The symbiotic relationship between between food scarcity and armed conflict is perhaps not a new one, but the latest food security index released by Maplecroft demonstrates the extent of this tragic correlation. The most critical regions of the world, including the Horn of Africa and the remainder of the Sub-Sahara, have been subjected to some of the worst drought conditions in decades, exacerbated by largely stagnant economies. Yet even regions of the world with rapidly growing economies, such as those of the Indian Subcontinent, remain extremely vulnerable to effects of food scarcity. Lest we forget, almost half of India’s children are malnourished, and one in four of the world’s hungry live there. But with international food aid disbursement at its highest, are there any indications of progress in eliminating world hunger? Will tumultuous politics and economics always preclude the availability of sustenance?
Historically, the answer to that question is an unfortunate and resounding yes, but millions of revolutionaries throughout North Africa and the Middle East began writing a new history for themselves earlier this year. The sweeping demonstrations, known as the Arab Spring, have been attributed to poverty, unemployment, and social injustice, but a recent study links the revolutions to a single metric: global food prices. Indeed, the connection may be so strong that the researchers suggest a specific price threshold can be established for any given society to indicate when social unrest becomes likely:
More specifically, food riots occur above a threshold of the FAO price index of 210 (p < 10−7, binomial test). The observations also suggest that the events in North Africa and the Middle East were triggered by food prices. Considering the period of time from January 1990 to May 2011 […], the probability that the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East occurred by chance at a period of high food prices is p < 0.06 (one sample binomial test).
Moreover, the study endeavors to explain why an increasingly globalized food market has proved damaging, rather than beneficial, to regional food security:
Today, many poor countries rely on the global food supply system and are thus sensitive to global food prices. This condition is quite different from the historical prevalence of subsistence farming in undeveloped countries, or even a reliance on local food supplies that could provide a buffer against global food supply conditions. It is an example of the increasingly central role that global interdependence is playing in human survival and well-being.
One would hope that the political reforms enacted throughout North Africa and the Middle East will include efforts to invest in a more robust local agriculture, lessening dependence on the global food markets. However, some degree of integration with world markets is essential to ensuring food security, mitigating the effects of regional agricultural crises, such as the 2011 East Africa drought. It is estimated that more than 13.3 million are in immediate need of food assistance in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, alone. These countries, like others in and around the Horn of Africa, have economies largely dependent on the success of local agriculture; when the farms fail to produce, both food and capital become scarce. While over $1.12 billion in relief aid has been pledged through the UN, one wonders if there is a concentrated effort to resolve the imbalance of agricultural dependence at the heart of such crises.
At least one organization, the Somalia Agricultural Technical Group, is working to develop a more vigorous and diversified agriculture throughout the region, perhaps more resistant to the effects of extreme weather patterns. Their first large-scale initiative has been the introduction of the Filsan Mungbean, a non-GMO variety of bean characterized by higher yield potential and early maturity. Critically, however, the organization suggests that no single crop will provide for the agricultural renaissance desperately needed in the region. Greater coordination between the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN and NGOs such as SATG is essential to the discovery and dissemination of sound agricultural practices for farmers throughout East Africa, ultimately resulting in a more robust local food supply upon which its people can depend.
While attaining a perfect balance between regional and global food supply dependence may prove extraordinarily difficult, it is essential to improving the state of food security throughout the word. Food is, after all, our most basic level of sustenance, and we owe it to ourselves to ensure its equitable availability. It may require a significant investment of logistical and intellectual capital, but one can scarcely imagine a more vital cause.