Should Food Security Be A National Security Issue?

Published April 14, 2015
Last Updated August 8, 2019

Food security as a policy issue has evolved to reflect the dynamism of global events. The increasing attention paid to food’s impact on poverty, humanitarian crises, conflicts and climate change all suggest that food security is a national security concern.

Since the term was first used at the 1974 World Food Conference, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program has recognized that food security is multidimensional. It includes food availability, food access (i.e., having adequate resources for a nutritious diet), utilization (inputs to food like water and sanitation) and stability. A secure population, household or individual must have access to adequate food at all times. In 2015, we can see that this is often not the case in fragile states, but also in many parts of the developed world.

The food price crisis of 2008 reverberated globally. From the food riots that accompanied the Arab Spring to the upheavals in Haiti due to the increases in the price of rice, to the corn riots in Mexico because of the high costs of a staple like tortillas, one thing was clear: food had entered the security space. Much like climate change is now considered a national security concern, food security has recently moved from the realm of development economists and humanitarian organizations into the halls of the Pentagon, where analysts are recognizing the linkages between food insecurity, climate change, and natural and man-made disasters.

In the United States, food is a much more complicated subject than it used to be. Today, policymakers must consider not only nutrition, but also access to locally grown commodities, management of food waste, and the impact of commodity prices on the daily cost of food. Food security both affects and is vulnerable to changes in economic stability, climate change, education and national health. Debate over “food deserts,” or places without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, remain important when it comes to socio-economic indicators, and addressing the “double burden” of malnutrition and obesity in the United States sparks conversations about access, education, and nutrition regulations in the food industry. When striving for the physical wellbeing of the public within an interdependent system, these kinds of issues surrounding food security rest at the foundation of any national security strategy.

Governments around the world are beginning to recognize and respond to the linkages between food and conflict. Uganda, for example, has merged its Ministry of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) into its Ministry of Defense. As both a consequence and a driver of conflict, food insecurity creates a cyclical, self-perpetuating system that leads to prolonged conflict. For example, changes in climate which stress agricultural production have driven migration, urbanization, and shifts in land use as coastal plains become more vulnerable to flooding. Man-made conflicts involving divisive ethnic feuds and ongoing civil wars in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Central African Republic have restricted access to food, continuing to destabilize the political environment.

While there is no clear direct causation between a lack of food or food access and conflict, food insecurity is now being discussed as a factor that exacerbates other political, economic, and social drivers of conflict, while simultaneously being a consequence of conflict itself. A primary example of this is the withholding of food from a population as a weapon of war. The food price crisis of 2008, as mentioned above, not only helped create the upheavals of the Arab Spring but also these conflict conditions and resulting food shortages have made food suppliers – groceries, markets – a target for attacks. In Syria, for example, reports have emerged of government forces deliberately bombing citizens waiting in line for bread at their local bakery. Targeting food is not a new strategy in war, as the third Reich withheld food from urban populations as part of its overall plan to eliminate Jews in Europe inWWII.

With food security on the national security agenda, international peacebuilding interventions including those delivering food assistance could reduce the tensions of conflict and create self-reinforced resistance against the underlying sources of conflict by fostering unity and trust while building the legitimacy and capacity of the state. Humanitarian aid can provide life-saving food and development assistance in the post-conflict or crisis period and should strive to sustain agricultural supplies and create livelihoods as a way to advance stability and prevent new disruptions of the peace. While the concept of humanitarian aid is relatively straightforward, it is the implementation and continual governance of food that often create problems. If assistance and support programs are not designed and implemented correctly and inclusively, they can further mangle food markets and be used as a tool of oppression through the misappropriation of aid. Peacebuilding interventions with food security promotion can also have indirect benefits through the long-term process itself. With the inclusivity necessary to properly design, implement and evaluate programs, various groups who would otherwise be at odds must interact and work together, which consequentially builds social resistance to violence.

The role of the private sector is often discussed separately, but international agricultural conglomerates remain the key power able to shape the Global South in a way ultimately resulting in greater food access. Too often corporate interests are demonized, despite the need to bring investors, food companies, and local communities into a broader coalition of stakeholders to help prevent global food crises. The private sector is an irreplaceable partner in the quest for global food security.

By mid-century the world will have 9 billion people to feed. Access to food will be a challenge, not because the planet cannot grow enough for all, but because there will be barriers that prevent its even distribution. Putting food security on the national security agenda will allow policymakers throughout government to create a national strategy that does not dissociate the consequences of climate change, the reduction of water supplies, the impact of urbanization, and ongoing conflicts from the responsibility to feed our citizens. Food can no longer be an isolated issue in the broader conversation about the security and development of the global commons.

*Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior advisor with the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center, where she works on security and development issues, civil-military relations, and stabilization and reconstruction. She is also a Scholar-in-Residence at American University.

*Levi Maxey is a researcher at the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center and holds a degree in international relations from Roosevelt University.

This post was originally published by The Stimson Center and has been re-published with permission.