A population’s access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food has been a core state interest since time immemorial. In the Bible, Joseph rose to power after resolving Egypt’s food shortages; as early as perhaps the Zhou dynasty, numerous Chinese emperors lost the “mandate of Heaven,” or the right to rule, when they failed to address famines; during the Cold War, the United States made the strategic decision to launch Food for Peace programs, which provided easier access to food, mostly to its allies.

All these instances show a simple truth: Access to food and national security are tightly connected. The latest reminder of this came on Oct. 9 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme for its efforts to combat hunger. The committee also drew a clear connection between hunger, war, and peace, adding that the WFP should be commended for “bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.” 

Until very recently, however, food has disappeared as a security question—at least for policymakers in the developed world. Beginning in the 18th century, agricultural advances made hunger in the West a matter of distribution rather than of availability, and since then it has become increasingly rare. Though wartimes led to food rationing (and in rare cases, to hunger, as in Holland in 1944 and 1945), famine on a large scale generally did not touch the West. Meanwhile, large international corporations, such as Nestlé, Unilever, Cargill, and Olam International solidified the centuries-old evolution of global food supply chains. To many Westerners, hunger remained a concern, but it was now occurring in other countries or among society’s most underprivileged. In other words, it became a humanitarian problem.

Perhaps signifying the decline in the issue’s importance, “hunger” was replaced by the somewhat aloof phrase “food security.” When the term appeared in the 1974 United Nations Report of the World Food Conference, it originally referred to the availability of food through agricultural production and trade. By the 1996 World Food Summit, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted a definition of food security that does not explicitly mention hunger, stating instead that it means people have “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” According to this definition—which is difficult to measure—the absence of these conditions is food insecurity. 

Partly this change took place due to a desire to move away from “hunger,” which is an emotionally charged term that calls for action and moral and state accountability. Of course, the new terminology still carried political sensitivity, but political pressure to eliminate the word “hunger” from food-policy discourse persisted.

Yet despite such tendencies to downplay food security as a primarily technical or humanitarian issue, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, the rise of China, and challenges to food supplies amid the COVID-19 pandemic all show that the West needs to reintegrate food into its conception of national security. Indeed, a better way of understanding “food security” might be to think of it in terms of food being a matter of national security.

First, the international relations and national security communities need a clear understanding of how food—and the lack thereof—affect national security. We can think about this in terms of a hierarchy of threats: A first-order threat might be a direct challenge to the food supply. Recent examples include the “kneel or starve policy by the Assad regime during the height of the Syrian civil war. A second-order threat might be the potential for social instability when public access to food is challenged, such as the 1977 bread riots in Egypt after the termination of food subsidies. A third-order threat might be challenges that grow from continued conditions of limited food access, such as weakened governance or displaced populations. 

Regardless of the exact details, states will need international norms that enhance food security and cooperation. This will require greater dialogue between scholars, security officials, and policymakers who deal with the various aspects of food such as nutrition, agriculture, and supply chains. It is a big undertaking—one that will require cooperation of the international food system, which includes national governments, international trade, food and agriculture organizations, and multinational commercial conglomerates—but it is essential. 


Workers transport bags of soybean meal in a dockyard in Nantong in east China’s Jiangsu province on Aug. 6, 2018. Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Perhaps the most notable example of the reemergence of food security in national security is the rise of China. The Trump administration and Congress have interpreted patterns of Chinese foreign policy as an economic, military, and ideological threat. But official U.S. policy papers seem to underestimate the significance of food security to the Chinese government. From a food as national security perspective, Beijing’s desire to secure nutrition to its massive population may be a primary motive for some actions that others consider aggressive, such as the purchase of land in Africa and investment in agriculture and fisheries around the world. Either way, as scholars have started to argue, Chinese engagement may fundamentally alter the global food regime.

Another important reminder that food is essential to national security was the United Nations Security Council unanimous adoption in 2018 of Resolution 2417, which, for the first time in the council’s history, condemned starvation as a form of warfare. Among other things, the resolution stated that armed conflict has both direct and indirect effects on access to food. The resolution further reaffirmed protections for civilians under international humanitarian law and the importance of securing access to food during conflict. 

A third development is the rise in the number of hungry people in the world. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showed that from 1961 to 2013, food supply per capita increased by more than 30 percent. However, in the last few years, more people have been going hungry. The FAO’s annual report from July 2020 showed that about 690 million people are hungry—a rise of 10 million in one year and nearly 60 million in five years. Additionally, according to the FAO report, in 2019, about 2 billion people did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, and about 750 million faced severe food insecurity.

An aerial view shows lines of freight trucks parked on the tarmac at Manston Airport in England on Dec. 22, 2020, after France closed its borders to freight arriving from the United Kingdom due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. WILLIAM EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images

An aerial view shows lines of freight trucks parked on the tarmac at Manston Airport in England on Dec. 22, 2020, after France closed its borders to freight arriving from the United Kingdom due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. WILLIAM EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has shown, at least initially, that food supply chains are more vulnerable than many expected. The pandemic led to price fluctuations that the United States, for instance, had not seen since the 1970s. The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that egg prices as measured by the producer price index increased by more than 50 percent between February and April 2020, and then dropped by 40 percent in May. And the prices of imported animal products, including meat and poultry, rose by 20 percent between March and June 2020. In December 2020, British supermarkets warned of potential shortage of fruit and vegetables, as France halted traffic across the Channel in response to reports about the COVID-19 mutation spreading in Britain. Meanwhile, less developed countries have experienced even sharper rises in food prices. In South Sudan, for example, prices of staples like wheat and cassava have surged since February 2020 by 62 percent and 41 percent, respectively, and in Kenya, the price of maize has risen by 60 percent since 2019. These increases in staple prices create conditions for social instability. 

