Food insecurity a threat to already unstable nations

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa — Two tropical cyclones hit civil war-torn Yemen in a span of 10 days in 2015 and brought a large amount of rain to the arid country. Wet conditions favored breeding locusts, which were a threat to crops. The conundrum was that insecticides used to control locust swarms would have been detrimental to the country’s bee industry, and swarms were difficult to localize because of the civil war.

In instances of extreme weather events like the cyclones in Yemen, devastation quickly turns into desperation as victims scramble to secure food and shelter.

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Floodwaters surround a building in Yemen following Cyclone Chapala in 2015. (Photo by UNICEF Yemen/Ahmed Tani)

Rod Schoonover, director of Environment and Natural Resources with the National Intelligence Council, said that when the standard of living changes for people, particularly because of natural disasters, they often take to the streets to voice their concerns. Countries that already face national instability are at a high risk of worsening, Schoonover said.

“It’s going to be a trigger for social disruption,” Schoonover said. “When you have a food shortage or insecurity, you can perhaps open a vacuum for others to come in.” The others, he said, are those who would take advantage of the weakened state.

Food becomes a matter of national security, Gregory Treverton, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said. Food can be used as a weapon through bioterrorism, threats to food safety and against displaced populations. Factors like environmental degradation, conflict and disease disrupt food production and cause upheaval.

“It’s important to look at food as a factor of conflict,” Schoonover said.

Treverton pointed to recent disputes over the South China Sea and the productive fisheries in the region as an underappreciated category of food and national security. He said that billions of people rely on fish in their diets, so this is not an issue to be taken lightly.

If fisheries continue to dwindle, those who rely on aquaculture for business and consumption will turn to traditional agriculture, Schoonover said. Food supply from the ocean cannot be as easily manipulated as traditional crops, and once fish resources are depleted from the ocean, it is difficult to bring them back, he said.

“No reservoir is infinitely expandable,” Schoonover said.

Treverton and Schoonover agreed that food can’t be isolated as a single component to developing conflicts. In addition to food, water, energy and infrastructure all have connections and cannot operate independently of one another.

“You don’t have to be in the country that is food insecure to feel the vulnerability,” Schoonover said. As the global food system becomes more complex with multiple players, he said, new properties will emerge that will have to be addressed.

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