Food security and conflict in the Anthropocene: Addressing the unfolding storm

Anthropogenic forces increasingly threaten peace and security. The COVID-19 pandemic is merely an example of how rapidly new risks can unfold in an interconnected world, reinforce other vulnerabilities and trigger tensions and conflicts.

von , and , 4.8.21

Climate change is likely to contribute to tensions and conflicts particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Reinforced by new threats, it can create a perfect storm on peace and security. Here is what can be done now.

As world leaders, researchers, UN agencies, and civil society organizations convene in Rome to discuss the challenges and importance of SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) at the United Nations Food System Summit, two critical aspects must not be overlooked: First, higher food prices are also associated with increased threats to peace and security and should be seen as a threat multiplier. Both of the two major food price crises of this century (in 2007/08 and 2010/2011) were accompanied by social unrest in low- and middle-income countries. Second, the globalization of food systems implies that local events (e.g. droughts) can have global consequences (e.g. via food prices). Climate change and the higher risk of pandemics will further increase the likelihood of international food price spikes and food insecurity. We propose concrete steps for decision makers to reduce these indirect threats to peace and security in the new risk landscape unfolding in front of us.

The Anthropocene: The perfect storm on food security 

The evidence is clear. We have entered the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humanity has become the dominant force of change on our planet. Through the unsustainable use of environmental resources, we are destabilizing our key planetary systems. Thereby, we have given rise to a new, man-made risk landscape, where the risks of exceeding the 1.5-2°C global warming targets and pandemics are rapidly increasing and threaten peace and security.

Anthropogenic forces jeopardize food security. Climate change has already decreased global average crop yields. In West Africa, for instance, millet and sorghum yields have dropped by 10-20 per cent and 5-15 per cent respectively due to more weather variability. Importantly, climate change also renders crop yields more variable.  It has been shown that already now, approximately one third in global crop yield variation can be attributed to variability in the global climate. However, climate change impacts food systems also in other, less obvious ways: The unprecedented intensity of the recent desert locust outbreak across East Africa that has devastated agricultural production and rural communities has been associated with increasing temperatures and rainfall variability and a series of cyclones. At the same time, unsustainable use and management of our land resources have led to the widespread degradation of a key input for food production. Approximately a quarter of all ice free land ressources show degrading trends, indicating a decline in their productivity. So when we think about food production as a function of yields times area (i.e. land), we have to recognize that both sides (i.e. yields and the land) are impacted by anthropogenic forces in a way that makes it harder to guarantee stable food supplies and, subsequently, to keep the prices of food at affordable levels. What is more, these effects are likely to multiply in the future. In view of the population growth projections and dietary changes, the pressures will only intensify, as projections indicate that global crop calories need to increase by over 50 per cent by 2050 to feed the world.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is yet another major man-made stressor for global food security and illustrates how anthropogenic forces can impact food prices and food security. Due to COVID-19-related export restrictions in reaction to uncertainties in global food supplies, global food prices have substantially increased. Simultaneously, pandemic-related containment measures have disrupted food supply chains, increased unemployment rates and lowered household incomes, contributing to a substantial increase in food insecurity in Africa and Asia.

Where the storm rages most

Countries typically draw on tools such as grain storage and international trade to stabilize their domestic food supply. In the past, however, grain storage holdings have been low and often unable to substantially buffer food supply shortages. While international trade can be crucial to address distributional issues, it exposes countries to the variability of world markets. For instance, it can render countries vulnerable to restrictive trade policies as well as to teleconnected supply shocks from e.g. harvest failures in distant food producing areas. If several main crop producing regions simultaneously suffer from adverse weather, the resulting drops in crop production might lead to food price spikes and consequent export restrictions, amplifying the risks to food security.

Food import dependent countries are particularly affected by rising global food prices. This applies to many low- and middle-income countries which became net importers, often due to ill-designed developing policies. This trend is likely to increase: In Sub-Saharan Africa, cereal demand will triple by 2050 and import dependencies are likely to rise accordingly, if sustainable agricultural intensification measures are not sufficiently implemented. While the share of households’ food expenditure is relatively small in higher-income countries, it averages almost 50 per cent in low- and middle-income countries and can exceed 70 per cent in particularly poor households. Thus the poorer populations suffer disproportionately from higher food prices. This is especially true for the urban poor and other net-buyers of food. However, it is important to note that food imports are not necessarily bad for countries. In some cases, especially those with very variable food production, imports have helped to stabilize supplies. This is important because in countries that are less integrated into the global agricultural markets, drops in domestic production can otherwise create local food insecurities, even when global prices remain stable.

