Economic Policy Program

International Development

Policy Brief
March 2012

Summary: This paper identifies some of the major factors that contribute to food insecurity, including those that drive localized food scarcity. It explores brief case studies of some of these factors at play, focusing on those that have or will likely have geopolitical ramifications. It also highlights potential conflicts and raises awareness of them, in the hope that this awareness leads to creative thinking about solutions. This increased awareness is especially important (and lacking) for transatlantic publics, business executives, and policymakers, for whom many of these issues feel far removed but are actually critically important.

Excess, Access, and the Emerging Geopolitics of Food
by Kathryn Ritterspach Thulin and Mark Allegrini
Introduction In recent years, food and agriculture have become increasingly important issues on the global agenda. The 2008-2009 worldwide recession, a series of food supply shocks, and food riots around the world caused many to reignite Malthusian fears — that is, a world that will soon have too many people and not enough food to go around. World leaders pledged a concerted fight against global food insecurity, promising at a G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy in the summer of 2009 to give billions of dollars to those most in need of more and better food. At the same time, in other parts of the world, decision-makers adopted more defensive positions, imposing export bans and other harmful policies in an attempt to keep food at home. Some governments (and large companies) made huge land acquisitions in the developing world, hedging against real or perceived inabilities to grow enough food on their own soil. In addition to these global trends, a series of more localized developments have put pressure on food availability and on the agricultural systems that underpin it. Though food insecurity remains a persistent problem and a growing threat, it is not being driven by an actual or absolute scarcity of food, as some commentators have argued. Rather, though certain critical inputs such as water and arable land are indeed scarce in some parts of the world, the planet as a whole will in all likelihood continue to have more than enough food, thanks to improved seeds and other technological and productivity advances. Where scarcity exists, it is localized, not global. Because of this, while it will be important to mitigate factors that contribute to regional scarcity, the more profound challenge will be distribution and access — to food itself, but more importantly to the markets, technologies, and other inputs that make food production and distribution possible. More and more, these critical avenues for access to globally abundant food in the face of regional scarcity are complicating geopolitical balances and relationships. In this context, this paper will identify some of the major factors that contribute to food insecurity, including those that drive localized food scarcity. It will then explore brief case studies of some of these factors at play, focusing on those that have or will likely have geopolitical ramifications. It seeks to highlight potential conflicts and raise awareness of them, in the

1744 R Street NW Washington, DC 20009 T 1 202 683 2650 F 1 202 265 1662 E

Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
hope that this awareness leads to creative thinking about solutions. This increased awareness is especially important (and lacking) for transatlantic publics, business executives, and policymakers, for whom many of these issues feel far removed but are actually critically important. Food Insecurity and Its Causes At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, food security was defined as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Importantly, the World Health Organization notes that “access” implies both physical and economic access to food, underscoring the fact that food insecurity can and does exist in a world where there is more than enough food, in theory, for everyone. In an influential Foreign Policy article published in the middle of 2011, “The New Geopolitics of Food,” Lester R. Brown wrote that the world is entering an era of scarcity, where population will soon outpace humanity’s ability to produce enough food.1 While it is true that food, land, and water will play increasingly dominant roles in “the new geopolitics,” these tensions will not be the result of a true global scarcity of food. Food insecurity will not be driven by the fact that there is not enough food to go around, but rather that access — to food itself, to knowledge and technology, to markets and commercial opportunities, and to those agricultural inputs that actually are scarce such as land and water — will be uneven and contested. The new geopolitics of food will be dictated by tensions over access. History has shown that, when presented with a problem, societies have usually found a technological solution. In agriculture, this has certainly been true. From mechanized farming to the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides, there have always been ways to increase productivity. While Brown points to instances that suggest a flattening of the innovation curve, it is also true that much of the world’s farmland remains hugely underutilized. The technology and market demand required to drastically increase production is often simply not available in the developing world, where there is arable land and the potential for large increases in productivity. This is true even without consideration for any progression in existing technology.

