The Key to Ending Global Hunger Is on the Battlefield

Around the world, conflict remains a major cause of malnourishment.

(Photo: Tony Karumba/Getty Images)

Oct 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

When the United Nations announced new goals for reducing global food waste last month, the plan was couched in terms of helping those who don’t have enough to eat. By limiting the amount of food we throw away, the idea goes, we can limit the amount of people who are hungry too. But according to this year’s Global Hunger Index, which was published Wednesday by the International Food Policy Research Institute, to eradicate global hunger for good, we may need to work a little harder to achieve world peace.

The kind of “calamitous famines” that kill more than 1 million people “have vanished,” according to an essay by Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Program, included in the report. “The end of the Cold War, the adoption of international human rights norms, and the rise of globalization” are key factors that allowed the elimination of massive famine, he wrote. But all is not rosy in the world. Just because governments can no longer easily starve an entire population without the world knowing about it does not mean all nonnatural famine (as in the case of drought or other natural disaster) has been eradicated. “When famine or acute hunger occurs today, it is usually the result of armed conflict,” de Waal added.

Between 1970 and 1997, agricultural losses owing to conflict averaged $4.3 billion annually, according to the report, “exceeding the value of food aid to these countries.”

In the past, governments have regularly used hunger as a weapon. “Scorched earth” campaigns—when an army burns or otherwise ruins natural resources or food—have been used by armies since ancient times. Herbicidal weaponry such as the Agent Orange the U.S. used in the Vietnam War caused not only a loss of agricultural crops but also topsoil damage that led to flooding. In 1977, the Geneva Convention banned the practice of harming civilians either directly or through destroying necessary resources, though that has not entirely stopped the practice.

But a conflict doesn’t have to directly raze farmland to decrease food security. As the FAO has noted, this doesn’t make the impact on life less severe. War can harm more people through hunger and malnutrition than direct violence can. A report by the Wilson Center showed that, on average, peacetime production levels were 12.3 percent higher than during conflict periods—though in some countries the difference was as high as 44 percent.

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However, tactical starvation is often over faster than in decades past. De Waal gives the example of the Israeli siege of Gaza, which “involved tight control of basic supplies to the territory.” While this caused “extreme” deprivation, it “stopped short of crossing the line into mass starvation.” In the history of warfare, this counts as progress.

In the last 15 years, Global Hunger Index scores have dropped by 27 percent overall. The number is calculated by looking at the percentage of the population that is undernourished and the percentage of children under five who suffer from stunting or wasting or who die before reaching that age. Not all countries had this data to draw on, including places with recently recorded high levels of hunger, such as Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a result, the true global effects of hunger may be higher.

While conflict can cause starvation, hunger can spark violence too. The catalyst for 2011’s Arab Spring was a sudden rise in food prices after the government reduced bread subsidies. Natural disasters that lead to difficulty accessing or purchasing basic food supplies can also “contribute to political unrest,” the FAO noted in its 2015 report on food insecurity. Syria’s civil war in particular has been linked to a drought that ravished the country’s farmland.

Similarly, the peacetime eradication of malnutrition and hunger may make conflict less likely in the future. Luckily, there is lower hanging fruit than creating world peace. The IFPRI report shows that the area of Africa south of the Sahara has the highest levels of hunger. Some of the countries in this area have experienced periods of relative economic growth, while others are still recovering from recent conflict. One thing these countries have in common is that “more than two-thirds of the region’s population relies on agriculture for income, including more than 90 percent of the region’s extreme poor,” according to the report. Despite the large numbers of people participating in farming, productivity is low.

It may still be easier to attempt to help farmers increase productivity than try to ensure conflict never returns to these areas. As many studies have noted, it’s easier to keep peace in a region that’s prospering.