Threats to security related to food, agriculture, and natural resources - What to do?

English version of paper presented at ‘strategic discussion circle’ EADS, Berlin March 26, 2009

A.Trends in food and agriculture that threaten security

  1. Food security will become an increasingly global problem. Of the nearly 6.7 billion people on the planet, about 2 billion are food insecure; they cannot afford a healthy diet and suffer from vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies that limit their physical and intellectual capacity. One billion people—half of which are small farmers–are hungry. By 2050, the world’s population will stabilize at about 9 billion, but because of increasing consumption in developing countries, it will be equivalent to 12 billion people placing demands on the global food system, compared to today’s consumption rates. Given currently available technologies, current consumption patterns, and the negative effects of climate change, food security for all cannot be achieved. According to IFPRI research, the current recession and the corresponding reduced investment in the global economy will lead to an increase in agricultural prices in the medium term, with the number of hungry.

  2. The food price crisis has created a new atmosphere of political insecurity. The surge of food prices in 2007-08 led to a wave of food protests in more than 60 countries as global wheat prices almost doubled and rice prices almost tripled. In countries with low governance performance, more than half of the protests turned violent. Although most protests occurred in poor countries, one-third of all unrest occurred in middle- and high-income countries, though it was less violent.

  3. Adverse political responses to the crisis have blocked open food trade and increased tensions among some nations. Export restrictions on agricultural commodities by major regional producers made the global market smaller and more volatile and had adverse impacts on importdependent partners (such as India–Bangladesh; Pakistan–Afghanistan; Vietnam–Philippines; Nigeria–Niger). The World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round played no role in addressing these trade issues and remains uncompleted as turmoil in financial markets has been diverting attention from its successful conclusion.

  4. Sharpened rural–urban inequalities foster conflict. Even before the food and the financial crises hit, 160 million people in the world lived in ultra poverty, on less than 50 cents a day.1 As food prices spiked and rural jobs were cut, the food security and livelihoods of the ultra poor have been severely threatened,2 and inequalities in economic and social assets have increased. Such inequalities can be a major source of conflict even among groups with shared identities (such as shared religious and/or ethnic affiliations).3 The deepening of the global economic recession is now compounding the problem by causing reverse migration from urban centers to rural areas.

  5. Land conflicts are on the rise. Food price spikes and newly imposed export restrictions by some major producers in 2008 have led many governments to try to acquire land abroad to secure their food supplies. The scale, terms, and speed of some deals have provoked opposition in some of the target countries. There is a risk that marginal farmers with insecure land property rights will be pushed out by land grabbers. Land conflicts have thus far occurred only locally (for example, between pastoralists and farmers in Sudan), but the problem is now becoming international. Agricultural production was traditionally not part of conflict-prone point resources such as oil or diamonds, which attract illegitimate capture efforts and create “violent markets.” Spreading the “resource curse” to agriculture will increase political insecurity in rural areas.

  6. Water scarcity is growing, and is fostering conflicts. In many countries, developed water sources are almost fully utilized, even as agricultural demand for water is expected to increase drastically in the future. Of all international water-related events between 1946 and 1999, 1,228 were cooperative and 507 were conflictual. Thus, cooperation dominates but there have been numerous conflicts as well, mostly at the local level. Countries can resolve water shortages by importing food, and thus implicitly importing water.4 But with increased trade protectionism, this efficient solution is undermined, and local water conflicts may increase.

  7. Climate change will further increase food- and agriculture-related conflicts. The impacts of climate change include increased water and heat stress, damaged ecosystems, and rising sea levels. The actual effects are heterogeneous and region specific. Yet, in most cases, the harmful effects outweigh the benefits and disproportionately hurt the poorest, who have the least capacity for adaptation. By the 2050s, for example, there will be twice as many areas with increasing water stress due to climate change than there will be areas with decreasing water stress.5 In addition, heat stress may reduce grain yields in Asia by 15 to 20 percent by 2050. And the effects of climate change are expected to further increase the number of undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa.6 All of these impacts are likely to increase food-and agriculture-related conflicts as well.

