Global Food Insecurity and Climate Change: The New Threats to International Stability

Global food insecurity is not a topic which initially comes to mind when thinking of challenges to international stability.  Food insecurity is often regarded by many as a humanitarian issue and is thus dealt with as part of the humanitarian project. This was the case in 2000, when world leaders met and decided to create the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG), in order to deal with extreme poverty and eradicate world hunger by 2015. Despite this goal not being achieved, the commitment displayed from institutions highlights the humanitarian approach taken when tackling food insecurity.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) states that food insecurity arises as a result of a situation when people are unable to always have physical, social and economic access to sufficient and nutritious food. With the world’s population growing at a high rate, the international community is now having to grapple with global food insecurity on an unprecedented scale.

Climate change is a significant contributor to global food insecurity. Remaining crops are at high risk of succumbing to extreme variation in weather. Communities dependent on staples such as maize and corn are unable to earn an income and meet their nutritional needs. Along with the corporatisation of agriculture and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate deal, global food insecurity is undoubtedly set to become a more pressing issue, which will eventually be at the forefront of international relations.


Global food insecurity

Currently, the highest proportion of food insecure people is in the region of Sub Saharan Africa. It is estimated that 26.8% of the population were undernourished in 2010-2012 and higher rates than 50% can also be found in certain areas within the region. This is largely because food insecurity and poverty are closely related. Economic growth is key for reducing undernourishment, this is because richer countries are less susceptible to food insecurity.  Policy makers in rapidly growing economies are able to ensure greater food security and nutrition because of better knowledge and resources. However, for developing countries this is not the case, the benefits of economic growth would have to be inclusive and opportunities have to be available for the poor. When this is achieved, progress towards food security and nutrition targets can be in closer sight. With about 795 million people undernourished in 2015 around the world, ensuring sustainable economic growth which trickles down to the masses will certainly be a challenge. Several of the countries whose populations are undernourished are from regions such as South Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean where the economy is less sophisticated to assist economic growth. Battling undernourishment in these regions is a long-term fight, the economy must firstly be given time to develop in order for the states to become self-sufficient. This gives the nation time to improve agricultural productivity growth, their markets, their approach to international trade and the ability to create a social protection programme.


Global food insecurity

Observed data and many studies have proven that a warmer climate has a negative effect on crop production. Generally, the yields of staples  such as wheat, rice and maize have a reduced output, making those dependent on these crops the first victims of food insecurity. Climate related disasters also increase as a result of climate change. Disasters such as drought, floods and tropical storms are the main sources of global food insecurity, as the disasters have a negative impact on nutrition. The unpredictability of climate extremes has effected the stability of food availability and thus prices. Due to a limited supply and high demand, food prices increase, taking a greater proportion of the income of those effected. A study conducted by the World Bank quantified the effect of price increases. The World Bank estimated a net increase of 44 million people in extreme poverty in low and middle countries as consequence of food price increases since June 2010. Between 2003-2013 natural hazards and disasters in developing countries affected more than 1.9 billion people and caused over $494 billion in estimated damages. As the frequency of natural disasters increase, the human and economic costs will certainly worsen.  In the long term, disasters slow economic growth in countries where the agriculture makes a significant contribution to national GDP. In countries such as: Burkino Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger among others agriculture contributes 30 percent to GDP.


The recent flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal which has killed at least 1200 people and left millions homeless, has indicated how the expected annual monsoon season can turn deadly.  The flooding experienced this year is the worst to have affected the region.  International aid agencies are unable to provide aid, as thousands of villages are inaccessible.  In the floods more than 600,000 hectares of farmland have been damaged and over 10,000 hectares have been completely washed away, according to the disaster minister. Flooding depletes the soil of oxygen when most crops require oxygen to have a normal metabolism and growth. Unfortunately, flooding results in higher levels of plant diseases that in the long term can reduce yields. This coincides with the floods experienced in Houston, Texas, as a result from Tropical Storm Harvey. The frequency and severity of natural disasters is only a warning for what is expected in the future. Undoubtedly governments will have to channel more funds to into preventative measures for their countries in order to minimise the impact for any natural disaster. Western powers also have an international duty to ensure preventative measures are in place for less developed countries, to reduce the effect on their development and ensure food security. Each disaster tests local governments, national governments and international aid organisations ability to coordinate with each other quickly.  In the future, it is expected that groups including the government will coordinate much quicker in response to a natural disaster. With the frequency of natural disasters expected to increase, this is an issue governments can no longer ignore.


