rice, wheat, corn, and soy. The likelihood of more than one of these geographic regions experiencing a production failure at the same time is growing. Likewise, trade in these key crops is “increasing pressure on a small number of ‘chokepoints’ — critical junctures on transport routes through which exceptional volumes of trade pass.” The problem is also cyclical: Food systems are themselves responsible for almost 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This includes deforestation, transport and storage, and livestock emissions, among other drivers.

The COVID-19 pandemic, for its part, vividly demonstrates how disease outbreaks and associated public health protocols have a direct, and serious, effect on food security. It has hit food systems in ways not at first apparent. For instance, lockdowns and border closures not only cause serious disruptions in the distribution of food, but they also prohibit people from producing food, selling food, or earning enough money to purchase food. Moreover, curfews have led to food loss in many African countries, as drivers that normally transported fresh produce during the cooler nighttime hours can no longer do so.

Hunger Is Both a Cause and Consequence of Conflict

Food security, instability, and conflict are clearly linked and operate in tandem. Their negative effects are mutually reinforcing. Conflict drives food insecurity in numerous ways, while hunger can also act as a major trigger for instability and conflict. “Of the 200+ million people who have perished in wars between nation states since the 1850s, it is estimated that over half — 105 million — have died of hunger,” according to one scholar. Individuals and groups caught in the midst of fighting find it harder to secure the requisite nutrition to sustain healthy daily diets, and many become food insecure.

The most obvious way conflict drives food insecurity is that fighting drives individuals and groups from their land, destroys crops and livestock, makes access to resources such as water more difficult, and causes delays in planting or harvesting. Indirectly, conflict also disrupts farmers’ access to feed and fertilizers needed for peak crop yields, and can cut off agricultural investment. Even if there is some food production to be sold, oftentimes fighting “disrupts normal commerce, directly reducing flows of food through market channels.” Researchers have found that in Ethiopia, for example, “when looking at conflict onset at the local level, there is a large and significant relationship between the onset of violence and decreased agricultural production.” According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “conflict continues to be the primary driver of acute food insecurity on the continent. Twelve out of the 15 African countries facing the greatest food insecurity presently are also experiencing conflict.”

Unfortunately, the weaponization of food access is increasingly a military tactic. Access to food can drive conflict over resources and land, and is itself a tool to perpetuate conflict. From supply chain blockages that led to spikes in food prices in the Central African Republic, to dozens of Houthi checkpoints in Yemen that slow food distribution, combatants have weaponized food access to leverage their own political or security agendas, to support loyalists, and to fund their fight.

We can see how conflict causes food insecurity and famine, but recently, new qualitative and quantitative work has shown that the inverse can also be true: food insecurity can and does drive instability or conflict. Whether fighting erupts over food sources, because individuals have lost their livelihoods and look to profit or simply find food by joining a military group, or because economic mismanagement or corruption pushed food prices out of reach for some citizens, there are several ways food insecurity can spur instability and/or conflict. A World Food Program USA report found that “approximately 95% of [the 53] peer-reviewed studies examined…were able to establish an empirical link between food insecurity and instability.”

Food insecurity, or the threat of it, is a key driver of conflict in the Sahel, for instance. There, pastoral systems are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Home to close to 100 million people, and with that population expected to double in the next decade, researchers at the Center for Security and International Studies note that “many families in the Sahel rely on subsistence agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihoods and depend heavily on natural resources like land and water,” which is a vastly decreasing regional commodity as desertification enlarges the Sahara Desert by “more than a mile each year.”

This desertification has consequences, as pastoralists move further south for longer periods each year, clashing with more traditional agriculturalists. As the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy highlighted in our 2017 report on migration and human security, in 2014 Fulani herders killed an estimated 1,200 people over disputes relating to farmland, grazing areas, and water. From 2012 to 2014, the conflict between the herders from the north and farmers in central Nigeria cost the economy more than $14 billion and caused profound ethnic rifts between the farming and herding communities. Food insecurity and the loss of livelihoods in the Sahel are driving individuals to join terrorist groups like Boko Haram, with implications for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the region.

In the Western Hemisphere, prolonged food insecurity due to climate change and violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle drives migration to the United States. Residents there are facing a once-in-a-decade drought that began in 2014 and intermittent torrential rains that destroy any crops that survive. Almost two million people in Central America alone are at risk of going hungry. As we have seen in other regions and countries, rising food insecurity has led many to join the violent gangs that operate in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to secure money or supplies to feed their families. While Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to the region in June elevated the interlocking problems of food insecurity, climate change, COVID-19, and forced migration, the administration should go further by specifically using food security as a tool for peace in the region. This should encompass more direct work with local actors to create specific agricultural initiatives and climate mitigation strategies that ensure a stable food supply.