This disparity between existing (and ever-improving) technology and its usage suggests that simply improving access to technology and market opportunities in the areas with the most potential could have a significant impact on productivity and output. Rice, for example, presents a huge opportunity where large “yield gaps” have been identified between actual and potential output in the developing world. While factors such as geography can limit the production ceiling, there are technical and policy solutions that can dramatically increase yields, and address shortages using current arable land. One promising example is rice seed that has been engineered to thrive in floodplains that used to be inhospitable. If applied to the varied climate conditions of the developing world, soil and seed science could fundamentally transform agriculture in these countries.

The new geopolitics of food will be dictated by tensions over access.
Improving technologies and the transfer of existing techniques are likely to prevent the world, in absolute terms, from running short of food. Just as Thomas Malthus’ original vision of a population that outpaced its ability to feed itself was happily disproved, so too are the fears of neo-Malthusians unlikely to materialize. However, there are myriad other factors that do make food insecurity a menacing reality and even a growing concern, despite this absolute abundance. These include

the practical challenges associated with rapid technology transfer and adaptation; a lack of infrastructure to both support this technology and provide access to food markets; and poor policy decisions including those related to biofuels, export restrictions, or the (mis)use of water.



Lester R. Brown, “The New Geopolitics of Food,” Foreign Policy, May/June 2011.

The financial and logistical challenges of technology transfer, for one, should not be underestimated. While history does illustrate that technology transfer has and will likely continue to progress at a pace sufficient to prevent an actual global food shortage, it is not fast or widespread


Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
enough to prevent local or regionalized food paucities. However, for smallholder farmers and remote rural areas in developing countries, significant hurdles remain in place. The supply of technological transfer is inhibited by a lack of support infrastructure (roads and rail, cold storage warehousing, or electricity, for example) and a shortage of capital. The demand for technology transfer also must be addressed: lack of credit and insurance against uncertain market conditions dampens farmers’ ability or willingness to invest in new technologies. These factors combine to create a vicious cycle that discourages technology transfer to developing countries. Difficulty providing and sustaining technological improvements, as well as poor incentives and protections for farmers to adapt them, ensures that the barriers to practicing more sustainable commercial agriculture remain high. surplus to deficit, as well as the policy responses to provide the poor with the necessary income to purchase that grain. While India continues to face a host of development challenges, it has not experienced famine in decades. For other regions, overcoming some of these infrastructure and technological hurdles may mean cooperation among countries to share resources and make critical connections — a task that is not always easy.

Difficulty providing and sustaining technological improvements ensures that the barriers to practicing more sustainable commercial agriculture remain high.
Furthermore, the factors such as insufficient infrastructure to support modern technology transfer and adaptation also often prevent efficient distribution of food itself. Oftentimes, there are not mechanisms to create equilibrium in food markets on a national and regional scale — one part of a country could have food rotting in warehouses while families in another region starve. Though overcoming these distribution challenges takes time and significant resources, there are success stories. In India, increased infrastructure connectivity within the country was a major part of improving its famine response system. The famine codes of 1880 addressed both the need to improve intra-Indian railways (as opposed to the historically export-driven system) to move grain from areas of

Also in the developing world, millions of people in rural areas grow their own food, often by tradition or of necessity, on very small farms of two hectares or less.2 Physically these people are generally isolated from marketplaces where they could buy and sell food, making them dangerously dependent on their own personal harvests, which may not include sufficient quantities or varieties of nutrients. Partly as a result of this isolation, these families and communities also lack the economic means to invest in or learn about modern farming techniques and technologies. As urban centers grow, these underdeveloped agricultural market systems in poor countries will also exacerbate urban food insecurity, making cities overly reliant on imported food. In richer countries, by contrast, it is already the urban or peri-urban populations that struggle more than their rural counterparts. In the developed world, the small percentage of people who still live on farms are generally highly trained and involved in some form of corporate agriculture. Instead of smallholder farmers living harvest to harvest, the face of food insecurity in the developed world is families living in “food deserts.” In these areas, the population is dependent not on its own agriculture but on its shopping options, which do not include abundant or affordable nutritious food. Access to nutritious food is especially important for vulnerable populations such as the very young or very old. Infants born to malnourished mothers often have nutritional deficiencies that cause underdevelopment, which can leave a lasting effect on entire generations. To help these populations isolated from plentiful and nutritious food options, governments in both developed and developing countries will need to focus on


Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
investments in roads, rail, irrigation, warehousing facilities (including cold storage), and accessible marketplaces. In developing countries in particular, it will also be important to improve access to financing, invest in education, streamline customs procedures, and tackle corruption to help alleviate the pressure on these vulnerable populations. This laundry list of infrastructure and related policy needs illustrates the monumental challenges associated with improving access and distribution. In addition to the problems posed by physical interconnectivity, other policy and governance failures can also restrict the availability of food within and across borders. Simply investing in a modern agriculture sector is insufficient in the context of broader food security. It is equally important to ensure that the policy decisions taken do not restrict access to food or agricultural inputs, and do not exacerbate concerns about scarcity. In a world where there is unlimited arable land, this would not present a problem, but this is not the case. Arable land is a finite resource, and in fact may be decreasing. Countries with the most potential to meet global agricultural demand are in the developing world, where there are higher percentages of arable land and the greatest potential for large increases in productivity. This land is just as attractive for fuel crops as it is for food crops, and foreign or domestic investors sometimes opt for fuel. The associated “land grabs” (discussed below) bring their own set of geopolitical tensions. This also means that there is correspondingly less land for food production, making local populations more dependent on access to food grown elsewhere — and, in large enough volumes, having a noticeable impact on global food supplies. While on the whole it remains unlikely that we will experience a global food shortage, biofuels policies do no favors for the world’s food supply. The complex relationship between food and fuel provides a good illustration of the unintended consequences of policy decisions. While such policies are made in developed country capitals where the effects hardly register, their impact is more directly felt elsewhere and by those who are most vulnerable. While U.S. consumers spend less than 10 percent of their income on food, that number can jump up to 50 percent for households in developing countries, making any price fluctuation that much more painful. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Americans and Europeans are more likely to buy processed foods in which these commodity crops are only an ingredient, while families in other parts of the world are buying the staples themselves, thus absorbing the price increase more fully. In 2008, it was estimated that biofuels policies contributed 30 percent of the weighted average grain price increase3 worldwide, further undermining access in a market already suffering from the negative impacts of bad growing seasons and under the pressure of demographic shifts. While it certainly was not the sole cause, it is hard not to see how biofuel policies contributed to the riots and unrest associated with the food crisis of 2008.

Simply investing in a modern agriculture sector is insufficient in the context of broader food security.
One problematic global policy trend, and the one with real potential to truly put pressure on the global supply of food, is the use of food crops — or land formerly used to grow food — for biofuels production. In recent years, a desire for “greener” energy alternatives coupled with the high price of oil have led developed country governments to look to crop-based biofuels as a solution to both dependency on imported energy sources and negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels. Through mandates, quotas and subsidies, governments in both the United States and Europe have created a profitable market for corn ethanol and biodiesel, skewing incentives towards energy crops and away from food production. 4

Mark W. Rosegrant, “Biofuels and Grain Prices: Impacts and Policy Responses,” Testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, May 7, 2008.

Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
Often, bad policies combine with supply shocks to deliver double blows to food security. In 2010, wildfires in Russian wheat fields combined with adverse weather in other top wheat exporters, causing prices to jump almost 85 percent in two months.4 Exacerbating the effects of this natural disaster, Russia then imposed an almost year-long grain export restriction, which helped keep wheat prices down in Russia but contributed to a food price spike globally. Export constraints were also imposed in 2008, for example when Egypt, India, and others placed restrictions on rice. Perhaps the ultimate supply shock, however, is a lack of water. While farming practices and improved seeds exist to combat water shortages, it is by no means a given that these fixes will be put into practice. In areas where they are not, food security could be greatly threatened. One example of this tension is further discussed below.
The Geopolitics of Access: Case Studies

As populations expand rapidly in the Nile riparian states and demands for agriculture and electricity grow, tensions are rising along the river’s banks.
Not surprisingly, the other signatories to the treaty decry it as a colonial relic bestowing unjustified and disproportionate benefits on Egypt. Egypt counters that it is a large desert country with no alternative water sources, unlike many of its upstream neighbors. Egypt is also heavily agricultural — with millions of smallholder farmers using flood irrigation and other highly inefficient ancient practices, and favoring waterintensive traditional crops.