Global food insecurity

Since the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1960s, agriculture has become an industry that has become more corporatised. The Green Revolution was led by US agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug. He managed to successfully breed miracle seeds, which led to the doubling or trebling of yields with the use of heavy doses of chemical fertilisers.  This led to the establishment of chemical and agribusinesses industries in the US and cemented their importance for decades to become. Borlaug prioritised the ability to grow giant fields of high yielding crops rather than unfolding a plan for sustainable growing. This has given the companies such as Monasanto, the upper hand when communicating with locals in developing countries. This trade-off has resulted in the removal of food sovereignty from communities whose generations depended on this for a livelihood. Certainly, this trade- off has resulted in greater food insecurity, as in the long term Borlaug’s new varieties have reduced soil fertility, reduce genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests. Not to forget, that removing domestic communities from the process, will remove invaluable knowledge in the whole process eventually leading to the displacement of a vast number of peasant farmers. The global agrochemical and seed industry is seeing a high rate of mergers and attempted merges never seen before. In 2016, ChemChina announced a $43bn purchase of Syngenta, increasing  ChemChina’s genetically engineered seed capacity and giving it the largest slice of the agricultural chemical market.

Global food insecurity

Other players in the market such as Monsanto, Bayer and BASF are left with no choice but to join the mega- merge in order to retain their previous market share.  The competition between these firms is raising concerns about the future of the international food security. Insecurity in global food systems can translate into a myriad of international issues which threaten universal stability.  When the development security nexus is translated into the contemporary era, food insecurity is the issue. A lack of consistent access to cheap nutritious food, was one of the causes of the Arab Spring in 2010. Arabs were dissatisfied with how far their paycheck could extend to. Inflation rising to 18.9% in Egypt before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, dramatically reduced Egyptians ability to regularly purchase basics such as bread. With no access to social safety nets, Egyptians were left with no choice but to protests. This encouraged many Arabs across the region to protest for better living conditions. During the protests, the region was unstable as no one could predict the sequence of events. Oil prices were effected, countries affected by protests found a drastic reduction in annual economic growth and countries trading with those countries with citizens protesting found themselves having to find new trading partners. International stability was affected as a number of these states had no government in place for a duration of time and were practically lawless. Syria is still in the grips of the effects of the revolution with terrorism now being included in the mix. This mixture of global security threats poses a risk to millions around the world, with many countries directly or indirectly experiencing the effects


Trump’s withdrawal from the internationally supported Paris Climate deal stunned many across the world. For years America has been the figure head for a more environmentally friendly future and set optimistic international targets in order to slow the progression of climate change. America’s historical  industrial past has to an extent tainted their image when trying to discuss the issue of climate change with other countries. Undoubtedly, America will be the biggest loser from its withdrawal. Many including Professor John Schellnuber, a climate change scientist and former adviser to the EU believe; ‘’It will not substantially hamper global climate progress but it will hurt the American economy and society alike,”.  This has provided the opportunity for “China and Europe to become world leaders in green development and will strengthen their position if the US slips back’’. Most importantly the Paris Climate deal has given China the platform show confirm their commit to climate change, signaling a more cooperative partner. Thus, strengthening China’s position in the international arena. China’s gain is America’s loss, as this is at expense of America’s decade long hegemony over climate change. Trump’s nationalist stance approach to the deal has meant he has overlooked the global business opportunity that the low carbon economy represents. In 2016 alone, the global advanced energy market surpassed $1.4 trillion in 2016, a 7% increase from 2015. The advanced energy sector in the United States  grew to $199.2 billion and is equal the pharmaceutical manufacturing . The advanced energy market is almost twice the size of the global airline industry and nearly equal to worldwide apparel revenue. For such an opportunity to be missed by an individual who has profited significantly from his business ventures, clearly indicates Trump’s stance is merely political.

The recent natural disasters are only a glimpse of the future. Increased natural disasters, extreme weather and a growing population combined will inevitably worsen food insecurity. Going ahead the way individuals, companies and governments approach food is crucial in determining to what extent they will be exposed to the effects of food insecurity. If the approach adopted is not one which limits the effect for individuals worldwide, citizens would lose a sense of security and international stability would be challenged.


Nadjah Osman is a contributing writer for PGW with a specific interest in Global Food Security and violence in sub-Saharan Africa.



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