Organized violence and armed conflict remain the principal causes of food insecurity. But when I was asked to brief the Security Council in April, in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, my main goal was not to call the Security Council into action. Putting aside the legitimacy of the Security Council as currently structured, my main concern was that the food crisis was being framed in very narrow terms in New York. I instead focused on re-framing the issue so that the Security Council and the large number of General Assembly Members in attendance had a broader and systemic understanding of the food crisis.
In 2018, when the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2417 (2018), it was the first time the Security Council recognized the intrinsic link between hunger and conflict and condemned the use of starvation as a method of warfare, emphasizing that it may constitute a war crime. Through this resolution, the Council has empowered itself to act in situations where hunger and armed conflict are reinforcing each other in a deadly feedback loop.
To understand the importance of this resolution, it helps to go back to when the term “food security” was first introduced in the 1970s. It was used to highlight, at the highest political level, the importance of food’s connection to peace. Third World countries wanted to create a World Food Security Council akin to the UN Security Council. The Third World may have also used the term “security” to respond to direct threats from people like US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who in the mid-1970s admitted to using food and hunger for geopolitical gains when he famously stated, “Food is a weapon. It is now one of the principal tools in our negotiating kit.”
What Happened at the Security Council
Not surprisingly, there was a divide over the cause of the world food crisis. Western countries focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and some suggested that it was the principal cause of the global food crisis. There is no doubt in my mind that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is wrong, and that Russia is responsible for the death and displacement of millions of civilians. I thus noted that Russia should end the war immediately and unconditionally. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the most recent global shocks to food systems, but it is not the cause. Rates of hunger and the risk of famine were on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic and made even worse during the pandemic.
Some European delegates went so far to say (or imply) that an attack against Ukraine is an attack against the global food system. I strongly advised against this line of thinking for two reasons. First, it suggests that if a country is not a principal exporter of a major food stuff, then the Security Council would consider it less of a priority to intervene and end an invasion or occupation. Second, if we have learned anything from the pandemic it is that all food systems are inherently interconnected; an invasion or occupation of any place is an attack on the global food system.
While the US and EU and their allies point to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the cause of the current food crisis, the Russian Federation and their allies disagree and point to how unilateral coercive measures generate hunger and famine and disrupt food systems around the world. The Russian position has significant merit. Some of the same countries chastising Russia are countries implicated in the blockade against Yemen that has led to famine and the starvation of tens of thousands of children since 2015. Today, over 2 million children in Yemen are suffering from acute malnutrition.
In sum, despite this disagreement, both perspectives regarding hunger and conflict generally have been true. But neither side goes far enough in their food systems analysis. For instance, it is true that the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted global markets, and that prices are skyrocketing. How prices responded to the war also tells us that markets are part of the problem.
Markets are amplifying shocks and not absorbing them. I noted two things Member States could focus on to better understand why markets are causing more harm. First, the fact that a significant number of countries and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) relied on just 1 or 2 countries for a major food stuff like wheat tells us that the trade system does not work the way it should. Moreover, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been at a standstill over agriculture negotiations and food security for over 25 years. There were some developments at the recent WTO Ministerial Conference since countries successfully negotiated several ministerial declarations on food security and the pandemic. However, these declarations have mostly been about process and lacked substance. Second, food prices are soaring not because of a problem with supply and demand as such; it is because of price speculation in commodity futures markets. Global prices have been drastically fluctuating for the past two years partly because commodity markets in the United States were deregulated in 2000 (through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act).
The other issue some delegates raised is the disruption of the supply of fertilizer caused by the war in Ukraine. For example, Belarus has been keen to export its fertilizer. I agree that in the immediate term, countries and suppliers should do what they can to ensure that farmers get access to fertilizer. But reliance on chemical fertilizers is the ultimate problem. Chemical fertilizer may sometimes boost production in the short term, nevertheless in the long term it will deplete the soil and harm the environment in effect violating people’s rights to life, food, and a healthy environment. There are a host of techniques that allow farmers to grow enough food without depending on chemical inputs, much less imported chemical inputs.
What is to be Done?
The question I rhetorically asked the Security Council was: Why is it only after the Russian invasion of Ukraine that there has been this degree of political focus on the food crisis that started in 2020? My answer was that we have all failed. Every UN agency, every regional body, every government has failed. In the past 60 years, hunger and famine has not been caused by inadequate amounts of food. Hunger and famine, like conflicts, are always the result of political failures. Governments and international institutions have failed to listen to the most vulnerable communities and respond to their demands. Governments and international institutions have failed to cooperate and coordinate. This is why we are facing the threat of more famine and more armed conflict.
The fact that only now is there some semblance of a global response to the food crisis reveals what is at stake. This is the moment in which international institutions’ legitimacy and national governments’ ability to maintain security is threatened.
The current food crisis, like the pandemic at large (as I explain in my most recent report), is driven by an international failure to cooperate and coordinate. For example, under the auspices of the Secretary General, a Food Systems Summit was held in September 2021. There we saw a global commitment to help every single country transform their food system to eliminate hunger, famine, and malnutrition, within the context of climate change and biodiversity loss. And yet, the Summit organizers consciously left out the pandemic and the food crisis, essentially wasting most people’s time.
Resolution 2417 can be a powerful tool because it recognizes that hunger is a cause and effect of armed conflict. It is powerful because it warns against using food as a weapon. It requires the Secretary General to report regularly to the Security Council, and there have been debates over how to make these reports more frequent and robust to trigger action. It might be the case, however, that when reports arrive regarding hunger and conflict it is too late to prevent the death spiral.
To address the issue of hunger and conflict, one must address the underlying causes of the food crisis. Corporate-led food systems around the world are increasing inequality and creating systems of dependency. As food prices skyrocket, many countries are faced with the impossible choice of either feeding people or servicing debt. Using public funds to ensure that people have access to adequate food can cause a government to fall into arrears, worsening financial shocks; servicing debt instead leads to more hunger and malnutrition. The international economic and financial architecture treats food as a commodity and has not served people’s real food security needs. All while climate change continues to disrupt food systems and governments dither.
Only a global right to food plan will eliminate hunger, and therefore eliminate one of the causes of violence and armed conflict. As I detail in my July report to the General Assembly, the easiest first step is to extend pandemic-era policies that have proven to strengthen the realization of the right to food and convert them into permanent programs. Long term change will have to begin with increasing biodiversity, ensuring a just transition for workers, enacting land rights and genuine agrarian reform, and curtailing corporate power.