In 1999, all nine Nile countries6 established the Nile Basin Initiative, which “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.” Since then, however, six upstream states have signed another agreement: the Cooperative Framework Agreement, which strips Egypt of its veto power over I. Access to water and land Nile projects anywhere and instead seeks only majority The Nile River is the world’s longest and one of its most consent for use of Nile waters. famous waterways. It is also one of the world’s more The types of projects that would be especially probcontested. Egypt, the country most famously associlematic for Egypt are agricultural. While hydroelectric ated with the north-flowing Nile, lies downstream projects — the other primary use for Nile water — can of the other nine countries through which the water be managed in ways that do not significantly impact 5 flows. However, as the result of a colonial-era treaty, downstream countries, agriculture permanently Egypt (and, to a lesser extent, Sudan) actually has reduces the Nile water that reaches rain-starved Egypt rights to the lion’s share of Nile water use. As popula— which, in turn, wants the water primarily for its own tions expand rapidly in the Nile riparian states and agricultural purposes. demands for agriculture and electricity grow, tensions are rising along the river’s banks. Egypt therefore sees these moves by its neighbors as a profound threat — the words “war” and even “genocide” have been used.7 This strong response is Many of these main drivers of food insecurity around the world are already causing regional tensions. This section will examine cases, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, where food and agriculture are having geopolitical ramifications.
4 Maria Kolesnikova and Marina Sysoyeva, “Russia Lifting Grain-Export Ban,” Bloomberg News online, May 28, 2011. 5 The Nile flows through Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt. 6

South Sudan became the tenth Nile riparian country in 2011, but it did not automatically accede to the Nile Basin Initiative.

7 Thanassis Cambanis, “Egypt and Thirsty Neighbors are at Odds Over Nile,” The New York Times, September 25, 2010.


Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
not surprising. As Annia Ciezaldo and others have observed, plentiful and accessible food have long formed the backbone of the implicit contract between governments and their people.8 The entry of new players into this tense standoff is further complicating matters. South Sudan, for example, did not automatically carry its old diplomatic commitments into independence and is thus not bound by any of the treaty’s obligations. More interestingly and potentially much more problematically, however, are the foreign countries and corporations that in recent years have leased or purchased huge tracts of agricultural land in fertile Nile riparian countries. Described in more detail below, these deals are made by wealthy nations or private investors in an attempt to shore up domestic food or biofuels supplies. Land acquired overseas, sometimes permitted by governments eager to fill revenue gaps without examining longer-term implications, is generally treated as an extension of the purchaser’s own territory. Most troubling for Egypt, however, is that land acquisitions in its downstream neighbors are, as Lester R. Brown pointed out in the New York Times, “also, in effect, water acquisitions.”9 Water, in this still-unfolding drama, is indeed a scarce resource. Food, however, need not be. Simple solutions, including basic steps to make water use drastically more efficient (even on smallholdings) and the adoption of improved, drought-resistant seed, already exist. The crucial factor, and a central dilemma of economic development, is the access to these technologies and know-how. Though the Egyptian government has taken steps to try to improve its people’s wasteful agricultural practices (for example by paving irrigation channels to reduce water lost through leaching into the dirt), it has not effected nearly enough change. Egypt, and its neighbors as well, will need to produce food with less water. This would markedly reduce the looming threat that competition over water presents. The less that steps are taken to address this reality, the more the diminishing Nile water will present true challenges for Egypt, and the greater the chances that this could lead to real conflict.
8 9

As mentioned above, large land acquisitions — or “land grabs,” as critics refer to them — are emerging as another defining flash point in the geopolitics of access to food. Increasingly in recent years, countries that are net importers of grain and other staples have begun to worry about maintaining access to sufficient quantities of food. These countries — mainly in East and South Asia and the Middle East — have spotted an opportunity in Africa.

