Johanna Mendelson Forman, worldpoliticsreview.com
Image from article, with caption: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the Milan Expo in Milan, Italy, Oct. 17, 2015
Expo Milan, a World’s Fair whose central theme was feeding the planet, officially closed its doors on Oct. 31, after six months that saw 20 million visitors pass through this once swampy area on the outskirts of the city’s industrial center. For Italy, the expo was a huge financial gamble that seems to have paid off. Having emerged from the 2008 recession and political crisis across the eurozone, the government was seeking to put a fresh face on the country’s national brand, already associated with great food and wonderful tourist sites.
But Expo Milan was more than an exercise in public diplomacy at its best. It reflected a shared concern about global food security among the participating countries. The pavilions presented the challenge of providing adequate food and water to feed the world’s population, which is expected to grow from 7 to 9 billion people by 2050. A recurring theme was climate change and the political realities and possibilities it has created—vast migrations, resource conflicts, megacities—to say nothing of the effort to reach a grand consensus on how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, partially caused by agricultural practices, that endanger all species on earth.
Even as the expo on food security took place, Europe was experiencing a migration of refugees from Syria and other conflict zones that has continued to overwhelm its capacity to provide adequate food and temporary housing. With hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe this year, the issue of how to feed and house this mobile population is taking center stage. It is also a portent of things to come, as conflicts arising from resource scarcity, climate-induced migration and bad governance are likely to increase in the next two decades.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech at the expo on Oct. 17 spoke to the nexus of climate change and global food supply and how these issues affect global security. “We cannot have food security if farmers and fishers around the world are having a more difficult time growing crops, catching fish, raising livestock—it just doesn’t happen, it won’t compute,” Kerry said. “The hard truth is that unless the global community comes together to address climate change, every one of these challenges—droughts, floods, extreme weather, ocean acidification, hunger, malnutrition—all of them will only become more pronounced.”
Kerry also linked food-security issues to the civil war in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis. He pointed out that Syria experienced its worst drought on record right before the civil war began in 2011, prompting as many as 1.5 million people to move from farms into Syria’s cities, intensifying political unrest. Similar man-made conflicts involving divisive ethnic feuds and ongoing civil wars are unfolding in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where restricted access to food is continuing to destabilize the political environment. Food remains a political weapon.
Even though the United Nations Millennium Development Goals succeeded in halving global hunger by 2015, there are still nearly 800 million people who go hungry in the world. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization measures hunger by two metrics: the prevalence of undernourishment and the proportion of underweight children under 5 years of age. Both of those indicators have declined in parallel, thanks in large part to economic growth, underscoring the development goals’ achievements so far. But more must be done. This challenge was clear not only at the expo, but also at the U. N. General Assembly in September, when world leaders backed the U.N.’s new 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The papal encyclical on climate change and the environment in June also addressed this issue.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spoke in Milan the day before Kerry on World Food Day, highlighted the global commitment to eradicating hunger, as measured by the U.N.’s metrics, by 2030. Ban called for a pledge “for food security for all the people around the world—to build a global movement to end hunger. This will go hand in hand with greater health, economic development and social inclusion for individuals and societies.”
A recently published U.S. National Intelligence Assessment on global food security concluded that “simply growing more food globally will not lead to more food-secure countries because sustainable access will remain unequal; millions lack access to land or income sources to buy sufficient food.” The report argued that “augmenting traditional approaches to agricultural development with lesser-used strategies—such as reducing crop and food waste, generating off-farm income activities, conducting research in minor crops, and fostering technical education in agriculture—would improve the resilience of local and global food systems.”
In sobering language, the report predicts that the next decade will see more disruptions in governance as greater urbanization across the globe, coupled with the increasing demand for protein-rich foods, stress the capacity of many governments to meet the growing demand for water and land. By 2030, 5 billion people will be living in cities, and megacities in Asia will be less able to cope with environmental changes and water demands. Resource scarcity coupled with simple activities such as gathering water, growing food and trading commodities for cooking will become harder in the Global South.
The inescapable implication is that achieving food security is really about governance. Where effective governments are absent in fragile states, the likelihood of addressing basic needs is limited. Without any rules or a sense of fairness, local conflicts will increase. In a world predicted to face growing demographic pressures—especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where Tanzania and Zambia alone are expected to have an 80 percent increase in population by 2030—the demand for food will increase even as food insecurity remains an issue and agricultural lands deteriorate.
Rising powers like Brazil and China are expanding investments in African agriculture, development and technology to help improve crop yields. They are providing farmers in the Global South with the tools to increase food production through sustainable agricultural practices. Emphasis on farmer-generated solutions to prevent food waste, and mechanisms to prepare for droughts with simple, inexpensive crop insurance schemes, are leading the way toward implementing solutions to food security challenges. But such efforts will require greater national and local commitments that ensure leadership and resources to prevent or at least mitigate the effects of climate change.
Food can no longer be an isolated issue in the broader conversation about security and development of the global commons. Only by making food security a national security priority will policymakers be forced to develop national strategies that address the consequences of climate change, the reduction of water supplies, and the impact of urbanization. We ignore these conditions at our own peril, as drought, bad agricultural practices and other factors that threaten food security also drive conflicts. Government leaders can no longer ignore the shared responsibility we have to feed our citizens. Hopefully, this lesson was not lost on the millions who went to Milan’s world fair.