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Food Insecurity and the Cycle of Instability

Sonia Kalia

Executive Summary

The dangers of food insecurity are best understood through its relationships with climate change, conflict, and migration. These factors feed into each other and create a vicious cycle of instability and upheaval in states of economic and strategic value to the United States.

Food Insecurity as a Product of Conflict and Climate Change

In 2014, the Department of Defense cited climate change as a threat multiplier, cementing the link between climate change and global instability through food systems. Catastrophic climate events have devastating effects on agricultural yields for farmers in equatorial regions– every 1°C rise in mean temperature is associated with a 10% drop in crop yields.

Restricted access to food can be an accelerant leading to civil conflict and anti-government demonstrations; in the 1980s, young men in Mali began supporting rebellions against the government after being exposed to revolutionary discourse while migrating in search of food security. Perceived inequalities in the system were emphasized by the government’s inability to provide, creating optimal circumstances for social instability and insurrection.

Food Insecurity as a Weapon in Conflict and Source of Migration

The manipulation of food as a weapon of war has created an inextricable link between food insecurity and political instability. In Syria, civil unrest and conflict during the Arab Spring led to the displacement of populations throughout the country, leading to a significant decline in agricultural output. While agricultural output suffered, the Assad Regime used a “kneel or starve” strategy to force the opposition into submission. The use of starvation as a war tactic destabilized the nation and contributed significantly to the ongoing refugee crisis.

Farmers who suffer from climate change-related food insecurity often turn to migration as a last resort. In the wake of El Niño, an average of 250,000 people per year have migrated from the Dry Corridor in Central America to the United States. This number is expected to rise as families are pushed out of food-insecure regions.

U.S. National Security Interests

The results of increasing global food insecurity will undoubtedly be increased social unrest, migration, and interstate tension. The following issues are of specific importance to the United States:

  • Aid and development assistance:

    • Since 2009, the U.S. and the rest of the G-8 members have pledged over $22 billion to fight food insecurity.

    • USAID allocates nearly 60 percent of its resources to conflict-affected countries, highlighting the importance of analyzing food insecurity’s role in conflict.

  • Strategic allies:

    • Food insecurity in regions of strategic value to the United States is expected to increase over the next ten years due to compounding risk factors, e.g., supply chain disruptions and resource constraints.

    • The Middle East, Africa, and South Asia are expected to be the most vulnerable regions.

    • Disruptions to the global food system will affect imports to the United States as well as trade relationships with its allies, possibly increasing food insecurity within the United States.

  • Migration:

    • Food insecurity will continue to push families towards the United States, disrupting established migration patterns and straining the U.S.’s immigration and welfare systems.

Today’s Pressing Conflict

The continuing war in Ukraine has massively impacted global food and energy markets. 30% of the world’s supply of wheat, corn, and barley is sourced from Ukraine, leading to significant reductions in global access to these staple foods. This war has impacted every link in the global food supply chain, from production to transportation. Vessels operating in the Black Sea face heightened insurance premiums, and sudden pivots to alternative suppliers have led to increased import costs for states relying on Russian or Ukrainian imports. Since the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, 16 states have placed restrictions on food exports, with 5 states placing export licensing restrictions. As of October 2022, 6.98% of traded calories on the global food market are restricted due to bans, licensing, or taxes. Currently, an estimated 345 million people across 82 countries are facing acute food insecurity.

Current and Future Solutions

Earlier this year, the Biden administration reaffirmed its commitment to ending global hunger by pledging over $2.9 billion in global humanitarian assistance through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In the same announcement, President Biden announced a contribution of $150 million to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, with the intention of encouraging other donors and philanthropic groups to follow suit and match this commitment.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative kicked off in July 2022 and enabled Ukraine to resume shipping grain exports through the Black Sea following an agreement brokered between Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey. Ukraine, Turkey, and Russia renewed this initiative on November 17 despite growing concerns over Putin’s increased demands over the deal’s conditions.

Building and maintaining secure food systems is crucial for ensuring stability in states affected by conflict and climate change. Recent developments in Ukraine have proven how food insecurity is fueled by conflict, and this cycle of instability is undoubtedly a threat to peace and security. The United States is notably interested in protecting its allies and will continue its commitment to ending food insecurity and mitigating the effects of disruptions to the global food system through USAID intervention and strategic partnerships. The U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy details USAID’s plans for the next several years, as well as how the agency plans to respond to a rapidly changing global context.



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