The crucial factor, and a central dilemma of economic development, is the access to technologies and know-how.
Africa’s fertile lands are dotted with smallholders or pastoralists who have been there for generations, but many governments, faced with impossibly low national budgets, are willing to consider this land “empty” in exchange for the cash on offer from prospective buyers. Though these land deals are routinely criticized for their lack of transparency, the general understanding is that purchasing countries are given basically free reign over their land acquisitions. This means they can employ their own people (as China is already famous for doing in its construction projects across Africa) and displace those already living on the land (with no clear, systematized means for compensation). Often, these tracts of land will be converted from smallholdings into consolidated, more efficient commercial farms — albeit in the medium to long term, since often support infrastructure is lacking. From a food security perspective, assuming that inputs such as water and fertilizer are used responsibly, this could actually be a positive development. While some bad examples have cast a negative light on large land purchases, it is important to note that discouraging responsible investment can be just as harmful. The positive effects of foreign agriculture investment can include technology transfer, increased productivity,

Annia Ciezaldo, “Let Them Eat Bread,” Foreign Affairs, March 23, 2011. Lester R. Brown, “When the Nile Runs Dry,” The New York Times, June 2, 2011.


Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
and more jobs. It is the responsibility of a host government to make sure that these investments meet social and environmental criteria and create wider benefits for the population. However, one of the major concerns, and the distinction between legitimate foreign investment and land grabs, is that all the food that is eventually grown will be exported to the purchasing country (or used by the purchasing corporation), with little or none of it made available to local people. In the face of a food crisis in one of these African countries (made all the more likely by the decreased availability of fertile land), it is unclear what legal recourse national governments would have for keeping food produced on “grabbed” land in-country, particularly if the initial agreement did not include safeguards. Observers fear appalling scenarios in which populations are starving in countries where modern, efficient agricultural practices are yielding bountiful harvests for people hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even in less drastic circumstances, the displacement of rural populations and the sting of diminished sovereignty over productive land are explosive issues. The potential for tension, both within “land-grabbed” countries and between those countries and the purchasers, is clear. Perhaps the most dramatic realworld example to date is Madagascar, where the lease by South Korean company Daewoo Logistics of half of Madagascar’s arable land is widely blamed for igniting the protests that eventually led to a coup. Daewoo Logistics, a huge corporation with plenty of capital and expertise, would likely have made very productive use of its acquired land after building the proper infrastructure, but it planned to do so without compensating displaced farmers and it intended to export its entire harvest. The acquisition of land is a complex and sensitive issue. Foreign direct investment in agriculture is vital to development. It may well even be that land grabs, though less transparent and inclusive, prove to actually increase global food production. But the risk is that they will exacerbate inequalities in access to food and the inputs used to produce it.
II. Access to Energy and Infrastructure

While most subsistence farming done now is handpowered, incorporating some commercial techniques is necessary to meet rapidly growing demand. In order to increase crop yields, the use of machinery, fertilizers, crop science, modern irrigation, and proper cold storage facilities all play important roles. In addition to significant financial investment, these all require reliable access to energy. Even in cases where commercial farming is not an option, such basic improvements coupled with access to markets can provide increased income opportunities and ensure that farmers have both the incentive and means to distribute their goods. Many of these improvements can be made through better policies and investments by governments, allowing resources to flow to areas with the most potential and encouraging companies to invest responsibly. However, even good policy is not always enough. In many cases, energy can be hard to come by. Access is restricted either by geography, government policies (at home or elsewhere), or sheer cost, and can be easily affected by actions outside of a government’s immediate control. Fossil fuel prices can be volatile, restricting access, and investments in the power grid are expensive and complex, making investment difficult in a time of economic downturn. This all becomes even more complicated when a country has to rely on its neighbors for access to either energy or the proper infrastructure.

The distinction between legitimate foreign investment and land grabs, is that all the food that is eventually grown will be exported to the purchasing country, with little or none of it made available to local people.

Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
South Sudan offers an interesting case of how relying on regional partners is potentially problematic. With a large supply of oil, South Sudan should be well placed to profit, but geographic location, coupled with regional tensions, presents serious problems. With no access to the international market, and unsettled relations with its neighbor to the north, the country has to look east to Ethiopia for access to the global market. This is potentially a win-win situation. In addition to its oil, South Sudan has large tracts of fertile land that are ripe for investment, but in the absence of reliable power, they will be difficult to exploit. At the same time, Ethiopia is making large investments in hydroelectric power that could fill this void — and its rapidly growing population is also in need of oil. While it may seem like a mutually beneficial scenario, South Sudan is hesitant to engage. As the largest country in east Africa, Ethiopia has regional power aspirations, potentially placing those who rely on them in an exposed and dependent position. This is something that gives other countries in that region pause, including South Sudan. Given this dynamic, South Sudan has few attractive options for both increased access to the oil market and gaining the reliable power necessary to attract investment and develop and maintain a thriving agriculture sector. Overcoming this impasse would increase incomes for the people of South Sudan and support a reliable source of food in a region where famine has been a recurring problem. Interestingly, just as this paper was initially published, Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan broke ground on the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (Lapsset). Lapsset includes roads and rail connecting the three countries and will also give South Sudan access to international markets for its oil through a pipeline connecting to a port at Lamu, Kenya. It also indicates a certain degree of South Sudanese willingness to engage with Ethiopia, though their physical connection is indirect because their separate branches of Lapsset infrastructure meet in Kenya. However, it does not solve South Sudan’s electricity problems, and the tensions involved remain illustrative of the geopolitical considerations that can complicate food security.
III. Global Market Dynamics

During recent food price spikes, many world leaders and commentators laid blame on “speculators” for having added undue volatility to food markets and “betting on hunger.”10 Others countered that the extent of this influence was exaggerated, and pointed to other factors (including climate change-induced and other supply shocks) as playing a larger role in the spikes. Though true understanding of the role played by speculation in world commodity prices requires vastly complex mathematical models, there are other market dynamics at play that have the potential to disrupt access to food and stir geopolitical tensions. The export restrictions described above are one such factor. Export restrictions are true “beggar thy neighbor” policies, keeping commodities affordable or accessible in the host country but restricting supply and driving up prices everywhere else. In the longer run, export restrictions also harm domestic supplies, as the price at home is depressed and causes domestic producers to reduce or halt their output. It is probably a stretch to assert that export restrictions in supplier countries and the resultantly higher world price will be understood by the average purchaser of food in importing countries and lead to mass revolt. It is not far-fetched, however, to think that an uptick in these practices could cause tension at the political level — leaders at the World Bank and World Trade Organi-

Export restrictions are true “beggar thy neighbor” policies, keeping commodities affordable or accessible in the host country but restricting supply and driving up prices everywhere else.
10 Marilyn Geewax, “Betting on Food Prices May Sell the Hungry Short,”, October 16, 2011


Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief
zation, for example, have made sharp public calls for export restrictions to be halted. Supply constrictions also inform other market decisions. One particularly interesting development is that South Korea — which is proving to be quite creative in managing its limited natural access to food — has set up an office designed to bypass international grain markets. Based in Chicago, South Koreans are apparently negotiating purchase agreements directly with farmers. This, it is feared, sets a precedent of preferential access to grains and the farmers that produce it. Korean traders may establish relationships that allow them to negotiate favorable terms of access (in terms of price, or perhaps even quality) in exchange for multi-year guarantees of purchase. This innovative — if detrimental — South Korean practice changes the terms of food trading at the international level, and may usher in a new era of tiered access to internationally traded commodities, where large purchasers with the resources to jump ahead in line may disadvantage those remaining in global spot markets.
The Global Significance of the New Geopolitics