Food-policy experts and international agencies such as the FAO are worried, but their concern is largely framed in terms of the pandemic’s impact on human nutrition and well-being. Yet we know that rising food insecurity can exacerbate social and political instability. Take, for instance, the sharp hikes in global food prices in 2007 and 2008 that led to street demonstrations and food riots in more than 40 countries. Or the food price index of the FAO reaching a historic peak in 2011, which might have contributed to the Arab Spring, where starvation was used by warring parties (mostly the Assad regime) to occupy territory and for social control. Overall, food insecurity can lead to the collapse of social trust, the devastation of local economies, displacement, and worsening conditions for refugees. 

Already, COVID-19-related food shortages and economic distress have generated social unrest. In Kenya, increasing desperation contributed to stampedes in Nairobi during a food giveaway in April 2020, leaving two dead and many injured. In Bangladesh, thousands of unpaid garment workers blocked roads in Dhaka and demanded wages in April 2020, saying they would rather risk infection than go without sufficient food. Rising hunger amid the pandemic also sets the stage for the politicization of critical humanitarian assistance. Nongovernmental organizations in Zimbabwe, for instance, have reported that the ruling party is using the government food distribution amid COVID-19 lockdowns to shore up support by supplying only to its affiliates, while also preventing the opposition from distributing food.

If the pandemic has made anything clear, it is that traditional ideas about national security are incomplete. Most experts—but especially realists—understand security to be derived from material power and military might. But incorporating food into their ways of thinking about security will get scholars and policymakers closer to an understanding of actual human security—one that considers not just competition between states, but also citizens’ well-being.

What would treating food as a security issue look like in practice, and what are its foreign-policy implications? First, it could take the form of states and regions becoming more self-sufficient in producing their own food. Admittedly, even a partial move to self-sufficiency could weaken the global trade system, but that need not be the case. One way of preserving cross-border cooperation would be the expansion of regional food systems, possibly even as part of existing security alliances, such as NATO. While national food systems must become more robust and resilient, governments can ensure that international trade routes remain open, and relationships between importing and exporting countries remain stable, since few—if any—countries can sustainably produce all the food their populations need. A recent example is the E.U.-U.K. understanding, as part of the Brexit negotiations, not to block food exports.

Becoming more self-sufficient would also require the expansion of state activity: Specifically, without investing in environmental remediation, many food systems are vulnerable to collapse. Climate change is threatening the availability, accessibility, and stability of existing food systems, especially crops. About a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded, and according to the FAO, if new approaches to soil management aren’t adopted, the global amount of arable land per capita in 2050 will be only a quarter of what it was in 1960. To address the harmful effects of industrial agriculture, states would have to invest in land management practices, especially those that conserve soil.

Treating food as a security issue would also put new demands on international norms and the organizations responsible for them. Thankfully, following the Security Council resolution from 2018, there are already safeguards to food access for individuals affected by conflict. These rules could be expanded to prevent the weaponization of food and even create a “right to food” in international law.

A Syrian farmer fills a tractor with potatoes before planting begins near the town of Binnish in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on Jan. 12.

A Syrian farmer fills a tractor with potatoes before planting begins near the town of Binnish in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on Jan. 12. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Ultimately, these changes will depend on policymakers and thinkers reconceptualizing the place of food in international politics. Food is no longer simply a humanitarian issue in the periphery, but an arena for global competition, as China’s foreign policy has made clear. 

Of course, looking at food as a matter of security, regardless of the details, would complicate the already thorny issue of politicizing international food aid. But dropping the veil of neutrality would also acknowledge what is already true: While, in theory, food aid is guided by the principles of humanity and neutrality, in practice, humanitarian aid is inherently political. For example, most U.S. food aid is required by law to be sourced from U.S. farmers and processors, and agricultural cargo preference laws require at least half of all food aid to be shipped from a U.S. port on a U.S. vessel. Even though regional sourcing through cash transfers would substantially reduce the cost of food aid and make it more effective, dropping these U.S.-based requirements may reduce the political incentives for lawmakers to support U.S. aid. In addition, some of the food delivered to conflict-ridden countries ends up bolstering oppressive regimes. For example, despite the neutral aspirations of humanitarian organizations, the Assad regime in Syria has consistently benefited from food aid funded by U.N. agencies, which allowed it to use its control over the food to bolster supporters and punish opposition. 

A number of organizations have put forward frameworks to combat food insecurity, such as an EAT-Lancet commission, the U.N., the FAO, and the Food and Land Use Coalition. All of their reports emphasize the urgent need to enhance international cooperation on agricultural production. sustainable land and water use, scientific and technological innovation, and international commerce, trade, and food production.

Yet these recommendations will not be enough. Reforming the global food system requires the involvement of the international security community. National leaders and security experts will need to negotiate international agreements and reforms to balance the tensions that arise from needing to provide affordable food for all, while also allowing free trade and competition, managing foreign ownership of resources, securing the livelihoods of farmers, food manufacturers and exporters, and ensuring a reliable food supply for food importers and exporters alike.

In other words, it is time to expand the horizons of food experts and security wonks: two communities that rarely interact, but that need to work in tandem so that they can pave the way to reform international norms and institutions and truly work toward food security worldwide.