B. Addressing the Food / Security Issues with Four Actions

Positive actions on a global scale are urgently needed to prevent an escalation of political insecurity resulting from the crises and to ease the burden on poor people. Particular attention should be given to failed states, which face major food security threats and suffer from inadequate state capacity. New forms of coordination between military and diplomacy actions on the one hand, and developmental and market actions on the other, are required. In terms of the latter, four priority policy actions are needed:

  1. Promote pro-poor agricultural growth. Since small farms are predominant in the developing world and farm sizes are decreasing further,7 the productivity of smallholder agriculture is key for promoting agricultural growth. It is crucial to expand smallholder access to finance, risk management strategies, inputs, services, and extension, and increase investment in rural infrastructure. If investments in public agricultural research are doubled to US$10 billion by 2013 and are targeted toward poor regions, overall agricultural output growth would increase by 1.1 percentage points a year and lift about 282 million people out of poverty by 2020.8

  2. Reduce extreme market volatility. Two global collective actions are needed to reduce volatility and prevent the price spikes that caused violent responses in so many countries in 2008: first, a small, independent physical reserve should be established under the auspices of the Word Food Programme exclusively for emergency response and humanitarian assistance. Second, a virtual reserve and intervention mechanism should be created to help avoid the next price spikes. Normally, intervention will not be necessary, as the signaling mechanism will be sufficient to divert speculators.9

  3. Expand social protection and child nutrition. To protect the basic nutrition of the most vulnerable and improve food security, social protection and nutrition actions are also needed. Protective actions, including conditional cash transfers and employment programs, are necessary to mitigate short-term risks, while preventive actions, including school feeding and early childhood nutrition programs with universal coverage, are needed to avoid long-term negative impacts.

  4. Strengthen institutional and legal reforms. Expanding decentralization to properly manage resources at the local level and prevent conflicts, and implementing legal actions (and legal aid) are essential to support the poor who are threatened by conflict. Strengthening property rights is particularly important. For land acquisitions abroad, a proper code of conduct needs to be put in place to prevent negative effects on the poor and escalation of conflict. Similarly, water-related institutions need strengthening.

Strong international leadership and collective action on a global scale are imperative for effective implementation of these four actions. The European Union and Germany should drive these solutions forward in the context of the G8, G20, and the emerging UN Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food Security. Hunger has always been an issue that needs attention for humanitarian as well as developmental reasons.

Now and in the future, food is a security issue that affects all!


1. Ahmed, A., R. Hill, L. Smith, D. Wiesmann, and T. Frankenburger. 2007. The world’s most deprived: Characteristics and causes of extreme poverty and hunger. 2020 Discussion Paper 43. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute. [Back]
2. von Braun, J. 2008. Food and financial crises: Implications for agriculture and the poor. Food Policy Report. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.[Back]

3. Steward, F. 2009. Policies towards horizontal inequalities in post-conflict reconstruction. In T. Addison and T. Bruck (eds.), Making peace work: The challenges of social and economic reconstruction. Palgrave Macmillan. [Back]

4. Allan, J.A. 2002. The Middle East water question: Hydropolitics and the global economy. New York: I.B. Tauris.[Back]

5. Bates, B.C., Z.W. Kundzewicz, S. Wu, and J.P. Palutikof (eds). 2008. Climate Change and Water. Technical Paper. Geneva: IPCC Secretariat.[Back]

6. Tubiello, F. N., and G. Fischer. 2007. Reducing climate change impacts on agriculture: Global and regional effects of mitigation, 2000-2080. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 74: 1030-56.[Back]

7. In India, for example, the average farm size decreased from 2 ha in the 1970s to 1 ha in 2002-03, and in China the size has decreased below 0.5 ha since the 1980s.[Back]

8. von Braun J., S. Fan, R. Meinzen-Dick, M. W. Rosegrant, and A. Nin Pratt. 2008. International agricultural research for food security, poverty reduction, and the environment: What to expect from scaling up CGIAR investments and “best bet” programs. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.[Back]

9. von Braun J., and M. Torero. 2009. Implementing physical and virtual food reserves to protect the poor and prevent market failure. Policy Brief 10. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research [Back]
Author: 
von Braun, Joachim
Published date: 
2009
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