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Food Politics and Food Security

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By: Marco Clementi and Martino TognocchiPublished: January 22, 2024

This article, originally published in issue 3/2023 of Rivista il Mulino, has been kindly granted for reproduction in English on our website.

Malthus might have been wrong, but the good news end there. Conversely to what the Scottish reverend had foreseen at the end of the 18th century, the amount of food available to feed humanity has not decreased with the growth of the world population. Quite the opposite. 

If we limit ourselves to the current century, the statistics produced by FAO - which are freely consultable here - help us to note that the world population has increased by 26% between 2000 and 2019, and the primary agricultural output has also grown by 53% over the same period. 

The bad news is that millions of people are still not eating enough, although the amount of food produced has increased more than the population we need to feed. In 2000, approximately 796 million people were undernourished; in 2019, just over 618 million; in 2021, it was almost 768 million, mainly concentrated in Africa and Asia. 

The quantity of food available is nothing but one of the factors we should take into account to understand the current state of food security, which implies, according to the definition provided by the Rome Declaration on World Food Security approved at the 1996 FAO World Food Summit, 'physical and economic access by all, at all times, to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe food that meets their needs and preferences and allows for an active and healthy life'.

Therefore, if we seek to imagine food security in the world that awaits us, we also need to consider the political aspects of the equation, that is, the models that regulate production, distribution and access to food resources. Let us take a few steps in this direction and analyse the war in Ukraine, an event that has forcefully put the issue of food security at the top of the political agenda. Indeed, it could serve as a litmus test to highlight some crucial aspects of international food policies and the issue of food unavailability.

We can schematically subdivide the impact of the Ukrainian war on the international food system into three categories: production, logistics and price levels. On the production front, the beginning of a territorial occupation and the consequential bombings inflicted material damage on the agricultural ecosystem - affecting about 30% of the crops – and partially on livestock farming, which caused enough insecurity to discourage work and investments. 

On the logistics front, armed clashes have seriously compromised the Ukrainian internal transport network and its export hubs, such as storage terminals and ports. In addition to the material damage caused to infrastructure, the Russian navy also imposed a naval blockade starting from the end of February 2022, effectively putting an end to free navigation in the Black Sea, a well-travelled trade route for 12% of the daily calories and approximately 30% of all the cereals consumed in the world each year. 

Finally, the war triggered a series of chain events that affected energy sources, transport and insurance costs, undermining the overall stability of prices in the food market. Then, some of the most populous countries in the world adopted a series of precautionary countermeasures to ensure their food self-sufficiency. For instance, China and India immediately reduced their exports of essential foods, opting for preventive storage policies instead. Other countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, reduced their legumes, flour and vegetable oil exports. The market reacted to this chain of events with drastic increases and widespread volatility. For example, by April 2022, wheat flour and buckwheat prices had already increased by 17% and 27%, respectively.

The reduced output of two agricultural superpowers, some logistics bottlenecks and a steep price surge ended up spreading food insecurity among both countries and individuals, especially the most vulnerable ones. 

According to the Food Security Information Network, 53 countries entered a food crisis in 2021, while the figure rose to 58 in 2022, bringing the number of people suffering from a situation of acute food insecurity from 193 million in 2021 to 258 million in 2022 (for these data, please see the Global Report on Food Crises, 2023). 

Low-income countries such as Egypt, Algeria, or Cuba, whose financial conditions were already insecure, suffered the consequences of price increases more than others. The crisis then brought a few very populous countries on the verge of food catastrophe, especially those subject to migration and famine and already receiving external aid, such as Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.

On the one hand, therefore, the global crisis we are experiencing testifies to the validity of a belief that is quite widespread in the literature, namely that conflicts lead to food insecurity, as they damage agriculture and the workforce it used to absorb, with most people now fleeing from war or enrolled to fight in it, as well as damaging the trade of food-related goods. 

On the other hand, it shows that food security can sometimes be more affected by issues related to food accessibility rather than food scarcity. Despite the indisputable and immediate effects on the production of essential goods such as wheat and fertilisers, the most destructive impact of the war in Ukraine came through a sudden and steep increase in food prices. Regardless of its availability on the market, food became too expensive for people and communities without adequate resources or socio-economic protection mechanisms. Moreover, between 2021 and 2022, the same people had already suffered a 20% increase in the price of food due to the effects of the pandemic (see the FAO Council Report CL/170, June 2022).

However, such a severe, widespread food insecurity situation is nothing new. At least two more global crises have occurred since 1945: first, the early 1970s crisis, then a second one in modern days, during the great recession of our century. The elements highlighted in this brief reconstruction can help us compare them as the outcome of contingent events, perhaps different but similar in nature or effects, of long-term transformations common to all, and political factors that are peculiar to the historical moments in which the crises have arisen (on the relationship between the crisis and the global economic system see Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver, Chaos and government of the world. How hegemonies and planetary equilibria change, Mondadori, 2006).

In 1972, a period of drought followed by heavy rains and floods – a weather phenomenon now known as El Nino – ended up damaging the agricultural production of rice and cereals in almost every continent, forcing large exporters such as the Soviet Union and Australia to turn to international markets for their domestic supplies. 

This contingent factor came in addition to pre-existing long-term trends such as the considerable demographic growth of Asia, Africa and the Americas and the substantial dietary modifications achieved by the population of countries experiencing economic growth, including the diffusion of meat consumption and the related increase in power, land and water exploitation. However, a few crucial political factors played a relevant role too in the first contemporary food crisis. 

The effects of restrictive policies on national grain reserves, adopted by the United States to limit the public costs of agricultural subsidies, led to a steep reduction of global reserves, considering that the country was the largest producer of food in the world. Overall, a sudden decrease in the global food output, paired with an escalating food consumption trend and the difficulties experienced in replenishing the existing reserves, resulted in a very severe famine that affected several regions of the world – most notably India and Bangladesh in Asia, Ethiopia and the Sahel countries in Africa – followed by a drastic and sudden growth in food prices which affected global food security. 

To further aggravate the situation, a worldwide oil crisis emerged as a consequence of the embargo imposed by the Arab members of OPEC in response to the Yom Kippur War (1973-1975), resulting in a steep increase in the price of crude oil, which also affected the costs of transport and fertilisers. A few numbers can best summarise the joint impact of these factors: global cereal reserves went from around 47 million tons in 1971 to just over 20 in 1973; the price of rice and cereals increased by more than 250% between 1972 and 1974.

The 2007-2008 crisis also came after severe drought periods, which have gradually become a constant due to climate change, whose effects are increasingly evident in areas such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. In addition to this phenomenon, other long-term transformations have been underway since the 1972 crisis, such as demographic growth, especially in countries already afflicted by food insecurity, or the spread of meat consumption among the urban classes of emerging countries. 

Furthermore, even in this case, a few additional political factors contributed to the crisis outburst and defined its most peculiar traits. On the one hand, Europe and the United States had recently introduced government subsidies for biofuel production, effectively reducing the extent of crops dedicated to food. On the other hand, the financial dynamics experienced by the markets following the mortgage crisis acted as an additional triggering factor. 

Indeed, the combined effects of a financial crisis in conjunction with progressive deregulation policies were also immediately reflected in the food market, as numerous investors from other sectors suddenly moved to the food commodity market expecting large profit margins thanks to price fluctuations, which pushed the inflationary spiral even further.

These events certainly did damage consumers but failed to benefit producers, whose revenues did not increase as prices rose. Therefore, a production slowdown in times of increased demand fuelled the 2007-2008 crisis. However, its effects were multiplied exponentially by market instability and the growth in energy and food prices. 

Suffice it to say that corn prices had already tripled by the first months of 2008, while wheat and rice prices had increased by 127% and 170%, respectively. This price surge quickly pushed more than 40 million people into conditions of severe food insecurity, which affected poor, net-importing countries, along with the most fragile social groups of rich countries.

This overview suggests that the contemporary international system has no adequate mechanism to prevent global food crises effectively. It implies that the system coexists with a certain degree of food insecurity, which tends to afflict countries and regions with varying intensity, even in non-crisis periods. 

Moreover, it seems to suggest that the fundamental matrices of food crises have seemingly changed over the years. At a preliminary stage, which lasted for a good portion of the Cold War, acute food insecurity took the form of food scarcity, especially in some regions of the international system. However, in the following period and up to the present day, the obstacles to accessing food resources that would be theoretically available for consumption grew to become a prevalent factor.

We could then note that, while the aggregate food output has been constantly growing since the post-war period due to technological advancement, the diffusion of efficient production techniques, and the agricultural development of some countries initially dependent on external supplies, such as India for example, the conditions for accessing said food have become more uncertain and unstable instead. At the bottom of this apparent contradiction lies the evolving relationship between state and market in food production, but also for the implementation of food aid policies.

As we know, deregulation policies affected the agricultural sector quite late and only partially. The crucial turning point in this direction came with the Agreement on Agriculture negotiated at the Uruguay Round of the GATT between 1986 and 1994. 

The signing of that agreement undermined the exceptional status that agriculture had been enjoying in the contemporary economic order, on which mass producers had been relying to safeguard jobs and profits in the agricultural sector and other related industries, such as the maritime transport of goods, deeply connected to the export of food on a global scale. 

This fundamental process of public control slackening has also inescapably modified the form and content of food aid, as the largest producers and exporters of food goods have always been the most relevant food donors.

As such, until the 1970s, food aid policies essentially implied the transfer of free or subsidised food goods under the patronage of those governments that could rely on reserves accumulated through policies aimed at supporting their domestic agriculture. From that period onwards, public food reserves have been gradually decreasing due to the liberalisation of the agricultural sector. 

Looking at the United States, the largest food donor in the world, the transition inaugurated by the Nixon Administration to reduce the fiscal burden of state aid to agriculture came to completion under the Reagan Administration, which put an end to the era of government-run food aid programmes by approving the Food Security Act back in 1985. 

As a result, food donors were forced to retrieve food resources on the market to promote food security, thus contributing to price dynamics, especially in times of crisis. Meanwhile, another crucial food security ingredient had lost effectiveness due to the unavailability of food reserves, as the United States and Canada had secured their stocks to stabilise the price of food on the international market during the first decades of the Cold War. (Barry Riley offers a detailed analysis of these processes in The Political History of American Food Aid. An Uneasy Benevolence, Oxford University Press, 2017).

In short, one could think that higher sensitivity to markets, which are uncertain and volatile by nature, is indeed the main peculiarity of contemporary food insecurity. On top of that, the process of deregulation and liberalisation of the agricultural sector has continued in several directions over the recent decades.

For example, with the push for agriculture trade deregulation promoted by the World Trade Organisation, despite the resistance of many developing countries who are now calling for an exception of the opposite nature compared to the past, as it consists in the protection of employment and income of a sector that is poorly competitive towards the outside. Or with the spread of speculative practices on land and food. Or, again, through the privatisation of traditional seeds and biodiversity.

Let us admit that market mechanisms can be very efficient in allocating resources and investments to stimulate agricultural innovation and productivity, and the aggregate food output has effectively enjoyed significant growth in recent decades. Moreover, the efforts of national, international and private organisations have contributed to disseminating scientific knowledge and technical skills that are useful for sustainable development; they empowered farmers from developing countries by gathering the products required for food aid campaigns right from the local or regional markets; they delivered food and nutrients to populations and individuals in situations of food emergency and humanitarian crisis. 

On top of that, the international community has tried to politically address the profound reasons behind the food crises discussed above, albeit not always successfully. In 1974, the United Nations and FAO organised the World Food Conference to discuss how to boost the production capacity of underdeveloped countries and preserve global stocks. In June 2008, FAO organised a similar conference and paid particular attention to the impact of biofuels on food security and the relationship between the financial and food markets. 

Finally, in July 2022, under the patronage of the United Nations, Turkey promoted the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an international agreement signed by the belligerents and the promoting parties aimed at allowing cargo ships to sail the Black Sea safely, paving the way for the birth of the UN Joint Coordination Centre, which was established at a later stage to monitor all the transported materials.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine that these efforts and the positive developments noted above can fully respond to the food challenges at stake, also because the transition that we have been referring to can influence both the causes of food insecurity and the effectiveness of the policies designed to combat it, especially in situations of particular inequality in the distribution of wealth, or instability of the farmers' income. Let us consider two of the main tools used to fight hunger: the direct distribution of food -in-kind aid- and the allocation of financial resources to produce or purchase food – cash aid.

The effectiveness of the first tool rests on the assumption that food reserves of sufficient volume to deal with emergencies are available and that all the stored food can be delivered at the right time to prevent these emergencies. Unfortunately, though, in-kind aid has not optimally met these requirements. 

The food reserves issue has been under discussion since the early years of the Cold War, especially within the FAO. However, it failed to produce concrete results due to the considerable difficulties experienced in defining the individual contributions to such a global reserve and the exact powers of the international agency that was supposed to manage it. 

Consequently, in-kind aid relied on national reserves that were often inadequate in quantity, subject to donor interests, and influenced by the competitive dynamics of the international system. Furthermore, such aid has often reached the crisis areas too slowly and expensively, as transport costs tend to increase in times of crisis.

The cash aid option has seemingly encountered none of the issues above. This kind of aid made it possible to quickly and selectively reach communities, groups and even single individuals, all of whom received adequate financial tools such as vouchers or shopping cards. 

Moreover, the multilateral management of said funds made them less sensitive to the political interests of donors. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the leading role played by the WFP (UN World Food Programme), for which the organisation received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. Furthermore, cash aid allows purchasing foods consistent with the local diet and, whenever possible, produced by farmers from the same crisis areas. 

Still, this tool has also faced crucial limitations, considering that the purchasing power of economic resources decreases as the price of food increases, which tends to happen in any crisis period. Therefore, the effectiveness of cash aid tends to decrease right when the tool becomes most necessary, even more so if donor countries cannot allocate additional resources, most notably when food crises add up to pre-existing issues, such as the global recession and, subsequently, the pandemic.

These notes are perhaps helpful in showing that the contemporary models of food production, distribution and redistribution are hindered by an unresolved dichotomy between the autonomy of political communities and their openness to the market. Very schematically, we could isolate three examples of how these fundamental tensions in food policies could influence international politics  in the world ahead.

The first issue concerns the rules for accessing arable land and exploiting its resources. The political importance of this aspect is certainly nothing new, as the support of the so-called "peasant masses" has traditionally been crucial for the stability of political regimes, with its external consequences. One could imagine that this issue will persist or reappear with the spread of transnational land acquisition practices that occur even more in the absence of shared rules for direct investments abroad, especially when these practices involve internally fragile and externally dependent countries. 

The second issue is ascribable to trade regulations and their complex relationship with food security: on the one hand, market liberalisations can increase agricultural efficiency and productivity; on the other hand, the unregulated opening to the market can end up damaging the agriculture sector of less-competitive countries undermining their food sovereignty, also intended as a cultural value system, besides its economic implications (in 2015, Jennifer Clapp produced an illuminating FAO report which critically analyses this debate: Food Security and International Trade. Unpacking Disputed Narratives). 

The third problem concerns the delicate balance between the interests of the food industry of exporting countries and those of food-insecure countries. Indeed, food aid has often been a vehicle for the commercial promotion of large producers, even at the cost of increasing aid waste and slowing down agriculture and economic development in the importing countries. 

In this regard, tied aid stands out as yet another relevant theme: that is, bilateral aid bound to the establishment of privileged commercial relationships, which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has requested to eliminate with mixed success: the EU and Canada, for example, have successfully interrupted their tied food aid policies, while this did not happen for the US just yet.

These are just some of the issues the world needs to tackle to increase food security within the international system and, ultimately, for the very resilience of the system itself. Indeed, the existing literature maintains that the relationship between conflicts and food is two-way and can take multiple forms. Conflicts cause food insecurity, as we saw at the beginning, but food is also among the causes of political instability and conflict.

Perhaps because food insecurity can trigger competition for scarce resources or inflationary spirals that translate into internal riots and regional instability, or perhaps because the availability of food, which is necessary for the organisation and efficiency of armed forces, can make wars more frequent and long-lasting.

Contemporary food crises confirm the validity of these connections in several specific situations. For example, a prolonged drought foreran the war in Syria, weighing on a highly water-inefficient agricultural system weakened by rigid liberalisation policies and burdened by the growing demand for food arising after massive internal and international migratory phenomena. Overall, the relevance of these factors will likely remain valid in the foreseeable future. 

The shape of international conflicts seems to magnify the political implications of food insecurity, as the military and non-military, internal and external, territorial and transnational elements of global instability tend to mix up in increasingly spurious ways. 

Along this line, we could consider hunger and war as mutually perpetuating phenomena. In short, in the world that awaits us, food security could become an increasingly important piece of the international order.

About the authors

MARCO CLEMENTI teaches International Relations at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Pavia, where he coordinates the Master's Degree in World Politics and International Relations. For il Mulino, he has published La Nato (2002), L’Europa e il mondo (2004), Primi fra pari (2011), and Relazioni internazionali (with F. Andreatta, A. Colombo, M. Koenig-Archibugi, and V.E. Parsi, 2017).

MARTINO TOGNOCCHI, PhD in International Studies at the University of Milan, is a research fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Pavia. His research focuses on the interaction between food security and international relations.

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