June 17, 2010

Increases in Food Prices Could Affect U.S. National Security Interests Abroad

Agriculture has experienced a number of severe shocks in recent years with record high oil prices, commodity price spikes, food security fears and resultant trade restrictions, not to mention the most serious global economic recession since the 1930s,” according to a new joint report from the OECD and UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  “The greatest impact has been on the poor, especially in developing countries, with the world’s hungry now estimated at over 1 billion people.” (Emphasis added)

The report’s findings grabbed news headlines the other day when it was projected that global food prices may increase up to 40 percent over the next decade. The report highlighted that, “Average wheat and coarse grain prices are projected to be nearly 15-40% higher in real terms relative to 1997-2006, while for vegetable oils real prices are expected to be more than 40% higher.” 

Livestock prices may be markedly higher as well, as “average meat prices in real terms, other than for pigmeat, are expected to surpass the 1997-2006 average over the coming decade initially due to lower supplies, higher feed costs and rising demand.” The joint report found that average dairy prices are projected to rise between 16 to 45 percent between 2010 and 2019, as well. The authors concluded that “Continued expansion of biofuel production to meet mandated use will create additional demand for wheat, coarse grains, vegetable oils and sugar used as feedstocks.”

So what does all this mean for U.S. national security? As Christine and I point out in our recent report, Sustaining Security: How Natural Resources Influence National Security, spikes in food prices have exacerbated existing grievances in countries, sparking riots that have sometimes turned violent: Riots and civil unrest erupted in some 40 countries between 2005 and 2008 over high food prices, causing fatalities and exacerbating grievances in already precarious states such as Bangladesh, Haiti, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique and Pakistan.” And given that the greatest impact of rises in food prices have been on the world’s poor, sharp increases in food prices could further factionalize a demographic that may already have grievances linked to social, cultural, economic, environmental and political pressures, which could contribute to state instability in countries where the United States has inherent security interests - Pakistan and Mexico, for example.

The OECD/FAO authors reported that rising demand from emerging markets is likely to play a role in shaping food prices in the near future. And food scarcity could very well have a similar effect in exacerbating grievances and contributing to conflict. In countries where food scarcity can be linked to third-party interference from private companies or other governments (say like in Madagascar), the issue could shape internal political dynamics that could undermine state stability. In particular to private corporations from more developed countries investing in arable land in less developed countries, we note in our report that “As land and food scarcity become more acute, national security practitioners will need to be mindful of the private sector’s role in shaping situations” which could contribute to instability and turmoil.

National security policymakers need to be aware of how economic and agricultural trends could shape the future security environment and affect U.S. national security interests in countries where these issues will be most acute. And while the OECD/FAO report notes that emerging markets and interest in biofuel production are trends that will affect food prices, it is perhaps equally important to consider as well that “Environmental constraints and climate change related issues, and policy, will pose further challenges for the sector in the future.” But just how these related issues will affect food prices and U.S. national security interests is still not well understood (especially climate change), but should be considered by policymakers moving forward.