US Must Address Global Food Prices, Food Insecurity to Prevent Conflict, Risks to US National Security

April 7, 2016
A new study from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs warns that civil unrest stemming from food price volatility and food insecurity in key world regions stands to directly impact U.S. national security interests. The report urges the United States to recognize the linkages and rededicate itself to a program of research, knowledge transfer and assistance in developing agricultural capacity abroad in order to proactively address food price stability and to reduce national security threats.

The biggest risks for future instability are in Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia, argues the report, with the Middle East vulnerable as well.

Sub-Saharan Africa includes 12 countries with higher than average rates of both urban population growth and urban unrest in response to food prices. Source: FAO

If policymakers do not implement protective measures, recurrent food crises and price spikes could trigger the kinds of events that the report notes led in part to the conflict in Syria and to other mass uprisings of the Arab Spring.

“Though the links between food prices and conflict seem obvious, several countries that have experienced strife were not thought to be particularly food insecure or considered fragile before the conflict, implying that previous risk assessments underestimated the potential for food prices to be destabilizing,” said Dr. Cullen S. Hendrix, who authored the study and directs the Environment, Food and Conflict Lab at the Korbel School at the University of Denver. “This report lays out for policymakers some of the linkages that make countries vulnerable, why U.S. national security is at risk and what we can do about it.”

The report recommends that the United States rededicate itself to a program of research, knowledge transfer and assistance in developing agricultural capacity abroad. It also recommends the United States support foreign governments in pursuing strategies that proactively address food price stability in order to decouple food systems from violent unrest. Recommendations include:
  • Improving our understanding of the relationship between food insecurity and political instability. This field is nascent, and a deeper comprehension of the linkages is important to build a policy platform.
  • Leveraging U.S. knowledge to support improvements in national and regional emergency grain reserves in key regions.
  • Facilitating commodity hedging by importing governments.
  • Addressing export bans, which often have devastating impact on regional markets.
  • Encouraging the adoption of regional food balance sheets.
Download the full report for details about how these measures would effectively dampen the risks of food-price-related violence. 

About the Author
Dr. Hendrix is Associate Professor at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the Korbel School at the University of Denver, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, and Senior Research Advisor at the Center for Climate & Security, also in Washington, DC. At the Korbel School, he directs the Environment, Food and Conflict (ENFOCO) Lab, which leverages collaborations between physical and social scientists and policymakers to produce scholarship and analysis on issues at the intersection of the environment, food security, and conflict. His work on the subject has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Defense Minerva Initiative and has been widely cited in policy circles, including by the 2014 IPCC Report, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and the G7’s A New Climate for Peace.