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Food Security Poses Governance, Management, and Military Challenges Say Experts

Food security is more than just a humanitarian challenge; it's a governance challenge, a military challenge, and a management challenge said a panel of experts at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress yesterday. The event, titled "The National Security Implications of Climate Change and Food Security," was a follow-up to CAP's November 2015 simulation, which highlighted how climate change could exacerbate the extreme weather and droughts that disrupt the global food supply chain, leading to price spikes, food shortages, and civil unrest in fragile countries around the world.

The panel of experts featured former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), retired Navy Rear Admiral Jon White, New America Senior Advisor and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Sharon Burke, State Department Special Representative for Global Food Security Nancy Stetson, Richard Leach of the World Food Program USA, and Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress.

The panelists highlighted food security's unique challenge from a governance, military, and management perspective. Nancy Stetson, the State Department point-person on food security issues, argued for a new model on food security that operates between stable humanitarian assistance operations and disaster-response operations to address areas of ongoing instability facing food shortages. Both Stetson and New America Senior Advisor Sharon Burke noted the particularly difficult task of preventing famine and food scarcity in fragile states without a capable government partner, such as in Nigeria or Somalia.

The panelists also pointed to the increasingly important role of food as a tool of war and political coercion. “Leaders use food to destabilize and go after vulnerable populations for political gain,” said Burke. Stetson agreed, saying, "He who controls the food in this country and he who controls the resources in this country is going to have more power, so it’s really one of the drivers of war." The panel cited the civil war in Syria as an example of a conflict where food has been used a coercive tool.

For the U.S. military, understanding the role of food as a driver of instability and a weapon of war will become increasingly important to its mission. Burke, who previously served in the Department of Defense for the past three administrations, said ensuring food security is a key piece of two of the military's core missions: preventing conflicts and responding to disasters. She argued food poses not just a logistical challenge at the front lines, but also a stabilization challenge - without reestablishing food security in conflict zones, it would be impossible for the military to reestablish order and stability.

But understanding food's role in social unrest and conflict is just the first step. The event panelists also pointed to the challenge of how to manage the issue within the U.S. government. Stetson described the difficulties of getting other government agencies to focus on the issue and pushed back on the idea of food security as a niche issue, arguing, “It’s not a niche issue when you look at the nature of threats in a complex world." Burke similarly noted that because food security could be classified as a logistics, strategic, resources, or operational issue, it doesn't fit neatly in any particular area of responsibility within the military's management structure. RADM Jon White also pointed out the importance of both land-based agriculture and ocean fisheries in food production, meaning that the issue is further divided between service branches.

When asked which areas of the world are particularly vulnerable to the destabilizing effect of food insecurity, the panelists pointed to South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the three regions highlighted by the National Intelligence Council in their recent report on food security. All three regions face rapidly growing populations, poor governance, high levels of corruption, limited social safety nets, and are expected to be the hardest hit by the effects of anthropogenic climate change - a recipe for disaster in the face of food price spikes or crop failure.

Burke focused in particular on Venezuela and Nigeria, two countries already facing food security and governance challenges that have lost a significant amount of money due to the collapse of oil prices since 2014. It's in countries like these, at the nexus of governance, energy, economic, and food challenges, where food insecurity is most likely to play a role in social unrest.

The full video of the event can be found on CAP's website here.