The independent resource on global security

Food insecurity: strategic incentives for integrated action


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by world leaders in September this year set a target of eradicating world hunger and malnutrition by 2030 (Goal 2). The challenge in this regard is substantial: with population growth, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that by 2050, demand for food will rise by 50%, even as crop yields will decrease due to a warmer climate. Others project that by mid-century, major global food production shocks could be three times more likely than they were in the last.

To tackle these problems, prioritization by individual governments will be key. Indeed, according to the 1996 World Food Summit Plan of Action, implementation of food security – defined as “all people at all times hav[ing] access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” – is the “sovereign right and responsibility of each State.” Food security has in fact become more prevalent in national agendas over the last decade, particularly as states have recognized that food security is as relevant to traditional security as it is to development. But food security is ultimately about “all peoples,” not about states. An overly securitized and state-centric approach may also preclude broader cooperative efforts that are needed to address the issue.

State-centric approaches

Beyond moral obligations, there are clear strategic incentives for states to devote more attention to what has often been relegated to a purely developmental issue. Food security can, for example, be intimately linked with sociopolitical stability. In the wake of food price hikes in 2007-2008 and again in 2010-2011, riots across the Middle East and North Africa showed that volatile food prices can feed into perceptions of injustice and poor governance, which combined may prove politically explosive in fragile contexts. As a recent World Food Program (WFP) study described, “food insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting, and communal conflict.”

Food security is also intimately linked with state legitimacy. Gulf States, South Korea, Japan, and other land or water-poor nations have, in the years following the global food crisis, made strategic investments in farmland abroad in order to feed their populations at home. In China, where famine is still a living memory, food security – or rather grain self-sufficiency – is seen as an essential component of national security, and Chinese wheat reserves remain a state secret. In Russia, which faced massive agriculture decline in the 1990s, food security is also prioritized at the highest levels and is a part of its National Security Strategy (NSS) to 2020. Its securitized approach to food is perhaps best illustrated in its recent embargo of agricultural products from the West – using the geopolitical fallout to buttress already existing strategies to decrease dependence on foreign agricultural imports. Food and agriculture of course hold a highly sacrosanct place in Western nations as well. Their unwillingness to liberalize their agricultural sectors was a key reason the Doha Trade Rounds failed.

But while the responsibility for implementation of food security may lie at the seat of national governments, a narrow national view may not be the most efficient way of addressing the problem. For example, the World Bank finds that when importing and exporting nations both apply trade restrictions to insulate their domestic market from international shocks, this only amplifies food price volatility rather than dampening it for either set of countries. Moreover, resource scarcity, climate change, migration, and conflict are interconnected as well as transnational in scope – though more research can and must be done on the direct and indirect risk linkages.

While securitization of food by national governments can help increase its priority among policymakers, an overly state-centric perspective also invites politicization or geo-politicization of what is a universal human right to adequate food. Particularly under conditions of competition for scarce resources, resource security can exacerbate as well as be exacerbated by conflicts at the intra-state or inter-state level. Food and food aid has been used by states as a lever of political coercion both domestically (e.g. in Syria) and internationally (e.g. during the Cold War). This despite the 1996 Rome Declaration that declared, “Food should not be used as an instrument for political and economic pressure.”

Finally, bad governments can also be a direct part of the problem. Various famines throughout history, as Amartya Sen noted, were more often not problems of supply – but problems of lack of rights, access, and governance. Uninterested officials have often that may fly in the face of, or implemented at the expense of long-term food security for their populations. 

Need for more integrated perspectives

As in all issues of resource scarcity, the temptation for zero-sum thinking regarding food resources is high. But given the global and interconnected nature of our ecological, sociopolitical, and economic systems, addressing food insecurity in any given area will require a more holistic approach. Individual governments and their policy attention will remain key, but also necessary is a more integrated agenda for addressing food-related challenges within and across political borders from actors within and across political borders. Greater dialogue between epistemological communities, between civil society and government actors, defense apparatuses and development agencies, scientific and commercial bodies, producer as well as consumer groups, is also necessary to find cooperative solutions.

Food security originally re-emerged in the post-Cold War era during the broad process of reorienting the locus of security from that of states, to that of their societies. It is and should remain the wellbeing and security of societies, communities, and individuals that governments, but not governments alone, should serve. Ultimately, the policy stress should be on improving the quality of political and environmental governance at all levels – local, national, as well as international – in service of “sovereign rights” that are universal, rather than political or geopolitical in scope. 



Dr Jiayi Zhou is a Researcher in the SIPRI Conflict, Peace and Security Programme.