Food scarcity remains a fundamental cause of violent outbreaks across the world. Bryce Evans investigates the issue.

Bryce Evans

The use of food as a strategic weapon is well established. Texts as ancient as the Chinese Art of War and the Roman De Re Militari advocate denying the enemy food. The contemporary conflict in Sudan provides a case in point in the cynical application of this ancient wisdom. There, the government intensifies bombing in rebel areas at harvest time, destroying food. In turn, the country’s rebels seize humanitarian food supplies intended for refugees.

Violent conflict is both a cause and a consequence of food insecurity, and the forced requisition of food is a common route to war for many in sub-Saharan Africa. In Somalia, which suffered serious droughts in 2011-12, the economic route from small-scale pastoral farming to soldiering often features the intermingling of productive and consumptive ‘drivers’. Disruption to productive channels (drought → death of livestock → better income as a militant) is often indistinct from the consumptive (war → trade disruption → rising food prices → better income as a militant). (See pp. 106-107 (PDF)).

War halts agricultural production and trade, limiting food access and availability. Food security requires improvements in trade, logistics, infrastructure and productivity.

All of these factors are, of course, undermined by conflict.

Food insecurity and political revolution

But context-specific food factors often drive violent behaviour. Take urban food prices. Whether or not Marie Antoinette actually uttered the infamous words “let them eat cake” is academic. Their significance lies in the popular perception of her decadent ignorance of the hardships caused by rising food prices in France at the time.

Underlining this point, few observers predicted the scale of the ‘Arab awakening’ of 2011 onwards. After all, annual growth rates in many Arab economies (PDF) were above the world average. But a key factor in the violent uprisings that sent dictators toppling across the Maghreb was that many people in the wider Arab world perceived their standard of living to be unsatisfactory.

Rising food prices have led to civil unrest, as in Algeria, pictured above. Image: Magharebia on Flickr

Rising food prices have led to civil unrest, as in Algeria, pictured above.
Image: Magharebia on Flickr

One constant factor in this dissatisfaction was – and is – food insecurity. This is not to reduce revolutions to mere rebellions of the belly; in Egypt, for example, the state traditionally responded to food riots by simply increasing food subsidies.

Rather, the rising price of food is often the catalyst for turning a welter of other grievances into violent conflict. When 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, he had little idea that his desperate act would ignite the ‘Arab Spring’. It is highly significant, though, that the authorities had unfairly harassed Bouazizi’s fruit and vegetable business, confiscating his scales and humiliating him, thereby simultaneously tipping the scales of the delicate moral economy of food supply in the developing world.

Before that in 2008 rioting was seen in witnessed in more than 30 countries, including developed nations such as Italy, due to bad harvests and a consequent rise in the price of staple food. In Haiti, angry crowds demanding cheaper rice forced the country’s prime minister to resign. In 2009, with food price volatility linked to the state’s plan to lease arable land to foreign concerns, the president of Madagascar was forced aside.

In 2012, droughts again exacerbated ongoing conflicts in central Africa and Syria. Conflicts also exacerbate food insecurity by sending thousands of displaced people into already strained food systems. In places like Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria, refugee crises compound food crises.

Future prospects

In states that have recently emerged from violent conflict, food security is essential in achieving political stability. But this is typically a challenge in post-conflict contexts, where authorities struggle to cope with increased dependence on food imports and decreased foreign currency inflows. (See page 6). And aid to these so-called ‘fragile countries’ (as the World Bank notes on page 7 (PDF)) has historically recorded ‘a disturbingly high rate of failure’.

Major food aid along established lines might not, therefore, be the solution. In fact, there are some that say sending food to conflict zones to ease food security is not a good idea, and prolongs civil wars.

War, refugee crises and food conflicts are inextricably linked. Image: Alfred Lopez/US Dept Defense

War, refugee crises and food conflicts are inextricably linked.
Image: Alfred Lopez/US Dept Defense

For example, NGOs working to alleviate the food insecurity caused by Somalia’s civil wars of the 1990s soon found that they were forced to discreetly sub-contract armed clan militia leaders in order to effectively distribute food. And, as the current Syrian crisis has proven, food supply will always be a highly politicised issue.

In the United States, the world’s largest food aid donor, the Obama administration’s attempts to overhaul food aid have faced the opposition of agribusinesses, NGOs and shipping companies. Change to food aid may come, then, but it is dropping slow. Despite improvements in scientific and humanitarian efforts to address the problem, the historically established conflict/hunger nexus remains wearyingly well established.

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About Bryce Evans

Dr Bryce Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool Hope University, England. A graduate of the University of Warwick and University College Dublin, he runs an undergraduate course entitled ‘The Taste of War’ which explores the role of food in contemporary and historical conflicts. He is the co-founder of Manna Community Kitchen – a Liverpool-based charity which addresses food poverty in the city.

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