Food Security and Its Implications for Global

Food or Consequences:
Food Security and Its Implications for
Global Sociopolitical Instability
Christopher B. Barrett
Cornell University
Seminar presented to
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Harvard University
October 23, 2012
Food systems successes in 1940s-80s enabled dramatic
poverty reduction and better global standards of living
>6(5) billion people have adequate calories (nutrients) today,
up from only about 2 billion 50 years ago.
Public/private ag research and policy reforms (esp. in China)
led to productivity growth far outpacing demand growth,
increasing land/water efficiency use and steadily/sharply
lowering real food prices through mid-2000s. Lifted hundreds
of millions from poverty.
Successes enabled population growth, urbanization and income
… and induced a dangerous complacency.
FAO Real Food Price Index
6 mo. lagged std. dev.
FAO Real Food Price Index (2002-4 = 100)
Complacency led to underinvestment, food output growth slowing
behind accelerating demand growth, and recent food price spikes.
OECD/IFPRI/FAO all forecast food prices 5-20% higher than
2012 levels for the next decade as demand growth continues
to outpace supply expansion worldwide.
Social unrest
High Food Prices Associated w/ Social Unrest
Food Prices and Food Riots (Death Tolls)
High food prices are
(causally?) assoc w/ social
unrest/ food riots (Bellemare
2011, Lagi et al. 2011, Arezki &
Brueckner 2012).
Many gov’ts think of food
security as staple food price
stability. Hence ‘urban bias’
But omitted factors matter …
Source: Lagi et al. (2011)
Food security worries can spark public protest
when mixed w/sense of broader injustices.
Social unrest
High Food Prices Also Spark Resource Grabs
High food prices also fuel – and
reflect – demand for land, water,
genetic material, etc.
‘Land grabs’ can help sow
domestic discontent
Ex: Madagascar 2008/9
Resource grabs can feed
international tensions, too:
- Marine fisheries
- Water
- ‘Gene grabs’/IP anti-commons
- Oil and minerals
An unclear relationship
The food security-sociopolitical stability relationship
remains poorly understood and oft-oversimplified.
Inferential challenge: Correlated common drivers (e.g.,
climate, land/water competition, large-scale migration)
make it difficult to tease out causal links.
But strategically important question on which policymakers
are already acting. So unfortunately we cannot wait for
analyses that satisfy the highest scientific standards.
Especially important b/c key food security stressors include
gov’t, firm and donor policy responses intended to foster
food security, but that also have important spillover effects.
An unclear relationship
Instability’s adverse effects on food security are fairly
well established, both at macro and micro scales.
For example:
- 18/20 countries receiving the most humanitarian (incl.
food) aid since 2000 have experienced internal conflict.
- In 1990, 5/12 reported food crises in Africa were
“protracted” (i.e., 8/past 10 years). By 2010, leapt to 19/24!
Protracted, complex emergencies are the ‘new norm’ in
humanitarian response, not short-term disaster relief.
Sociopolitical crisis is clearly a cause of food insecurity … but
it increasingly seems a consequence as well.
Don’t really need added reason to seek peace. But
perhaps do need added push to pursue food security?
An unclear relationship
There are 3 main connections that run from food
security concerns to sociopolitical stability:
1. Food markets: Spontaneous, largely-urban sociopolitical
instability within states arises from food price shocks, with
urban food consumers the primary agitators. … 2008/11.
Note: price shocks largely proximate causes of sociopolitical unrest. Real
issues are pre-existing grievances and lack of adequate social safety nets
or government policies to buffer the effects of market shocks.
High prices can unite/mobilize the already-angry vs. the state or ethnic
minorities (e.g., food traders) perceived to hold/exercise power unjustly.
Symbolic/subjective more than substantive role:
Mainly working class urban rioters, not the most food insecure rural or
slum dwellers. So it’s not about welfare impacts per se.
Furthermore, (the threat of) transitory food insecurity seems more likely
to spark unrest than chronic food insecurity.
