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A hungry man is an angry man

José María Sumpsi Viñas, FAO Assistant Director-General, highlights some of the new ways that food could become a security issue in the light of the emerging food crisis.

The world food situation is rapidly being redefined. Serious riots and protests such as the ones in cities from the Caribbean to the Far East demonstrate the potential for political instability that this brings.

There is currently a trend of unprecedented increases in food prices and import bills for the poorest countries, coupled with diminishing food stocks. This has created many political, security, humanitarian, socio-economic and development-related challenges - quite apart from the immediate hunger needs.

In the last few weeks the world has rapidly taken note of the seriousness of these challenges and a range of proposals have started to emerge.

Given this issue’s complexity, policymakers face a tricky balancing act between the urgency of responding to the immediate problems, and taking enough time to adequately understand and analyze the challenges and the potential consequences of their actions.

In some instances, further clarity and system-wide agreement are needed on the way forward. We need to review the demand and supply drivers of higher food prices, its impacts and the likely threats.

The most alarming, immediate consequence is the increased social and political food-related unrest in many countries

But this situation also presents both challenges that are already evident, and opportunities that may not be.

The main immediate challenges include:

  • outbreaks of food-related protests and insecurity;
  • greater food insecurity with increased cases of acute malnutrition requiring emergency intervention;
  • increased costs for food imports, food aid and food assistance programmes and;
  • national government use of price controls, export bans and the elimination of import tariffs.

Possible opportunities include:

  • potential benefits to farmers;
  • innovative developments in the food aid system; and
  • beneficial shifts in agricultural trade policies.

The most alarming, immediate consequence is the increased social and political food-related unrest in many countries. This risk is particularly high in countries emerging from violent conflict, where fragile security and political or economic progress is easily derailed.

In some cases, stabilisation efforts could be undermined, peacekeeping missions come under pressure to support government efforts to quell riots, and international staff and their facilities (such as food warehouses) become targets.

If the problems continue as predicted, extra needs could easily run into billions of dollars on the humanitarian side alone

Quite apart from the immediate security response, such as seen in Haiti, urgent efforts are needed. These include:

  • factoring food-related unrest into conflict early warning systems;
  • integrating food security into peace-building;
  • preparing contingency plans;
  • monitoring food markets and prices (especially in urban areas); and
  • considering how agencies and peace-building missions could better cope with mass riots.

We could also investigate the deployment of surge capacity teams with expertise in how to respond to these complicated events.

Food for emergency distributions is not only urgent, but becoming increasingly expensive - which undermines the international response. The World Food Programme has already requested an additional $750 million, at the time of writing, to meet its already assessed projects for 2008 - a sum which continues to rise. Additional funds to support food and transport costs will be needed from numerous organisations and agencies, just to maintain current levels of assistance.

If the problems continue as predicted, extra needs could easily run into billions of dollars on the humanitarian side alone. It is not clear where these additional resources could come from, nor what effect this might have on other humanitarian needs. Many of the world’s most vulnerable people who depend on external food assistance may well face reduced or curtailed rations. The donor community must be ready to provide significant extra resources and, together with the food aid and assistance community, to tackle serious issues about priorities.

The UN system must urgently improve needs assessments and vulnerability analysis as well as working with governments to develop effective safety nets. These could be food vouchers or cash transfers, school feeding, employment or nutrition programmes, insurance schemes - as long as they protect vulnerable populations.

In the near to longer term, poor rural producers need to be helped to expand their production and seize the opportunity offered by higher commodity prices. Cereal production by Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDCs) - excluding China and India - actually declined by 2.2 per cent in 2007, just as international prices were rising. Yields in many of these countries continue to be much lower than the rest of the world. This is because they lag behind in the use of fertilizers, high yielding varieties, irrigation, integrated nutrient and pest management, and conservation tillage.

The FAO has already taken steps to respond to soaring food prices. In December 2007, it launched an initiative to support governments in the most-affected countries to enhance agricultural supply. Work on this initiative is being carried out in partnership with the World Bank, regional institutions, other Rome-based agencies and national governments to identify urgent investment needs in agriculture.

Just as this initiative involves working in partnership to help farmers produce what they want and need, so the security community can work together with other areas to ensure that this issue is addressed and contained.

By doing this, food can be prevented from snowballing from a major humanitarian issue to a significant security one.

José María Sumpsi Viñas

Questions & Answers

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