Analysis | Can food build peace?

Challenges for life in the Anthropocene

Johanna Mendelson Forman

In this piece, the Stimson Center’s Johanna Mendelson Forman examines the need to tackle the links between food insecurity and conflict. The author participated in the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy’s New Global Commons Working Group on Food Security, which led to the report, “Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger-Instability Nexus.

Two smiling Zimbabwean women push carts of donated food on a dirt road.
Women carry their village’s food aid from Australia in a cart, near a World Food Programme food distribution point at Epworth in Harare, Zimbabwe (Image: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Flickr)

On September 21st, the United Nations observes International Day of Peace. This year’s theme is “recovering better for a more equitable and sustainable world.” Since 1981, the U.N. has observed a day of peace to highlight the challenges of eliminating war and creating a more peaceful world. Given the trifecta of climate change, conflicts, and Covid-19, this year’s theme is even more relevant to the nexus of food security and conflict.

In February 2021 the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for Member States to support a “sustained humanitarian pause” to local conflicts. According to the U.N., “the global ceasefire must continue to be honored to ensure people caught in conflict have access to lifesaving vaccinations and treatments.” But to end the underlying causes of hunger, instability, and conflict, these ceasefires must endure.

As the U.N. prepares for its 76th General Assembly, it faces a world that is struggling to end some of the most intractable conflicts while also addressing new outbursts of violence. Research confirms that conflict is a key driver of hunger and food insecurity. The challenge going forward is what can be done to end the wars that have pushed so many people closer to starvation, in a world where there is more than enough food to provide for everyone.

[Register now for a September 14 panel discussion on food security with Johanna and other experts, organized by the Stimson Center and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.]

If I were to tell you that we could reduce hunger by 60 percent for 155 million people in 23 countries by ending conflict, I am sure you would not believe me. Knowing that conflict is a key driver of hunger, the challenge we face requires a multidimensional approach. Nations must find a way to build peace to reduce instability. And even where governance is weak, there are still ways that we can help alleviate hunger if we approach food insecurity locally. We can achieve a world free of hunger but it will take local communities, the private sector, and donor governments to recognize hunger as a security problem and access to food as a basic human right.

Solving global hunger is compounded by three existential threats. Climate change, conflicts, and a global pandemic. COVID-19 has claimed many lives in both the developed and less developed world, wreaking economic havoc on many countries, impacting global trade, and undermining food security for so many people who have no resources to access food. The result is growing food insecurity worldwide.

The hotter and hungrier world we have created does not auger well for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations member have pledged to reach by 2030. This is especially the case when it comes to achieving zero hunger, Goal #2. The UN Development Program report of 2020, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, says it all. Humans are now responsible for the future of our planet.

Since 2015 the world has experienced an uptick in hunger precisely because the 14–16 frozen conflicts have produced 60 percent of the hungriest people on this planet. In 2017, the State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) confirmed this relationship. Today we continue to see how conflicts drive hunger, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The weaponization of food, while not a new tactic in warfare, is now a favorite tool of both governments and non-state actors who seek control of populations in places like Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Venezuela, to mention just a few.

Addressing country crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Haiti, and parts of Nigeria would also go a long way to alleviating the hunger people face. According to the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises Report, “at least 155 million people in 55 countries were in crisis in 2020, an increase of around 20 million people from 2019.” Africa remained disproportionately affected. “Conflict pushed almost 100 million people into acute food insecurity, followed by economic shocks (40 million) and weather extremes (16 million).”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated in May that “conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing. We need to tackle hunger and conflict together to solve either . . . We must do everything we can to end this vicious cycle. Addressing hunger is a foundation for stability and peace.” Unless this year’s General Assembly commits to ending the cycles of violence that drive food insecurity in ongoing conflicts, achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals remains elusive even by 2030.

Later in September, the United Nations Food System Summit (UNFSS), a global event focusing on ways to address the challenges to reaching zero hunger by 2030, will seek an action-oriented approach to rethinking the way we address food systems and food insecurity. David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Program, the UN Agency charged with hunger alleviation and humanitarian food aid, laments that with a global pandemic, climate change, and conflict we must find a way to build a more sustainable future which must address the way conflicts and violence impact food security. He has been an outspoken statesman who connects food security and peace. In a recent report prepared by the Institute for Study of Diplomacy, Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger-Instability Nexus, the authors conclude that we must reframe, re-think, and reform food systems, from the local to global. This is easier said than done.

Reframing is important since for too long the conversations about food have not connected the dots with climate change. That is changing as the last report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change directly took on the impact of higher temperatures and drought on agriculture. There is also greater rethinking about what we mean by the term “food systems.” Today, a food system includes not only the basic elements of how we get our food, but all the other processes and infrastructure including economic and social systems and policy considerations needed to achieve food security. Such a wholistic approach also acknowledges the private sector’s role in avoiding food price shocks by preventing the disruption of global supply chains that can destabilize countries.

Finally, how we reform food systems on a global level will require vast changes in diet, greater commitments to ending food waste, and bringing all organizations that work on food security to recognize that their success will depend on the capacity of leaders to commit to reducing violence and building a more peaceful world.

Food is a basic human right. It is also a global public good. As we approach yet another opportunity to act globally through the United Nations, we must put food out front not only as a means of survival, but as a national security priority. On this year’s International Day of Peace, we ignore this connection at our peril, as we enter the Anthropocene as inhabitants of our only home: planet earth.

Dr. Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, and an Adjunct Professor at the School of International Service at American University. She is the creator of ConflictCuisine®, a program that examines war and peace around the dinner table.

For more on the role of food security in peace building, join Johanna and other experts for a panel discussion: “Covid, Conflict, and Climate: Food Insecurity Today and the Way Forward,” Tuesday, September 14 at 11:00 am EDT, organized by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center:



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