An unclear relationship
2. Rural resources: Slower-evolving, structural pressures due
to (largely rural) intra-state resource competition over land,
water, labor and capital and the byproducts of such
competition (e.g., chaotic internal migration, outbreaks of
zoonoses, etc).
Farmers/farm workers the main agitators, although international NGOs/
firms are important external agents (e.g., over GMOs, “land grabs”, etc.).
Typically unrest about distributional questions and power. More likely to
mutate into social and/or guerilla movements than is urban unrest from
price shocks, that can be exploited by pre-existing movements.
An unclear relationship
3. Global commons: Prospective inter-state tension (partly)
fuelled by trans-boundary competition over resources –
fisheries, water, genetic material – or over contested policy
with significant spillover effects – e.g., export bans, FDI
policy, zoonotic disease control.
Multinational private actors commonly play a significant role (e.g.,
external investors, fishing fleets).
These are the least common (and prospectively most dangerous) sorts of
conflicts because of direct, early state engagement.
Food or consequences
hypotheses that
food insecurity can
spark sociopolitical
unrest add a key
reason to guard
against renewed
complacency about
the evolving/
intensifying global
food security
Must focus on
Africa and Asia!
Food security challenge
Mounting challenges as food demand and supply will
evolve significantly (and to some degree, predictably)
with major effects on:
- Prices, including price volatility
- Induced technological change
- The natural environment
- Humanitarian response
State, firm and consumer behavior must and will
adapt to these structural changes.
Both these stressors and resulting behavioral
responses can foster social unrest and conflict.
Demand Drivers
Main Demand-Side Drivers
• Population – slowing rates of growth, but large
absolute growth, almost all of it in urban/peri-urban
areas of developing countries.
• Urbanization – esp. in developing countries, demand
for purchased food increases faster than aggregate
demand as rural people migrate.
• Income Growth – fastest in developing countries, with
major implications for commodity composition of diets
and trade. (Marginal food demand income elasticity in
low-income countries is 5-8 times that in the US.)
• Diversion of food to feed and biofuels production
Demand Drivers
Demand-side pressures will be considerable
… and largely immutable (except wrt biofuels).
Will likely lead to:
- major intra- and inter-national migration of people
- Increased reliance on national and global markets and
firms for trade in and storage of food (and perhaps water)
- Increased stress on existing food production and
distribution systems, with possible implications – via food
markets, rural resources and global commons channels –
for sociopolitical stability.
Supply Drivers
Main Supply-Side Drivers
• Land and water scarcity – Little untapped arable
land and significant soil degradation in many regions,
plus growing water scarcity. Increased competition for
land/water w/ scant capacity to expand the agricultural
frontier other than in Africa or South America.
• Climate Change – Shifting climate patterns, especially
volatility and extreme events, force greater and changing
trade patterns and reinforce North-South differences. Of
particular concern in South Asia/MENA.
• Technology – Slowing growth in yields (< ∆ demand).
Rapid spread of biotechnology. Growing pressure to
address land and water scarcity as well as evolving pest
and pathogen pressures, especially with climate change.
Supply Drivers
Land Acquisitions
- Higher food prices and growing land scarcity (esp. in
Asia), are fuelling sharp increases in land investment.
- Land acquisitions in Africa in 2009 totaled 39.7 mn ha (>
agricultural land in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany,
the Netherlands, and Switzerland combined!). Farmland
investment a major asset class now.
- Contentious b/c can displace marginalized rural peoples;
terms often opaque, esp. w/weak land governance.
- Ex: 2008 Daewoo deal to lease 1.3 mn hectares led to
overthrow of government in Madagascar. More to come?
Supply Drivers
Max Potential Value of Agricultural Output (US$/ha)
Source: Deininger, Arezki & Selod, 2011
4 regions:-little land for expansion/low yield gap - Asia, Europe, Australia, MENA
-land available but low yield gap – much of the Americas
-big yield gap but little land available – most populous SSA/C.America
-big yield gap/land available – sparsely population SSA countries (e.g.,
DRC, Angola, CAR, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia)
Supply Drivers
Land Competition
While the possibility for unrest exists, conflict due to ‘land
grabs’ remains largely hypothetical (except Madagascar)
By constrast, very real conflict emerges as competition
intensifies among alternative uses:
- Mining and farmland/pastureland: developed and
developing countries both!
- Livestock vs. crop production: Cain and Abel. Nile basin.
- Environmental conservation vs. agriculture: Amazon and
Congo basins especially
Supply Drivers
Much of the growth will come from continued rapid expansion of
use of GM crops. But transgenics esp. controversial as move
from cotton to food crops in LICs/MICs (e.g., India).
Supply Drivers
Productivity growth must occur near demand growth b/c
85-90% of food consumed in the country where it is grown.
Food productivity growth in Africa/Asia is critical.
Policy Responses
Policy responses can cause new pressures, perhaps
relieving local tensions but undermining stability
elsewhere or sparking interstate tension:
Production systems interventions:
• Foreign land investments: near for transparency
• Riparian diversions: Nile, Niger, Brahmaputra/ Ganges,
Indus basins all sites of significant latent stress
• Expansion of fisheries: area growing by 1◦ lat/yr, 2/3 of
world’s continental shelves ≥ max sust. yield already
• Rapid peri-urban livestock intensification: considerable
cross-border risk of zoonoses (Rift Valley fever, avian/
swine flu) and animal pathogens (FMD .. UK in 2001).
• Firm and gov’t efforts to capture IP – ‘gene grabs’
• Limits on GM food crops (e.g., India)
Policy Responses
Potentially problematic policy responses (cont.):
Distribution systems interventions:
• Export bans and import restrictions that thin global
markets: Attempts to insulate domestic mkts from
global price shocks amplifies int’l market price volatility
• Securitization of humanitarian response and decline of
international food assistance resources
• Controls over foreign direct investment in food
marketing/ processing channel (e.g., India)
• Biofuels policy and resulting distortions in ag markets
• Farm policy and market spillovers – esp. in China (real
farm subsidies grew 2002-10 from Y100Mn to Y123Bn!)
w/massive potential to destabilize maize, rice, soy mkts if
95% self-sufficiency policy gets relaxed to stem inflation.
Policy Responses
Other policy responses relieve stress:
• Increased investment in, accelerated development/release
of improved cultivars and livestock breeds
• Improvement of ICT/transport that makes trade and relief
distribution cheaper and more responsive.
• Reduced post-harvest loss through improved storage,
processing, dist’n tech/institutions.
• Social protection policies / reliable safety nets (e.g.,
PSNP/NREGS) - food riots don’t strike everywhere that
people are vulnerable to price increases.
A key implication is that protest movements that agitate
for social protection may help, not hinder, stability.
Past success proves the potential of food systems to
reduce human suffering and maintain social stability.
This challenge can be met. But structural demand and
supply patterns for food pose major challenges.
Climate change and growing land/water scarcity make
it harder now than it was in the 1940s-80s.
Failure to meet this challenge may lead not just to
widespread food insecurity, but also to social unrest,
magnifying unnecessary human suffering.
Must focus most attention where the challenges and
the risks will be greatest : in Africa and Asia.
The means by which food security is achieved, and for
whom, matters fundamentally to the relationship
between food security and sociopolitical stability.
Food security achieved via greater productivity per
worker/ha/m3, reduced post-harvest loss, improved
food distribution systems and/or social protection
policies directly reduces sociopolitical instability.
Conversely, local food security achieved through
measures that have adverse spillover effects –
increased natural resources exploitation or beggarthy-neighbor trade, market, NRM, or IP policies – can
have adverse sociopolitical effects that ultimately
aggravate underlying food security stress.
Thank you
Thank you for your time, interest and comments!

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