Food and sustainability

Food sustainability and geopolitics

Food security has become an increasingly prominent issue in recent years. The market for food has become tighter as the population of the world continues to grow and rising incomes across much of the developing world are changing diets, particularly in terms of an increase in meat consumption. Higher use of biofuels, and lower agricultural productivity, are further contributing to a food supply squeeze. These factors create a potentially volatile mix. 

The sustainability of food supplies is intrinsically linked to political stability. States that cannot ensure a reliable, affordable supply of food to their populations are more likely to face protests and suffer from political instability. The Arab Spring, which started in 2011, is a good example of this. Despite the fact that the factors contributing to the Arab Spring are multiple and complex, the protests that first started in Tunisia came about partly because of record high food prices1,2 .  The protests in Syria—which is now engulfed in a brutal civil war—were partly motivated by a lack of stable food supplies. Before the war, Syria experienced the worst drought in its history which, combined with unsustainable agricultural practices and poor resource management, led to internal displacement of people and catalysed political unrest3 . Across the Arab world, food prices were an important driver of the protests of 20114 .

Weak agricultural practices and resource conflicts

The Food Sustainability Index (FSI) developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2016 with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, studies in detail the reasons why some countries struggle with food sustainability. It ranks 25 countries on three measures—sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste and finds that major deficiencies in food sustainability policies in many parts of the world exist, particularly in developing countries. As the global population increases and competition for resources becomes more intense, there are even greater risks that these countries will face domestic instability or be drawn into international conflicts.

The FSI identifies numerous factors behind a lack of food sustainability in many developing countries. One prominent issue standing behind unsustainable agriculture practices is water management. Although water shortages can come about as a result of environmental factors, they are also often caused by bad policy decisions. The FSI highlights unsustainable water usage trends in Asia and the Middle East in particular, but it is clear that unsustainable use of water resources is a problem across much of the globe, including in China and India5 , and can be a source of friction between states. International tensions related to water resources are already visible, for example between India and Pakistan7. Moreover, 3.9bn people in river basins look set to face severe water stress by 2050, suggesting that this will only become a more pressing issue over time.

Food security is an evolving geopolitical issue

Harvest failures and consequent policy responses can also lead to big price jumps and political volatility. Meanwhile, conflicts over resources, including food, can lead to tensions between states. Food supply chains are increasingly international, and countries are ever more interdependent in terms of food supply. 

Some states have reacted to these evolving food security challenges with protectionist measures by way of taking greater control over production, transportation and the sale of agricultural products8. In Africa, for example, China has been accused of carrying out “land grabs” to secure agricultural supplies9 . Other major grain importers have also sought to acquire land to grow crops in foreign countries10 . In 2007, both Russia and Argentina restricted food exports in response to rising domestic prices11

Awareness growing, but risks ahead

Awareness of the links between geopolitics and food sustainability is growing. A new international programme hosted by the Stockholm Environment Institute plans to study how the interactions of politics, trade, resource exploitation and environmental science influence sustainable development12. Although the programme is intended to primarily deliver conclusions on the risks faced by Sweden in this area, it will also have German and British involvement, and the findings are likely to be relevant internationally. 

However, it is already clear that two things are crucial. First, countries must continue to make progress on the six UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in 201513, and in particular the six SDGs which deal specifically with food sustainability. One of the key findings of the FSI is that there is enough food to feed everyone in the world, if only resources are managed sustainably. However, a focus on control of strategic resources, rather than improving sustainability of what countries already have, will not solve the problem. It is just as likely to exacerbate the issue, and could have worrying geopolitical consequences. 

The second key point is that international cooperation is a must. Sustainable water management, for example, which stands behind many of the food sustainability challenges highlighted above, often has an international dimension, and requires cooperation between states to work. In an ever more interdependent world, with food supply chains stretching across multiple countries, going it alone is not an option. 

(this article has been published first on the blog

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Haley Swartz is a Research Program Coordinator for the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Haley researches food assistance programs and nutrition governance in developing and low and middle-income countries with Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Ethics & Global Food and Agriculture. Haley holds a Master of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Government, both from the University of Virginia.

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