The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was established in the wake of World War II with the idea that the ensuing peace would provide the necessary conditions to ensure humanity’s freedom from hunger.
In the context of the post-war period in Europe and parts of Asia, increasing agricultural production seemed the natural way to reduce hunger. That is what FAO has been doing: the organization has supported countries developing new technologies to raise production and food productivity. An important example is the Green Revolution that allowed the per capita availability of food to increase by more than 40 percent in the last 50 years.
But a greater availability of food has not been enough to eradicate world hunger.
In the words of Josué de Castro, the famous Brazilian doctor and activist who was also the Third Independent Chairman of FAO, “war and hunger do not obey any natural law, they are human creations.”
On the 16th of October 2015, FAO will celebrate its 70th anniversary, and the main issue that led to the organization’s foundation is still present: achieving peace and food security for all.
Today, over 805 million people around the world still suffer from hunger, while the amount of food produced is more than enough to feed everyone. In fact, hunger still persists due to two main reasons: at a global level, the poorest populations have limited access to food, not only because of their reduced purchasing power (as they cannot find decent employment) but also because they do not have access to the resources necessary for production (such as water, land, and credit); and at local level, conflicts that turn into protracted crises continue to flare up.
FAO has identified 22 countries in protracted crises. According to a draft report from the World Committee on Food Security (CFS), conflicts and political fallouts produce more crises than natural disasters. The CFS is preparing an Agenda for Action – expected to be approved next October – through which it intends to promote the development, implementation, and monitoring of comprehensive policies to improve food security and nutrition in these situations.
Ultimately, peace is a precondition for eradicating hunger; but there is a circular and complex relationship between conflict and food insecurity.
On one hand, conflicts have major impacts on food security, as they can harm food production, trade, and access. On the other hand, often due to economic issues, there is a tight link between food security and human security.
For example, in 2008, an upward spike in global food prices sparked civil unrest over basic staples such as rice and wheat in more than 40 countries. Many governments in countries that had benefited from the rapid growth of mineral commodity prices (including oil) in the early 2000s failed to pay adequate attention to the domestic production of food. They did so with the belief that the globalized world would be like a supermarket from which they could import the food they needed. They thought it would be possible and beneficial to import surplus cereals from developed countries at subsidized prices.
The lean period in 2008-10 showed misconceptions in these assumptions. Many governments were unable to import at a time when prices peaked, even though they had more than enough financial resources to do so.
Then, in 2011, governments in the Middle East reduced subsidies for bread, a move which played a role the social upheaval and political violence of the Arab Spring.
Sudden and unexpected food price rises and the removal of subsidies on basic foodstuffs can be a catalyst for civil and political unrest. Competition to control natural resources such as land and water, required for food production, can trigger wider conflict.
In post-conflict situations, persistently high food insecurity could be an incentive for a lapse back into conflict, particularly if the food insecurity is perceived to have derived from persecution, marginalization, or injustices. An estimated 40 percent of fragile and post-conflict countries relapse into conflict within 10 years. Recent examples include South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Conflicts contribute, in many ways, to both chronic and acute food insecurity. Mortality caused by conflict through food insecurity and famine can exceed deaths caused directly from violence. Between 2004 and 2009, approximately 55,000 people a year died as a direct result of armed conflict or terrorism. As a result of famine caused by drought and conflict, five times as many people died in Somalia alone between 2010 and 2012.
Most conflicts mainly affect rural areas and their populations, heavily impacting agricultural production and smallholder livelihoods. This is particularly true for civil conflicts, which in recent years have become the most common form of armed conflict. Indeed, we are witnessing increasingly fragmented and asymmetric conflicts, with no front lines, no clear conflict zones, and blurred distinctions between combatants and civilians.
Conflicts disrupt food production through destruction of crops, livestock, harvests, and food reserves; they prevent and discourage farming; they disrupt food transportation systems; they destroy farm assets and capital; they result in young men conscripted to fight, forcing them away from farm work; and they suppress income-generating activities and occupations.
The impact of conflicts on food security often lasts long after the violence has subsided, as assets are destroyed, people killed or maimed, populations displaced, landmines are scattered, the environment damaged, and health, education, and social support networks and services are shattered.
There are a number of measures that governments and international stakeholders can put in place to mitigate the risk of conflicts and the related impacts on food security.
Agriculture is the dominant form of livelihood for households in post-conflict countries. Efforts to revive the agricultural sector and increase food security have positive effects on the sustainability of peace.
Rehabilitation of agriculture is a central condition for development, reducing poverty, preventing environmental destruction, and reducing violence.
Good governance is also crucial in building healthy conditions for agriculture, thus breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, instability, and violence.
In the aftermath of a social shock, particularly in fragile settings, it is vitally important to rapidly re-engage small-holder farmers – both men and women – in productive activities. Extension systems improve agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability by providing technical and commercial information that assists communities in dealing with the consequences of conflict.
Today, there are strong mechanisms of intervention to ensure peace. Haiti provides an example of swift and successful action. There, the United Nations peacekeeping mission secured the democratic transition helping the country to rapidly recover its capacity to produce enough food to feed its population.
However, the international community continues to lack the necessary boldness and consensus to systematically address conflict and insecurity. One important way of doing this is reforming the U.N. Security Council to include new permanent members like Brazil and India, thus making it more representative, and politically and socially legitimate
Resolving such issues is beyond the scope of FAO’s work. If we can establish effective political governance at the global level, then the conditions will be in place for FAO to play its part in implementing a global food governance.