Global change dynamics and food insecurity as catalysts of conflict: What the past teaches us…

As the international prices of staple crops more than doubled between 2004 and 2008, and similar price spikes occurred in 2010/11, the number of countries reporting social unrest increased. Protests took place in more than 30 countries, among them Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mozambique, Peru and Senegal.  Research on the 2011 uprisings in the MENA region (the ›Arab spring‹) has found a positive association between increasing food prices and conflicts. Certainly, the relationship is complex and rising food prices are rarely the only cause of conflict. Combined with already existing socio-political pressures, however, they can act as a threat multiplier and become the catalyst for violence. Importantly, food insecurity is often also a consequence of conflict, e.g. due to the destruction of agricultural resources or the disruption of markets. Hence, food price spikes and violence interactions can trigger a vicious circle. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced these dynamics. In Lebanon, for instance, anger over a failing economy, currency devaluations and soaring food prices have driven protesters back on the streets despite the pandemic.

Way forward: How to mitigate this unfolding storm?

By increasing the likelihood of international food price spikes and food insecurity, climate change is likely to contribute to tensions and conflicts particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Reinforced by new threats unfolding in this rapidly changing risk landscape, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it can create a perfect storm on peace and security.  To prevent and better manage these risks, we propose rapid action that reaches across countries and sectors.

To mitigate climate change related risks to agricultural production, all governments need to commit to meeting the Paris Agreement targets. Important mitigation measures entail technological innovations and political incentives, such as sufficiently high and socially just carbon pricing. Recent political developments are very encouraging: For example, in July 2021 the EU Commission introduced a comprehensive reform package to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent until 2030.

We further propose the expansion of smart agricultural adaptation to help farmers cope with current and future climate change impacts. This would entail context-specific climate risk analyses for adaptational planning and the expansion of agricultural extension services to introduce and expand climate smart agricultural measures such as the use of more heat and flood tolerant crop varieties, as well as improvements in water supply and irrigation systems. It is crucial that richer countries provide further financial and technical support to particularly vulnerable countries in both their mitigation and adaptation efforts.

We need to improve our understanding on how interconnected risks, including climate change, pandemics and food insecurity contribute to conflict to better anticipate, avoid and minimize future risks.  To do so, it is crucial to scale up the development of and access to early warning and early action for security threat multipliers such as food prices. At the same time, we need to invest into the stabilization of conflict-affected and conflict vulnerable regions. For instance, promoting good governance and supporting environmental peacebuilding efforts aiming at building more peaceful relations through environmental cooperation, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, can bring conflict parties together and avoid creating new vulnerabilities.

To avoid future food supply disruptions and subsequent price spikes, we need to create more stable international food systems and trade networks that can buffer against crop failures. For example, countries should diversify trading partners to reduce risks to sudden supply shocks. At the same time, scaling up sustainable agricultural production especially in countries dependent on food imports can help to attenuate international price spikes and subsequent food insecurities. To this end, we need to support the sustainable transition towards locally and regionally stable, climate and conflict-resilient food systems.  

And finally, we need to enhance local resilience against future food system risks, for instance, by  expanding safety net programmes, and risk transfer mechanisms such as index-based weather insurances to attenuate climate impacts on agricultural yields.  

To sum up, anthropogenic forces increasingly threaten peace and security. The COVID-19 pandemic is merely an example of how rapidly new risks can unfold in an interconnected world, reinforce other vulnerabilities and trigger tensions and conflicts. The good news is that, as outlined above, there is room for action to address these risks. So we hope that when the international community convenes for the UN Food System Summit later this year, they will consider the wide-ranging implications of food systems for the overall peace and security on this planet. 


Lisa Binder is a Research Analyst at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in the FutureLab – Security, Ethnic Conflicts and Migration, focusing on the interplay between climate change impacts and conflicts of different types.

Christopher Bren d’Amour is a fellow at Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) and Advisor at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) where he works on soil protection and sustainable land management.

Barbora Šedová (co-)leads the FutureLab – Security, Ethnic Conflicts and Migration at PIK, where she studies implications of climate change for violence and conflicts. She is also a fellow at MCC.

This article reflects the personal opinion of the authors.

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