The Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars published an extremely useful study today on the links between food insecurity and armed conflict and unrest. Authored by Emmy Simmons, Harvesting Peace comes out of a workshop on food/agriculture that the Wilson Center organized previously. The report serves as a useful guide to the current literature theorizing the connection between food insecurity and inter- and (especially) intra-state conflict, and provides recommendations for further avenues of research and programmatic changes, particularly at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Recent events have forced new attention to the connection between food security and armed conflict. Around 2008, world food prices rose rapidly, causing demonstrations in many countries around the world. The reduction of food subsidies in several Arab countries, for example, has been identified as a contributing factor to the unrest of the Arab Spring. Rapid climate change has focused attention on the potential disruptions caused by rising temperatures and erratic weather on agricultural systems. Discussions of Syria have included space for asking how climate change—in this case, extreme drought—may have contributed to the tensions that led to the outbreak of their civil war.

As Harvesting Peace is quick to point out, though, the analytic lens is more complex than saying that food insecurity directly causes conflict. Food security—defined by availability (sufficient supply), access (to the market), utilization (meeting nutritional needs), and stability (regularity of access) of  food—can be impacted by armed conflict, a statement for which the evidence is pretty clear. But the evidence that food insecurity also contributes to conflict is less direct. Rather, the literature suggests that it contributes to instability in the same way other economic and social factors would contribute to conflict. For the most part, however, the specifics of this relationship have been understudied.

New research highlighted in Harvesting Peace shows that in lower-income countries food price shocks have an outsized impact on stability, because low-income households devote a much larger share of their income to purchasing food. Also, the competency of governments is a factor that interacts directly with food insecurity. A government that is flexible enough to respond immediately to a sudden food crisis, by market interventions to slow inflation or increase supply, is much less likely to see sustained domestic unrest (especially if those measures are targeted at urban consumers, who can organize more easily than their rural counterparts). Studies also show that poverty-based food insecurity can provide an incentive structure for groups to support or participate in armed conflict, if there is a belief that such participation could garner access or control over resources.

Based on a broad dive into the political science research, Simmons identifies many areas in which the current aid and development infrastructure could improve its integration of food security, with a particular focus on USAID’s programs. Simmons points out that there is a fundamental tension between tackling immediate emergency circumstances in conflict-ridden countries and building the infrastructure that would be necessary to ensure long-term food security. Humanitarian organizations typically deal with the former, and are committed to neutrality in conflict situations. International development actors such as the World Bank, however, are more focused on the long-term, and are therefore committed to working with established governments—which might not be feasible when dealing with weak states that are trying to transition away from armed conflict.

To their credit, as the report notes, international organizations recently have attempted to bridge that gap through coordinating assistance programs more effectively. The report recommends in addition that development agencies make their projects more flexible regarding how assistance is spent and managed, and that the timelines for certain programs be lengthened. USAID has begun to adopt many of these approaches, especially with its Feed the Future Initiative, which links food security to conflict in directing emergency food and development aid. Simmons believes that USAID’s focus can be tightened even further to adopting a focus on food insecurity, namely by prioritizing agricultural recovery in conflict zones. Assistance efforts must focus more on institution-building at local levels, so that some legitimate indigenous authority can continue the work when international programs wind down. International donors must also focus more tightly on households, so that the end of emergency food assistance is complemented by a wider array of programs to build social safety nets for families: jobs programs, infrastructure spending, reforms of land tenure, and wider access to credit markets, are just some examples.

This kind of research and programming is essential to future contingency planning. The effects of climate change on specific sectors are difficult to predict with any confidence, but what evidence exists strongly suggests growing volatility in the critical infrastructure governing what we eat and drink. Disruptions to those systems have implications for the stability of developing nations throughout the world, as Simmons’ study adeptly demonstrates. As the last twenty years have shown, the stability of developing nations is a vital security interest of the United States. The recommendations enumerated in Harvesting Peace, as well as the caveat that a lot of further research needs to be undertaken, are a good start. Hopefully, this lens can be widened to address the perspectives of the Departments of State and Defense and the intelligence community, who have also begun to focus more intensely on the security implications of climate change.

Emmy Simmons. (2013). Harvesting Peace: Food Security, Conflict, and Cooperation (Environmental Change & Security Program Report) Vol. 14, Issue 3. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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