Conflict & Food Security: Two sides of the same coin?

By Stephanie Brittain

Food insecurity and malnutrition can be ended sustainably within a generation, it is said. However, with one in eight people in the world today still undernourished and approximately two billion suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, the challenge is immense.

Further, the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and at the current rate of development, the number of people at risk of hunger in the developing world will grow from 881 million in 2005 to more than a billion people by 2050.

78 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and agriculture remains fundamental for their economic growth and for food security for our expanding global population. Further, agricultural development is found to be about two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest than growth in other sectors.

Conflict impedes agricultural development

Credit: UN/Tobin Jones 2013

Credit: UN/Tobin Jones 2013

However, many of the countries that rely on agriculture are also in conflict or suffering from environmental, economic or political instability. With rapidly changing politics, widening economic inequality, climate change and increasingly scarce natural resources, instability and insufficient rural development are two sides of the same coin.

Conflict can reduce the amount of food produced and disrupt people’s access to food, worsening food insecurity. Conflict can be also be exacerbated by environmental shocks and stressors, or by a weak political governance when incapable of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and affected. Somalia is an example of national governance failure, prolonged drought and increased temperatures, fuelling a vicious cycle of food scarcity and instability.

The World Food Programme (WFP) reported significant declines in agricultural production in the Central African Republic (CAR) following its worst political and human crisis that sparked mass migrations, leaving more than 600,000 people displaced in 2014. Cassava production was 58% lower in 2014 than the 2008-2012 pre-crisis average and the agricultural sector contracted by 46 percent. 1.6 million people are now food insecure.

Unsustainable agricultural development can cause conflict

As much as conflict can prevent agricultural development, conflict can also be exacerbated by unsustainable agricultural

Credit: UN/Tobin Jones 2013

Credit: UN/Tobin Jones 2013

practices that place undue strain on already limited natural resources. Agriculture and land use change are responsible for between 19–29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but ironically, agriculture is more vulnerable to climate change than any other sector. A warming climate could cut crop yields by more than 25%, therefore unsustainable agricultural practices, combined with poor governance and policies that do not support the most vulnerable may lead to unwanted increases in food prices, food insecurity and conflict in the future. Further, research has found historical links between increased temperatures and conflict in Africa.

High food prices and food insecurity have been shown to provide a platform to voice to other grievances such as unemployment, low incomes or inequality. For example, the 2007/2008 “hunger riots” were caused by high food prices, instigated by rapid increases in the prices for major grains. In 2011, governments in the Middle East reduced subsidies for bread, a major staple most people in the region. This decision was blamed, at least in part, as a cause for the Arab Spring uprisings.

Sustainable agriculture can be part of the solution

In regions prone to political instability in particular, sustainable farming practices that seek to produce more crops with fewer resources must be adopted. Adopted on a large scale, this could help to ease the pressure on natural resources and build the natural capital required for resilience to shocks and stresses.

Credit: Gates Foundation 2009

Credit: Gates Foundation 2009

Take soils, for example. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 65 per cent of soils are degraded, and unable to nourish crops. Poverty, climate change, population pressures and inadequate farming techniques are leading to a continuous decline in the health of African soils, whilst the economic loss is estimated at USD 68 billion per year. The December 2014 Montpellier Panel report highlights several recommendations on how agricultural practices can be improved to better conserve, restore and enhance the soils in Africa, soils that without which food would not grow, and food insecurity would spread rapidly, contributing to instability across regions.

A recent FARM Fondation conference in Paris highlighted that poor rural areas with few job or livelihood opportunities that neglect agriculture are breeding grounds for conflict. Similarly, the Montpellier Panel June 2014 report on entrepreneurship in African agriculture emphasises the importance of sustainable agriculture for creating jobs and securing livelihoods in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has the youngest population in the world and the number of young people is set to more than double from 126 million to 265 million between 2010 and 2050. Further, more than 70% of the young population lives on less than US$2 per day and youth underemployment is high. The employment and livelihood opportunities that agriculture can provide these young people all along the value chain need to be recognised, both for increased food security and for reduced risk of conflict.

When political insecurity and environmental shocks and stressors combine, they create a perfect breeding ground for food insecurity and conflict. The role that sustainable agriculture can play for improving food security and closing the poverty gap that causes inequality and conflict needs to be recognised.

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