Many modern conflicts are food wars, say experts

from US Department of State
Published on 13 Sep 2007
Holistic approach built on food security can stabilize postwar societies

By David McKeeby
USINFO Staff Writer

This is the fourth in a series of articles on U.S. food aid programs and agricultural assistance for vulnerable populations around the world.

Washington -- Throughout history, hunger has been both a cause and effect of war. For this reason, according to anthropologist Ellen Messer and political scientist Marc Cohen, most modern conflicts should be viewed as "food wars," a concept that poses unique challenges for the United States as the world's leading provider of food assistance.

"Food does have this enormous moral weight in our society, and rightly so," Messer told USINFO in a recent interview. "Sharing food is part of the history of our way of life. Making sure that all have enough to eat is certainly part of all the religious traditions that make up America."

In exploring the link between persistent hunger and armed conflict, Messer, a professor at Brandeis University, and Cohen, a researcher for the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, have published a series of articles in recent years exploring famines, poverty and the distribution of food resources within communities. From their research, they have developed their concept of "food wars," the practice of warring parties fighting for control of food supplies to reward their supporters and punish their enemies.

In a 2003 study, they found that more than 56 million people living in 27 countries face "food insecurity," such as supply disruptions, shortages and malnutrition due to conflicts -- an average of 20 percent -- but noted that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has found country-specific levels as high as 25 percent in Sudan, 43 percent in Tanzania and 49 percent in Haiti, and at 70 percent or higher in Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

"We took this as a starting point for looking at a food wars concept, where conflict is one of the chief causes of hunger. We looked at the many ways that conflict interferes with food security," Messer explained, such as its effect on family income and its destruction of farms, markets, schools and health clinics. They also looked at the role of food insecurity in perpetuating conflict.

Today's most significant food wars, Cohen told USINFO, can be found in Sudan's Darfur region; in the greater Horn of Africa region, which encompasses conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and in the disruptions to families displaced by ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Food security remains a challenge for families driven from their homes by fighting in Colombia, he added, as well as in several post-conflict countries, including Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tajikistan, with serious implications for those nations' futures.


To break the link between hunger and conflict, Messer said, aid efforts must operate simultaneously on two separate tracks: reducing food insecurity by addressing shortages with emergency food aid, while increasing food security by helping area residents to more effectively raise their own crops and strengthen the region's economy in ways that could reduce the likelihood of future conflicts.

"Food can be used as a hook to build other capacities," Messer said, "health programs, income generation programs and education programs, which is another very important way food is used."

By ensuring basic food security, food aid can promote stability and help communities resist renewed calls for militant violence or recruitment by terrorists, who exploit community grievances to justify attacks, according to Messer and Cohen.

Following the 2004 South Asian tsunami, said Cohen, joint relief efforts by government forces and insurgents in Indonesia's Aceh led to a peace agreement in 2005, evidence of how food aid can bring combatants together. But food security is only one variable in the equation, he acknowledged, looking across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka, where hostilities resumed after a brief pause.

"A food security effort can be important in stimulating a peace process," Cohen said, "but it's obviously not sufficient to make it happen." Peace-building requires a holistic approach that integrates a variety of aid programs in post-conflict societies.

Food aid plays a particularly important role in the tenuous first months after the end of a conflict, Cohen said, as displaced families and former combatants return home to await the first new harvests.

"That's clearly a place where food aid is an appropriate kind of intervention," he said. "It's all the more important that it be linked to demining, perhaps agrarian reform, and rebuilding the infrastructure."

As the world's largest donor of humanitarian food aid, the United States plays an important role, he said, but it must do more through its partnerships with the United Nations and nongovernmental aid organizations to integrate emergency food aid into conflict resolution.

"If food activities, that is, building food security where it has been destroyed through conflict, is going to go forward, there has to be security, and this is the conundrum that so many of these post-conflict reconstruction reconciliation projects run into," said Messer.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: