Warring Peace: Aggression, Hostility and Food Shortage

  August 12, 2021   Read time 4 min
Warring Peace: Aggression, Hostility and Food Shortage
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was among the first to notice that something big had shifted in the world’s geopolitical gravity field when he penned these words in 1999.1 With the instincts of a veteran statesman as well as those of a farmer, Carter perceived that hunger wasn’t just a poverty issue— it was an emerging global security risk.

If large regions of the world run short of food, land, or water in the de cades that lie ahead, then wholesale, bloody wars are liable to follow. These wars have already begun, although many of today’s governments and media seem unconscious of the fact. We should not be surprised. Famine and war have been inseparable Horse men of the Apocalypse since antiquity. In the modern era famine notably propelled events as significant as the French Revolution, where what started as a bread crisis ultimately claimed a half million lives in the ensuing civil war and its civilian massacres; and the Rus sian Revolution, where food protests unleashed a civil war that devoured nine million human lives between 1917 and 1922.2 Even World War II had an imponderable component in the struggle for productive land— or lebensraum, as Nazi philosophy defined it. Yet food, land, and water are nowadays widely disregarded as the wellsprings of war.

Carter continued: The devastation occurs primarily in countries whose economies depend on agriculture but lack the means to make their farmland productive. These are developing countries such as Sudan, Congo, Colombia, Liberia, Peru, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. . . . The economies of Eu rope, the United States, Canada and Japan were built on strong agriculture. But many developing countries have shifted their priorities away from farming in favor of urbanization, or they have reduced investments in agriculture because of bud get shortages. At the same time, industrialized countries continue to cut their foreign aid bud - gets, which fund vital scientific research and extension work to improve farming in developing countries.

“The message is clear,” he concluded. “There can be no peace until people have enough to eat. Hungry people are not peaceful people.” For de cades many academics and policy makers have assumed that war is the parent and famine its child, yet recent conflicts in which critical food shortages have played a part in igniting events have begun to beg the question, Is it war that drives famine, or do scarcities of food, land, and water also sometimes lead to war? Scholars have closely dissected the chicken, but few so far have probed the egg— yet this may be critical to an understanding of one of the primary forces shaping our times.

The shift began almost imperceptibly in 1999, when a groundbreaking study by scholars affiliated with the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo, an in de pen dent think tank devoted to research on global conflict, concluded that with the ending of the Cold War, “the new internal wars, extremely bloody in terms of civilian casualties, reflect subsistence crises and are largely apo liti cal.” This hinted, for the first time, that resource scarcity of food, land, and water could become a major trigger for conflict rather than merely a consequence of it. (The prevailing expert view, however, still mainly considers scarcity a consequence.) At the dawn of the century of humanity’s greatest resource scarcities it was a serious wake- up call, yet one through which many slumbered on.

“The crises stem from the failure of development, the loss of livelihood and the collapse of states. These factors add up to a vicious cycle,” the Oslo scholars Indra de Soysa and Nils Petter Gleditsch explained. “The causes of armed conflict are perpetuated by conflict itself. People fight over vital necessities such as food, to protect a livelihood.... [S]tates that can provide such necessities also create conditions conducive to peace and prosperity.” Peace and prosperity, in turn, create the conditions necessary for demo cratic government, civil society, and a culture of peace, they added. Democracy is not commonly thought of as a food by- product, but it probably is.

In their study, de Soysa and Gleditsch published a disturbing map. It showed all the countries of the world where food production was most critical to the survival of the nation- state—and all the places where, in the previous ten years, war and strife had broken out. The coincidence was more than striking. If your country is at the mercy of a shaky food supply, the map implies, watch out for war. The opposite was equally evident: those places where food was plentiful—“old” Eu rope, North America, Australasia, and parts of Latin America— had escaped mass bloodletting within their own territories during the de cade. Peace, the study implied, prefers a full platter.