Keeping it Stable: The Connection Between Hunger and Conflict

Keeping it Stable: The Connection Between Hunger and Conflict

Today’s realities of food insecurity, political instability, and recurring conflicts will likely prevent the world from reaching the ambitious United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to eradicate hunger by 2030. The combination of escalating conflicts in fragile states and unprecedented humanitarian needs makes alleviating global hunger in such a short time both daunting and unrealistic.

Although achieving this SDG’s targets in totality is unlikely, a global focus on reducing poverty, malnutrition, and hunger around the world remains essential both as a universal moral value in a world of inequalities, and as an important contributor to economic growth and national security. The United States has been a global leader in addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty through agricultural development, including President Obama’s leadership role in creating the L’Aquila Initiative at the 2009 G8 summit in Italy. The initiative emerged in response to a food price crisis and resulted in a promise by donors to provide $22 billion in agricultural development assistance over three years.

It is more critical now than ever for leaders within the Trump administration to continue to leverage that progress, starting with gaining a better understanding of the complexity of global food insecurity and its inherent connection with conflict. As food insecurity is both a cause and a consequence of conflict, addressing food insecurity goes well beyond a moral obligation; it is a national security imperative.

A lack of access to food can spark unrest among civilian populations, particularly when triggered by food price spikes. Hungry populations are more likely to express their discontent with unresponsive or corrupt leadership, perpetuating a cycle of political instability and further undermining long-term economic development. In addition, governments and non-state actors alike can use food as a strategic instrument of war, as witnessed in instances spanning from Sudan’s civil conflict in the 1990s to President Bashar al-Assad’s war-torn Syria today. In Syria, all sides have used food as a tool to control and expel populations. ISIS has used food resources as both a source of funding and a lure for recruitment. Food weaponization further underscores the importance of United States action to protect food security abroad and recognize strategies employed to transform a basic necessity into a military tool.  

Today, between 1.2 and 1.5 billion people live in fragile, conflict-ridden states. These conflicts have pushed over 56 million people into crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity. The U.N. estimates that 65 million people are internally displaced within their own countries or are refugees in other countries. These numbers continue to rise as conflicts and violence escalate across the world, in countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria, causing social and economic devastation. Meanwhile, the number of people dependent on humanitarian assistance has mushroomed. Projections indicate that by 2030, more than two-thirds of the world’s poor could be living in fragile countries.  

The international community is increasingly recognizing the linkages between food insecurity and political instability. Sharp rises in global food prices in 2007 and 2008 sparked riots and street demonstrations in more than 40 countries across the world. Since political leaders started paying attention to this connection, there has been notable progress in increasing international attention and funding to address the root causes of hunger and poverty. The United States has dedicated roughly $1 billion to agricultural development since 2010 through its global food security programs. Thanks to the bipartisan Global Food Security Act that passed in July 2016, multiple U.S. agencies are implementing a global food security strategy that reduces poverty, bolsters resilience, and improves nutrition.

Even the U.S. intelligence community has noticed food security challenges. In November 2015, the National Intelligence Council released an assessment that linked food insecurity to political instability and conflict. The report states that the overall risk of food insecurity in many countries, compounded by demographic shifts and constraints on key resources such as land and water, will increase during the next decade. The assessment concludes that in some countries, declining food security will contribute to social disruptions and large-scale political instability or conflict. The intelligence community’s highlighting of the importance of food security as a diplomacy tool and security strategy broadens the number of stakeholders who are tracking, responding to, and mitigating food insecurity. It is no longer solely a focus for policymakers in the development space.

After nearly a decade of progress, global hunger is again on the rise. A U.N. report on food security and nutrition released last year estimates that 815 million people, or 11 percent of the global population, are chronically malnourished, an increase of nearly 40 million people over the previous year. Conflict and climate change are the two primary causes of this reversed trend. More than half of those experiencing extreme hunger live in countries affected by protracted conflict. Droughts and natural disasters also pose a serious threat to food security, particularly to smallholder farmers vulnerable to a volatile climate.

The 2017 State of Food and Agriculture report explains that conflict and climate change are responsible for rising global hunger levels. Smallholder farmers around the world will be forced to adjust to changing rainfall patterns and severe droughts and floods, which will directly impact their crops and incomes. Many weeds, pests, and pathogens are influenced by climate and thrive in warm conditions. Severe floods can wipe out fields and block market transportation routes, reducing smallholders’ abilities to maintain a sustainable income. Researchers, including those at the National Academies of Science, conclude that human-induced climate change and drought is one of the root causes of Syria’s conflict. Climate change thus places an added burden on countries with limited resources already struggling to feed their populations, as declining agricultural growth and incomes can create displacement and heighten hunger.

Food insecurity and climate change are not the sole cause of the conflict in Syria, but their contribution to the country’s instability cannot be ignored. Investing in international development programs and humanitarian assistance that fosters agricultural-led growth and strengthens the resilience of vulnerable people can create peace, improve lives, and reduce conflict. U.S. foreign policy priorities should include strengthening the health and prosperity of those less fortunate before a crisis occurs because our investments can help prevent a crisis in the first place. As Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said, “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” 

Although instability and conflict, climate volatility, intensifying urbanization, and rising food demand will all greatly impact progress in the fight against global hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, there is hope. Given projections of lower food prices and rising incomes, food security for low- and middle-income countries is expected to improve in the next decade or so. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the number of food insecure people will decrease nearly 60 percent, to 251 million, by 2026. If this prediction proves true, there is the potential for increased political stability in fragile states, creating a decrease in conflicts and an opportunity for the United States to shift foreign assistance even more to agricultural-led economic growth activities that strengthen supply chains.

While it is unrealistic to believe that the world can abolish global poverty and hunger within the next fourteen years, investments in agricultural development and humanitarian assistance can improve lives and stabilize economies. Poverty has dropped between seven and thirty-six percent in select countries where the U.S. government has invested in programs through its global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future. The United States should continue and strengthen this type of foreign assistance.

In addition to Feed the Future, the United States should consider a range of policy recommendations. If the United States does not remain a global leader in this space, we will create a vacuum that may or may not be filled. All eyes will be on the Trump Administration’s FY 2019 budget proposal that is said to be released this month (February 2018). Congressional champions for food and nutrition security who understand the value of development are likely going to need to fight to ensure  resources needed to sustain progress. When the U.S. Global Food Security Act expires in the summer of 2018, Congress must pass new legislation that makes global food security funding and programming a more permanent part of the United States development agenda. The United States must better link intelligence, defense, and development actors around food security efforts. While military or peacekeeping operations help establish peace and security in a conflict-affected country, agricultural development is an important post-conflict stabilizer to create sustained food security. If the United States stands on the sidelines or cuts funding to critical food security programs, instability will increase in fragile countries and our national security will be at risk.

The Trump administration is  rightfully looking for effective ways to both protect America’s interests and promote the nation’s shared values. Recognizing that global food security is a foreign diplomacy tool that can reduce risk and create stability is a step in the right direction. Members of the administration should build upon the progress of initiatives like Feed the Future, appoint leaders who understand that food security abroad is in America’s best interest, and engage regularly with Congress to effectively capture the power of investing in global food security.


Kimberly Flowers is director of the Global Food Security Project and the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS in 2015, Ms. Flowers was the communications director for Fintrac and served overseas in Ethiopia, Jamaica, and Haiti as a development, outreach, and communications officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2005-2011. Ms. Flowers began her international development career in 1999 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria. She also served as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Jamaica in 2004. She is a magna cum laude graduate of William Jewell College, studied at Oxford University, and is an alumna of the Pryor Center for Leadership Development.