The emerging securitisation of food

Food Security,Knowledge brokering01 Mar 2011Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

When we speak of ‘food security’ we generally refer to ‘a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (The State of Food Insecurity 2001). Yet the very fact that we speak of security in relation to food also evidences a more fundamental, and perhaps even intuitive understanding of the link between hunger and conflict. Namely, when it comes to humankind’s survival, food and water are our most rudimentary needs to stay alive.

Failure to peacefully satisfy these needs is historically known to see us draw upon less peaceful means to acquire food and water – especially in situations of marginalisation where neighbouring countries, communities, tribes or individuals are affluent. Thus food insecurity and conflict, in one form or another, seem to go hand in hand.

Even though not every chronically hungry person automatically resorts to violence, events in the last couple of years have increasingly evidenced a correlation between food insecurity and (violent) conflict. The 2008 global food price crisis saw food riots spread across the world and demonstrations over high food prices turn violent. The turmoil in 2008 was a direct effect of sky-rocketing food prices, causing unrest and conflict in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The more recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt as well as the growing protests in countries like Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria may not have been directly sparked by high food prices or strained food supply streams, yet many argue that food had a significant role in relation to the poverty, unemployment, and relative deprivation these populations experienced.

The problems relating to ‘food security’ are multi-disciplinary and know many dimensions, covering wide areas like development studies, agricultural research, nutrition, public health, economics and security – amongst many others. Interestingly though, many International Security scholars, mostly drawing from the Political Realists school of thought, or those working in the realms of Military and Strategic security, continue to resist accepting that food has a national – and international security dimension. Food is often seen as an environmental – and human security issue, but as Tolentino points out here, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that food is entering the realm of national security.

The argument is far from new. Back in the Cold War days some scholars already explored the link between food and national security. Christensen, for example, argued in 1977 that ‘under conditions of increasing scarcity, food-importing countries have several reasons for considering their international food position as a matter of national security.’ Fast-forwarding to 2008, we indeed notice that a number of wealthy food-importing countries started to classify food as a matter of national security and invoked policies of self-sufficiency to avert potential future food shortages for their populations. Especially Gulf and Asian states became so-called ‘new imperialists’ in Africa and South-East Asia, leasing vast amounts of foreign agricultural land to produce and secure their own food supply.

Thus, while there may be an intuitive link between hunger and conflict, it remains the question whether securitisation of food is a favourable outcome. On the one hand one could argue that elevating food into the national security realm may be a powerful way to unlock vast amounts of funding for agricultural research, sustainable solutions and increased food production. Yet, at the same time it allows states to utilise security – and military resources to compete over scarce resources such as agricultural land, fresh water, fertilisers and fish stocks – increasing the risk for conflict.