The Risks of ‘Securitization’

However, in spite of these myriad examples of the security implications of hunger around the world, elevating food security into the National Security Strategy is not without its potential pitfalls. Firstly, it is important to understand the subtle difference in emphasis between the language of food security, and that of hunger. Food security, usually defined through its obverse, food insecurity, encompasses researchers’ and policymakers’ ability to measure access to nutritious food as the basis for a healthy life. The most likely cause is economic hardship or deprivation, which itself has many underlying drivers, including conflict and political instability. Hunger, by contrast, refers to the “personal, physical sensation of discomfort” that a person may experience as a result of poor access to nutritious food, whatever the underlying cause. Our research uses both terms, in an effort to emphasize that to achieve food security requires both an appreciation of the policy landscape and measurement of the problem, but also the human impact. This is reflected in U.N. Sustainable Development Goal #2, “Zero hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”

Secondly, partly as a result of the slight difference in emphasis, and partly due to a wariness of analyzing all problems through a “security” lens, some analysts, such as Adriana Abdenur of the Brazilian policy institute Plataforma CIPÓ, seek to de-emphasize the security implications of hunger. They view a national security approach to food, such as on the broader but related issue of “climate security,” as an invitation for a securitized or even militarized approach, one which pulls food security into the realm of hard power. In the most extreme cases, a security-driven approach to hunger can provoke a nationalist response from governments. Arab Gulf states’ incursions into East Africa to ensure their own food security, or other nativist approaches to free trade of agricultural products, represent the wrong approach to this issue.

To Get to Food Security, Talk More about Hunger

Moreover, the terminology of food security can confuse more that it elucidates. This language may ring clearly for an English-speaking audience, but in Spanish, for example, the term seguridad alimentaria can lead to misunderstanding, the Guatemalan academic and organizer Bibi La Luz Gonzalez told us in a recent interview. The connotation of food “safety,” rather than “security,” she argues, is another reason why the accessible, human-centered language of “hunger” tied to human rights and values can be a more productive approach.

Nevertheless, in spite of the potential pitfalls, the Biden administration should thread the needle between an overly securitized approach and one that downplays the national security imperative to address hunger — domestically and elsewhere — altogether.

A wealth of evidence points to future increases in food insecurity and hunger in the near to medium term, as the world grapples with recovery from the pandemic and worsening climate change and environmental degradation. These examples, and more, demonstrate that food insecurity and hunger will continue to drive instability and conflict, and be created by instability and conflict, and the two — conflict and hunger — will perpetuate each other.

A wholesale rethink of what constitutes food security is necessary. This includes our knowledge around it, and how leaders, policymakers, and the public talk about the issue. In that regard, the centrality of human suffering from hunger should be a strong motivator to translate an analysis of the problem into greater action. That Americans’ experience of COVID-19 has included empty store shelves, for instance, perhaps provides increased impetus for an administration that seeks to focus on a foreign policy for the middle class. Viewing food security through this new lens is a step toward complete “reform” of the food system as we know it, an imperative to end hunger, and a means to help end current conflicts and blunt future ones.

In the End, Food Security Is Human Security

First, the administration should incorporate both the language of food security but also that of hunger into its forthcoming strategy, to maintain a focus on the human cost of the problem, and to avoid an overly securitized approach to implementation. U.S. and international policymakers need to shift their mindset and vocabulary to realize that food is much more than just humanitarian aid — something to be provided after a crisis hits, as opposed to a cause of crisis — and that an end to hunger is as much about security as social protection and human rights. Placing this shift in thinking in key strategy documents, such as the U.S. National Security Strategy, would go a long way toward making this a reality.

Second, there are key gaps in our collective knowledge in a number of areas, ranging from land degradation, water levels, to vulnerabilities in the distribution network, to name a few. If we are going to take food more seriously, researchers and policymakers should focus on analysis of real time information and gathering real time data, which can be difficult in certain circumstances. Increased technical knowledge will allow diplomats and other policymakers to attempt directed interventions in places like the Northern Triangle.

Vast reforms in the world’s food systems should also ensure resilience in the future. When a government doubts its ability to acquire food in tough times, it is more apt to make risky international land purchases or undertake protectionist food policies at the first sign of distress. Food insecurity arises due to single points of failure — often foreseeable — which require humanitarian interventions. An important first step is for governments to work more to build up healthy food production at the local level to mitigate supply chain failures and ensure livelihoods. Another is to broaden food consumption beyond the four main food crops the world uses today, and to create a situation where they are more geographically dispersed where possible, and more key regional crops are grown locally.

Building resilience into all points of the food system — from plant to pantry — would allow the system to withstand certain levels of disruption. A food system that is more resilient to supply chain disruptions from pandemics or worsening climate change will mean greater food security, and that means fewer conflicts driven by hunger and fewer people starving due to conflict. The interwoven nature of the problem is precisely the reason why hunger needs to be elevated to a national security priority.



Kelly M. McFarland is a U.S. diplomatic historian and the director of programs and research at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He recently authored ISD’s latest New Global Commons Working Group report, “Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger-Instability Nexus.” He also hosts ISD’s Diplomatic Immunity podcast. Prior to Georgetown, he served in the U.S. Department of State as an intelligence analyst. Follow him on Twitter @mcfarlandkellym

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and editor of ISD’s blog on diplomacy and global issues, The Diplomatic Pouch. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville.

Photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust