February 8, 2017 | By

A Food-Secure Future: Warding Off Instability and Conflict

On February 1, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new blog series, A Food-Secure Future, to explore the challenges that threaten global food security and the opportunities that exist to overcome hunger and malnutrition once and for all. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2017. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 30.

Our first post in the Food-Secure Future series highlighted the inarguable connections between agricultural development, food security, and overall societal well-being—to better livelihoods, a stable food supply, and enhanced nutrition, school attendance, and health. But, as current events remind us, food security also has broader implications for stability and security on an international scale.

Food Insecurity and Price Shocks can Spark Violence and Political Instability

We have learned time and again that food supply shocks—like food price spikes—lead to instability, violence, and even regime collapse. In 2007 and 2008, when global food prices spiked dramatically, the governments of Haiti and Madagascar fell in the wake of food price-related protests. In 2010 and 2011, food prices were again implicated in the destabilizing uprisings of the Arab Spring. More recently, severe food shortages and soaring inflation have sparked rioting and lootings throughout Venezuela, as 90 percent of Venezuelan families struggle to afford food.

Council research has found that food price-related unrest occurs most often in urban areas, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Africa and Asia, where rates of undernourishment are high and rates of urbanization are higher, housed 28 of the 29 riots that occurred during the food price spikes in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011. In developing cities on these continents, impoverished urban dwellers may spend up to 50 percent of their incomes on food. Additionally, food supplies in these cities many be tenuous—either dependent on food imports or domestic production vulnerable to external shocks. As such, urban consumers in low- and middle-income countries may face chronic food insecurity, significant food price volatility, and little ability to absorb price shocks—these factors all contribute to the likelihood of rioting and unrest in urban areas plagued by hunger crises.

Rural citizens—though they aren’t able to mobilize as readily as their urban counterparts—are deeply impacted by instability in agricultural markets and chronic food insecurity. Rural communities depend on stable food prices, sufficient agricultural inputs, and fair agrarian policy to sustain their livelihoods. In their absence, rural residents may be more likely to engage in civil unrest. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—which concluded peace negotiations with the government in December after a bloody, 52-year conflict—was formed by disenfranchised rural communities, who had suffered from a collapse in agricultural markets and a lack of agrarian reform. FARC continued to recruit poor, rural people throughout its insurgency.

Food Insecurity is a Powerful Driver for Migration

Food insecurity is not only a potential driver of conflict, but it can also spur large-scale migration. The World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration first identified this relationship in the migratory patterns of subsistence farmers and households impacted by drought in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in 2014. They found that food insecurity proved a significant factor in decisions to migrate, particularly to the United States, while violence may have also played a less consistent role in outward migration from the region.

This is a phenomenon we, sadly, see playing out today across the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. In South Sudan, where nearly one third of the population is in need of emergency food assistance as a result of civil war, 450,000 people have left the country since July 2016. Conflict in Syria, meanwhile, has decimated agricultural production, destroying agricultural infrastructure and disrupting food supply chains. With little ability to generate livelihood or secure sufficient food, many farmers and rural households have had no choice but to migrate. Those that have fled to refugee camps in the region continue to face hunger as funding cuts have restricted the ability of organizations like WFP and UNHCR to supply sufficient rations and aid; many refugees have chosen to migrate farther, to Europe in many cases, in response.

Food Security Promotes International Security

The impacts of food insecurity, especially when they provoke instability and unrest, reach well beyond national borders. When food insecurity topples governments, the international order is invariably altered and regions are destabilized. When food insecurity forces migration across regions, or continents, international relations are strained, public services are weakened, and families are torn apart.

These are lessons, however, that are too often employed in hindsight. In Cameroon, the United Nations Development Programme has begun to provide agricultural inputs and training to youth, who, without economic alternative, were being recruited to Boko Haram. The Colombian government incorporated agricultural development and rural poverty reduction measures into its peace treaty with FARC, having completed its first rural census in 45 years in 2015.

We all have enormous stake in ensuring the food security of individuals and communities around the world—in providing both consumers and producers with the resilience to withstand shocks from climate, conflict, or any extreme conditions. We have the opportunity, now, to do so before further instability threatens our collective welfare. Otherwise, we will continue to face new iterations of the challenges we see today: deeply entrenched conflict, widespread migration, and unimaginable human suffering.   

Check out previous posts in the Food-Secure Future series:

The Promise and Power of Agricultural Development


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

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Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

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International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

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WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


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