As access to food and the everimproving technology to produce it becomes more fragmented, most Americans and Europeans remain oblivious.
lies who use most of their limited incomes to purchase commodities whose prices are doubling, and governments that rely on unstable neighbors are acutely aware of the changing dynamics of access to food and agricultural resources. And as political tensions play out at the elite level, tensions are simmering at the popular level around the world. From Madagascar to Cameroon and Haiti to Bangladesh, food and agriculture have already proven to be powerful drivers of unrest. It has also been noted that in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, lack of access to food is driving other dangerous dynamics, including attracting desperate young men to potentially extremist schools and institutions that offer free meals. Around the world, poverty and hunger are the breeding grounds for crime and extremism. The danger, of course, is that transatlantic complacency will cause problems of its own. Despite budget austerity and difficult fiscal positions in the United States and across Europe, there is plenty that Americans and Europeans could do to facilitate access to food and especially agricultural technology in the regions that need it most. This will not happen, however, unless publics are animated to pressure their political decision makers. Without these efforts, poverty and unrest overseas could breed still more food riots and increase tensions at home and abroad for key countries such as Egypt, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and others, possibly even leading to terrorism or wars that have direct consequences closer to home.

In the countries where these tensions are playing out, food is already making front page headlines. In the United States and Europe, however, the geopolitics of food is not a front and center concern. In the United States, where the population wastes around one-third of the food available for consumption and less than 10 percent of a family’s income is spent on groceries, even sharply rising food prices do not make much of an impact. Even that country’s own food insecure, such as those stranded in food deserts, feel far removed from the rest of the population. On a broader scale, most Americans and Europeans remain unaware of the complicated treaty politics of the Nile basin, or the newly established commodity purchasing offices bypassing international markets in Chicago. As access to food and the ever-improving technology to produce it becomes more fragmented, most Americans and Europeans remain oblivious. Others around the world, however, do not. Smallholders displaced from their land, impoverished fami9

Economic Policy Program

Policy Brief

As history has shown, food security is a complex issue that is vulnerable to a diverse set of negative influences. “Scarcity” is a term often associated with systemic failures in the food system. Scarcity of land, water, agricultural inputs, and technology, when coupled with a growing population and changing diets, is certainly cause for concern. The fact is, the world will have to produce more food on less land than in the past in order to keep pace with growing demand. While this certainly presents a problem for policymakers, this is not the dynamic that will define food security in the coming years. While science and technology will more than likely ensure that food supply in absolute terms remains a solvable problem, access is the dynamic that proves troublesome. Access to land, technology, water, and modern agricultural inputs are all prerequisites for ensuring food security, and each one presents its own challenges when it comes to equitable distribution. For instance, the technology to grow more food on the same land exists in the developed world, and is a large part of why yields remain so high and food so cheap. Where this technology has the potential to do the most good is in places with large tracts of arable land that are either unused or where farming is done with low productivity. These places are more often than not in the developing world, where access to this technology is prohibited by either cost barriers or policy failures. Geopolitical tensions begin to show themselves when questions of access cross borders. Reliance on neighbors for resources such as water or energy can create an uncomfortable dynamic where access to critical inputs lies out of a government’s sovereign control. While there are certainly measures that policymakers can take to work towards increased predictability in this regard, it is difficult to gain certainty in many regions with unstable governments and existing regional tensions. The issue of food can prove an especially difficult diplomatic topic given the direct impact of failure on a population. If talks break down and access is taken away, people can starve. Moving forward, policymakers will have to tackle the question of access in order to effectively address food 10

security concerns. People in many parts of the world have far more food than they consume, and grain stores sometimes rot even in poor countries. Food insecurity in the future — and today — will not be driven by scarcity. It will be driven by uneven access: access to food itself, but also to the knowledge, technology, financing, infrastructure, market access, and land, water, and other inputs necessary to produce it. In many cases, opening markets and facilitating more efficient commerce can go a long way towards addressing many of these problems, allowing resources to flow to the areas with the most potential and need. It is critically important to ensure that, in a world of plenty, none go without access to a more food-secure future.

About the Authors
Kathryn Ritterspach Thulin is a research assistant and Mark Allegrini is a program officer, both at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This paper was originally shared at the March 2012 Global Food Security Forum in Rabat, Morocco, sponsored by the OCP Group.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful