Food insecurity has regained attention as a geopolitical risk. In last year’s outlook, we wrote thatglobal food production would continuously be negatively impacted by climate change. In 2019, food insecurity was mainly driven by multiple political events around the world, such as conflicts and the trade war. As food is again becoming an increasingly strategic asset for more and more countries, we expect that food will reemerge as an urgent geopolitical matter in 2020: What will this mean for the food insecure African continent, for China, whose rise is constrained by its dependency on food and for a food nation such as the Netherlands?
In the past decades, food was less of a pressing geopolitical matter. The Green Revolution that took place in agriculture from the sixties on, mostly in Asia, saved millions of people from hunger. It meant great progress for humanity. Long gone are the days when Western consumers spent more than half of their income on food, as in the fifties. However, several recent developments have put food as a geopolitical theme back on the agenda. Numerous conflicts and the negative effects of climate change on food production have pushed large numbers of people into food insecurity. How can we understand food as a geopolitical matter? First, we are beginning tounderstand the complex nexus between food security, climate change, conflict and migration. Since more than half of the global population live in the 50 most food insecure countries (mostly in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia), only a small increase of food insecurity can lead to large displacement. In addition to the link between conflict and food insecurity, there is a direct link between food insecurity and migration. Second, food is increasingly becoming a strategic resource. National food strategies are becoming more relevant for countries with large populations in a world of climate change, resource scarcity, more protectionism and trade wars disrupting food trade flows. Flow security, having unencumbered access to food, raw materials and other goods, is a matter of national security.
What are the developments that define the current geopolitics of food? First, while Africa’s population is rapidly growing, which will make it more dependent on food imports, 2019 also showed repeated signs of a new scramble for Africa. Second, out of necessity, China is on the rise as a global food power. The superpower will have to import more food in the future as well as try to buy land or crop facilities in other countries. Both the African continent and China are important to watch in 2020, considering that both populous and rising regions produce insufficient food to meet the needs of their own populations, making them dependent on food imports. Other food vulnerable countries are India, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.
What are the consequences for food secure countries? The U.S. and many European countries belong to the most food secure countries of 2019. If countries produce plenty of food for their own population and beyond (exports), this solidifies their position as a food nation. Food can be an important foreign policy tool. If food insecurity is a threat multiplier for conflict, improving food security can reduce tensions and contribute to more stable environments. One of the root causes of migration can be addressed by helping countries to improve their food security with agricultural projects or land restoration projects.
For instance, the EU could use its strong agricultural capacity to create strategic dependencies in exchange for raw materials. Likewise, the Netherlands is considered an important food nation but will have to adapt its capacity to the changing geopolitical reality of food.