by John Michael Denney
As winter recess comes to an end for American college undergraduates, international relations majors are likely to be choosing between classes with powerful names like War, Peacebuilding, Ethnic Conflict, and Democracy. Imagine the surprise and laughter if one of those classes was named Food or the Stomach and Rebellion. But this might not be too far off, as a growing body of evidence shows that war, regime change, and political upheaval might not be as complicated as we first imagined. Indeed, it could all come down to having enough to eat.
In a paper out of the New England Complex Systems Institute, a group of interested scholars put together a very convincing graphical overlay suggesting that massive global food price spikes caused the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the global political unrest in 2007/2008. They draw their food price data from the FAO’s Food Price Index, which averages five separate commodity price indices.
If this graph is to be believed, then there appears to be a very strong case for food prices being at the very least strongly correlated with political instability. But that’s not all; a quick look at the historical record shows that food shortages and price hikes preceded some of the world’s most famous political revolutions, such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the revolutions of 1848. The idea that food affects politics is actually quite simple when compared to complex analyses involving ideological shifts, economic growth, historical factors, and leadership personalities.
So what then does this mean for policy? If food is such a strong driver of instability and political upheaval, what does this mean for security studies in the 21st century? At the very least it means that policymakers need to start taking climate change as a legitimate security threat. Policies like massive agricultural subsidies in the United States and Western Europe have worked to enrich Western farmers at the expense of developing world farmers and massive waste. These must, at the very least, be reconsidered given the way the saturate the market with cheap food, outcompeting indigenous competition in the developing world.
It would be easy to dismiss developing world rebellions and revolutions as low on the U.S. security agenda, but conflict in the developing world does affect the West. At the very least, it costs the West money. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that the United Nations system, paid for mostly by the West, has spent over 40 billion dollars in the past century on controlling developing world conflict. Much of this conflict, a UNEP report notes, is motivated by environmental factors. Indeed, as the environment continues to deteriorate, especially in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, these conflicts are likely to increase as groups compete for control over vanishing water, arable land, and other natural resources.
Policymakers should also view this information as a better way of understanding how to promote development. Food prices are only going to rise as global climate conditions worsen, and the case of the Arab Spring shows that relying on food imports is an ultimately self-defeating strategy. More attention needs to be paid to fostering sustainable agricultural systems in the developing world, particularly in the areas targeted by international agricultural investors, a topic covered in an earlier post in this blog. Policymakers have long focused on issues like balance of military power, trade routes, and energy control, but food is an existential part of society. It will come as no surprise to biologists that a group of animals goes into disarray when food resources are depleted, so why should it surprise policymakers that societies need food to function?
John Michael Denney is a graduate student in the International Relations Program at UMass Boston.