The United States, Niger & Jamaica: Food (In)Security & Violence in a Globalised World


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The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines food security as “all people at all times having both physical and economic access to the basic food they need”. However, due to a complex range of interconnected issues from climate change to misguided economic policies, political failure and social marginalisation, over 2 billion people across the world live in constant food Insecurity. It is important to take a sustainable security approach to look at the importance of “physical and economic access to basic food” by exploring the links between food insecurity and violence.

A recent article published by the journal Conflict, Security & Development examines food riots as representations of insecurity and looks at the relationship between contentious politics and human security.

Thomas O’Brien, author of the article, argues “the upheaval caused by a food riot can lead to lasting instability and violence as social and political structures are challenged”. Global rises in basic food prices triggered demonstrations and often violent protests in “over 30 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East in 2007-08”. The article puts recent food riots and the current global food crisis in historical perspective. Food riots are about more than “just access to food”.  They represent dissatisfaction with political structures and perceived injustices.

It is important to note that “the extreme nature of the rise in food price in the absence of much evidence of food shortages, left a sense of something unnatural about the way food markets were working”. Although poverty, weak states, ineffective civil society and lack of political freedom all contribute to food insecurity and the possibility of violent food riots, we cannot ignore to challenge underlying transnational and global power structures: “146 protests in 39 countries over the 1976-92 period were linked to the imposition of International Monetary Fund and World Bank structural adjustment policies.” Food security is fundamental to human security and needs to be approached by addressing underlying causes and drivers. A sustainable response to food insecurity would take global cooperation, justice and equity as key requirements.

An often mentioned driver of food insecurity is climate change. Climate change already has a great impact on global security concerns and the physical, social and economic effects will undoubtedly only be exacerbated in the near future. Increasingly high temperatures and little or inconsistent rainfall have devastating effects on crop yields in places such as India, Africa’s Sahel region and the mid-western United States.

The catastrophic food crisis in Niger in 2005 for example was largely attributed to the effects of climate change and competition over limited resources. Years of too little and too inconsistent rainfall have meant devastating droughts and diminishing harvests in this Sahel country of west Africa which has the highest birth rate in the world. Increasingly advanced desertification due to climate change means competition and potentially violent conflict, over limited resources such as water and arable land, intensifies.

In the 2005 food crisis however, although thousands of children died of malnourishment, Niger had produced enough food to feed its population. The real issue was a food shortage in neighbouring Nigeria. Nigeria has an economy based primarily on oil exports with a significantly weakened agricultural sector. Instead of Niger feeding its own population, much of the harvest was sold to wealthier Nigeria at prices much higher than anyone in Niger could have afforded. This is a good example of why free market economy and trade liberalisation do not necessarily benefit all parties involved. Writing about the great famines of the last century, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen noted “a drought is natural but famine is man-made”. What this tells us is that although the challenges we face by climate change are serious threats, there is much that can be done to ensure more food security through political and economic policies.

Farmers in Niger are struggling. But so are farmers in Jamaica. In contrast to Niger, Jamaica has a wealth of fruit, vegetables, fish and an abundance of fertile land. About one fifth of this island’s population is employed in the agricultural sector. Still, farmers are struggling to survive because they cannot compete with the much lower prices of subsidised agricultural imports from the USA. As cheap foreign products flood the market, Jamaican prices are driven down which makes local food production by and large unprofitable. As they rely more on foreign food imports, Jamaicans will be increasingly vulnerable to price volatility on the global marketplace. With the average Jamaican spending about half of household income on food, such vulnerability to price changes is a real danger to food security.

Importing less foreign food products is a difficult matter for Jamaica because of the strict trade liberalisation policies imposed on the country through its debt relief agreements. One could also argue that if it is cheaper for Jamaica to import food than to produce its own, why should it still encourage its local agricultural sector? When a country is dependent on food imports, it cannot assure food security for its population.

So far US imports have been much cheaper than local Jamaican produce. 2012 however has seen the “worst US drought in 50 years” according to last month’s Aljazeera article entitled Food riots predicted over US crop failure. “Grain prices have skyrocketed and concerns abound the resulting higher food prices will hit the world’s poor the hardest- sparking violent demonstration” says the newspaper. Corn is a primary staple in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and prices have already gone up 60 per cent since June because “the United States accounts for 39 per cent of global trade in corn and stockpiles are now down 48 per cent” due to the drought.

Price fluctuations on the global food market do not affect all people in the same way as “people in wealthy industrialised countries spend between 10 to 20 per cent of their income on food. Those in the developing world pay up to 80 per cent. According to Oxfam, a one per cent jump in the price of food results in 16 million more people crashing into poverty.”

A sustainable approach to food security would address underlying forces such as climate change, economic and political policies and social marginalisation.

Paul Rogers, expert on global conflict and consultant to the Oxford Research Group on global security, was recently featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme Costing the Earth. When asked whether free markets can help feed us, he replied:

“It will contribute in some way, but I think it is fairly minimal. There are far more important things to consider. Look at it this way: Back in the world food crisis in the early 1970s, which was the worst for about 80 years, there were about 450 million people malnourished.  Now the figure is closer to 800 million. Now, that malnourishment and lack of food is not generally because there isn’t enough food to go around. Even at the height of that crisis there was still half the normal reserve. It is because people cannot afford to get the food or to buy the food. […]  If you are looking at the situation of poor people across the majority world, there has to be some way in which we can actually improve the production of food in and around those areas to provide greater resilience in the face of what is coming because beyond all of this is the whole issue of climate change. I think we will have a wakeup call this year in terms of what might come.”

Anna Alissa Hitzemann is a  Peaceworker with Quaker Peace and Social Witness. She currently works with Oxford Research Group as a Project Officer for the Sustainable Security Programme, with a focus on our ‘Marginalisation of the Majority World’ project.

The Conflict, Security and Development article Food riots as representations of insecurity is available for paid download here
The AlJazeera article Food riots predicted over US crop failure is available here
The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting project Agriculture and Jamaica’s rural poor is available here
Paul Rogers’ Monthly Global Security Briefings can be read and subscribed to here
Image source: Dioversity International