Dangerously Hungry: The Link between Food Insecurity and Conflict
Economist Paul Collier once wrote that “war is development in reverse.” That conflict inevitably produces poverty and hunger is a theory that has been tested—and proven true—in every major clash across human history. It is believed, for example, that more people died of starvation and starvation-related disease than from combat during the Second World War.
But it is also true that hunger and food insecurity can lead to instability. There is a vicious feedback loop between conflict and hunger currently at play in dozens of countries around the world. War drives hunger and hunger drives war.
In 2017, the World Food Program USA (WFP USA) produced a report titled Winning the Peace: Hunger and Instability. It was a comprehensive review of the literature on “food-related instability”—or the ways that hunger drives conflict. At the time, U.S. lawmakers knew anecdotally that this relationship existed. Former Senate Agriculture Committee chair Pat Roberts (D-KS) said in a 2015 speech, “Show me a nation that cannot feed itself, and I’ll show you a nation in chaos.” Others, like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), frequently warned that providing humanitarian assistance in some of the world’s most complex emergencies was necessary to avoid more costly—in both blood and treasure—engagements.
Winning the Peace provided a snapshot of what the academic community knew about the relationship between food insecurity and conflict. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, the lingering economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a rise in extreme climate events around the world, 2022 was a year of unprecedented global hunger. Predictably, global instability rose in tandem. At least 12,500 protests occurred last year in countries facing rapid food and fuel price increases.
Academic literature on food-related instability has grown significantly in the last half decade. In fact, almost 50 percent of all the research to be published on food-related instability over the past 20 years has been produced in the last five years alone. A new report by WFP USA, launched in April of 2023, aims to capture this latest thinking in a review of 60 peer-reviewed academic studies produced between 2017 and 2022. Dangerously Hungry is a study of studies. This commentary is a literature review of such studies and discusses specific drivers and motivators of food-related instability, and how to create an improved framework for understanding of the complex relationship between food insecurity and conflict.
Drivers of Food-Related Instability
This review finds that food-related instability has three main drivers: climate change, conflict over natural resources, and economic shocks.
Almost half of all studies reviewed in Dangerously Hungry investigate food-related instability through the lens of climate change: precipitation change, drought, temperature spikes, desertification, and other adverse climate events. This trend reflects tremendous growth in climate security literature in recent years. Many of these studies focus on food systems, often the first sector to feel the impacts of climate change. One study from Kyung Hee University in South Korea, for example, shows that high temperatures during corn growing seasons in sub-Saharan Africa reduced yields and led to a rise in civil conflict. The author suggests that with continued warming, civil conflict in the region is expected to increase by over 30 percent in the coming decade. Meanwhile, another Harvard University study finds that below-average rainfall can increase the likelihood of civil war in Africa by as much as 2.3 percent. In Somalia specifically, a country plagued by long-term droughts, decreases in annual precipitation across the country were associated with an increase in domestic terrorist attacks between 1991 and 2019. The impact of climate change on food systems is driving conflict around the world.
A second driver of food-related instability is competition over natural resources. Conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in the African Sahel are among the most studied examples of food-related instability in this space. Farmer-herder conflict or “pastoralist violence” has increased greatly in the last decade in West and Central Africa, particularly in Nigeria, central Mali and northern Burkina Faso. This includes cattle raids, communal or ethnic violence over land and water resources, and conflict driven by association with violent extremist movements. These trends are exacerbated by fast-spreading desertification and multi-year droughts across the African Sahel. According to the African Center for Strategic Studies, more than 15,000 people have been killed in farmer-herder related conflicts in the last decade alone.
Dangerously Hungry also sheds new light on the ways that agricultural abundance has also been linked to violence. For example, in studying the impacts of wheat and corn production across Africa, Ore Koren of Indiana University suggests that “contrary to previous expectations, conflict is driven by higher yields, on average, and not by scarcity.” In these situations of abundance, rebel groups are more likely to use violence to secure access to food resources. Indeed, he shows that the probability of rebel attacks increased significantly in areas with high agricultural potential. This is commonly referred to as “strategic conflict.” What the author is referring to in this case, however, is best considered “relative abundance”—conflict over pockets of agricultural productivity in otherwise scarce settings.
Finally, food-related instability is driven by economic shocks. The 2007–2008 global food price crisis led to social unrest in at least 40 low- and middle-income countries in what has been termed the “silent tsunami;” it was the subject of significant attention in the Winning the Peace report. The food price crisis of 2022 bears remarkable similarities to 2008. According to analysis from the International Food Policy Research Institute, food prices were on the rise due to “uneven recovery from the COVID-19 crisis from surges in global demand and supply disruptions from transport and logistics.” This confluence of stressors resulted in a global market that was unprepared for the wheat, maize, oilseed, fuel, and fertilizer supply disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. By the summer of 2022, more than 20 countries were facing protests and riots related, at least in part, to high food prices.
Peer-reviewed research on the 2022 global food price crisis is still forthcoming, but several authors have already estimated the downstream effects it has had, and will continue to have, on conflict. Tufts University economist Eoin McGuirk and deputy director of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, Marshall Burke, for example, have studied the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine on producer and consumer price indexes, and the effect of these indexes on violence in Africa. They estimate that “the weighted average effect of the Russian invasion to be an increase in intergroup conflict in Africa of 5.3%.” That is after considering the conflict-reducing effects of increased prices for farmers across the continent; the economic impacts in the agricultural sector are, after all, two-sided. It continues to be the case that, generally, increased food prices lead to reduced conflict in food-producing areas and increased conflict in food consuming areas.
Motivators of Food-Related Instability
Modern conflicts are almost never driven by a single cause. Food insecurity is often referred to as “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” or a “threat multiplier” in conflict events. It is true that food insecurity alone is often not enough to produce conflict; it must also be met with external motivators that cause people to resort to violence, and is strongly determined by the underlying social, political, and economic context. Those motivators can be captured in three interrelated concepts: desperation, grievance, and governance.
Often, the strongest motivator for participation in conflict is economics. This is sometimes referred to as the opportunity cost thesis, which states that when incomes are low and expected returns from fighting outweigh the benefits of traditional economic activity, one’s motivation to join a militia or rebellion increases. Researchers refer to this motivator as greed, a reference to the material benefits—even extreme wealth—often anticipated by groups staging rebellion. In the case of recruitment of food insecure populations to extremist movements, though, it is not one’s desire for wealth but one’s inability to meet their basic needs that is exploited. This is not greed, but desperation.
In interviews with former al Shabaab fighters in Somalia, socioeconomic conditions were the most common motivator for joining. The authors of that study, Anneli Botha and Mahdi Abdile, spoke to one fighter who explained that he and his friends were lured with promises of a mobile phone and $50 a month upon joining. Other terrorist organizations have employed similar recruitment tactics. The Islamic State, for example, offered refugees food and cash payments of up to $1,000 to join, and Boko Haram has been shown to provide meals and loans to prospective recruits. In many settings, violent extremist organizations are also known to capture the means of food production or agricultural resources in order to fuel their rebellion. Food insecurity can raise the cost of mounting an insurgency, leading to the victimization of people who produce and hold food. Violence against civilians, in other words, can be a resource mobilization strategy.
The second category of motivation is grievance. One major criticism of the opportunity cost framework (i.e., individual greed or desperation) is its inattention to the collective action required for widespread rebellion. Although it is true that individuals are motivated to engage in violence due to unemployment, wage losses, and rising costs of living (including food costs), collective agency—or a force that brings people together—is also required for higher levels of violence. Food price riots are a good example of this grievance-based phenomenon, with high food prices (especially for foods of cultural importance) fueling frustration and mistrust that cuts across class and ethnic groups. Grievance, of course, can also be divisive. In grievance-motived instability involving food, food insecurity is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back and causes societies to cleave along preestablished lines over perceived or real inequalities or discrimination.
Finally, food-related instability is made more likely through poor governance. The inability of a government to ensure an adequate food supply for its people can lead to questions over a government’s legitimacy and ability to fulfill its people’s most basic needs. In a 2017 report by the UN Development Program, the authors note that 71 percent of voluntary recruits (to extremist groups) identified government action as the final trigger that motivated them to join the organization. Limited government capacity to provide services or policing can create a “vacuum effect,” which is a dynamic that provides an opening for rebel groups to offer an alternative and suggest that they themselves could provide those basic services to people.
Modern conflicts are not confined by political borders, and hunger emergencies must be addressed before they metastasize into large-scale security threats. U.S. lawmakers and officials are also becoming more cognizant of the fact that food insecurity is of consequence to national security. In October 2022, the Biden administration released its U.S. National Security Strategy. At the time of its writing, the world had reached record levels of food insecurity—349 million people across 79 countries faced crisis levels of hunger and almost one million people in Somalia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, South Sudan and Yemen were experiencing famine-like conditions. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy cited food on 30 occasions, more than double the highest-ever number of references in a strategy document and more than 10 times the number of references than the previous strategy. In late 2022 the U.S. Senate and Congress passed resolutions—S.Res.669 and H.Res.922—condemning the use of food as a weapon of war and bringing new resources to bear on the problem of food-related instability.
The United States has long led the effort to fight global hunger, not only because it is a moral imperative, but because it is economically and strategically smart. It was clear in 2017, and it is even more obvious now: one of the surest pathways to instability is failing to feed someone who cannot feed themselves or their families.
Chase Sova is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Eilish Zembilci is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the CSIS Global Food Security Program.