Woman speaking at a podium with the United Nations symbol behind  yher
Amanda Crump, an associate professor of international agricultural development in the Department of Plant Sciences, speaks at a recent gathering of the United Nations Association in Sacramento. Photo courtesy Amanda Crump

Crump addresses UN Association gathering

Food security in developing nations

Amanda Crump is an associate professor of teaching for international agricultural development in the Department of Plant Sciences. She recently spoke at a gathering of the United Nations Association in Sacramento.

Good afternoon. Thank you so much for inviting me to celebrate United Nations Day and talk about nourishing peace. I’d like to start with a story.

I am very lucky to have a job where I get to work with amazing students who pursue an education to be able to create a more just and equitable world. When I asked my research group for stories about food insecurity and conflict, several had stories from their own research or experience. This story was told to me by Isha, who is from Nepal. And, I’m using her words here as she describes a place where she now conducts research.

Imagine a community that is skeptical, afraid almost, of the men in army uniforms who have sworn their life to safeguard them in the first place. Nepal went through a decade long civil unrest between 1996 and 2006. This Maoist revolution ultimately led to overthrowing of the monarchy and establishment of democratic republic nation. The civil war caused more than 10,000 reported deaths and hundreds and thousands of civilians impacted.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch detailed the atrocities that were happen – and wrote “civilians in contested areas are often faced with untenable choices. Refusal to provide shelter to the rebels puts villagers at risk from Maoists who are ruthless in their punishments, while providing such support leaves them vulnerable to reprisal attacks from state security forces.”

Rukum, a district in western Nepal was one of the strongholds of the Maoist rebels, so the government army would constantly attack the households. Hundreds of households would lose their food from their granaries. To step back, Rukum is not a food-secure district. In this district, people would work all year long but are food insecure for 3 to 6 months. This is still true.

12 men and women sitting on the floor in a room, the men on one side and the women on the other. The women are wearing bright and colorful clothing.
UC Davis Plant Sciences master's student Isha Poudel talks with villagers in Nepal.

Because of the continuous looting and exploitation of people, they started fearing the armies more than the rebels. And more than 25 years later, the trauma still lingers in the minds of people who have slept hungry. Now they find it difficult to trust a stranger or anyone in uniform. It took Isha 18 days for them to open up and tell her the story or horror they lived through while at war.

In places where it is already a scarcity, food can become a weapon used to oppress and traumatize communities. Long term.

Food Security. Peace. Food Insecurity. Conflict. Which comes first? Does one cause another? Let’s explore that together.

At the 1996 World Food Summit, food security was defined as “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."

Dimensions of food security

There are four main dimensions to food security:

First, food has to be available and of appropriate quality. Second, food must be accessible. This means that people must be able to acquire foods for a nutritious diet without sacrificing their livelihoods to acquire it. Third, food security isn’t just about calories but it’s about health. It’s about our bodies’ abilities to meet our physiological needs. In addition to nutrition, this includes food safety and access to clean water, sanitation, and health care. Finally, food has to be stable. A population, household, or individual must have access to adequate food at all times. They should not risk losing access to food because of disasters, economic crises, and conflict, whether they be long-term or short-term.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, before the pandemic, there were nearly one billion undernourished people. Food emergencies have risen from an average of 15 per year in the 1980s to more than 30 per year. Annual protracted crises have tripled since the 1980s.

During a protracted crisis, whether it is caused by humans or a natural disaster, people are driven from their homes. They are unable to grow food. They are cut off from markets to sell their goods and buy the inputs they need.

In 2017, every country classified by the FAO as being in a food crisis was also experiencing conflict and violence. Conflict isn’t the only thing that causes hunger and undernutrition but nations in conflict can’t respond to droughts or other climate disasters. This spiral of disasters and conflict makes it so that people in a conflict are 2 and a half times more likely to have hunger than those in non-violent areas.

I just looked at the Famine Early Warning System. It predicts that there will be seven upcoming famines. One was caused by the multiple cyclones hitting Southern Madagascar but the others are caused by conflict. In Yemen alone, 17 million people are in need of food assistance. Seven famines doesn’t start to address rural households throughout the world who are facing higher food prices, unemployment, and the ripple effects of conflicts around them.

There is a debate about which comes first. Does food insecurity trigger conflict? Or does conflict trigger food insecurity? Both can happen. Yes, food price spikes have led to riots, violence or even political instability. But food price changes don’t predict the likelihood of a conflict unless the food price spikes in an already unstable place. According to the FAO, Poverty, hunger and food insecurity, together with a highly unequal distribution of income, land and other material goods, can create feelings of anger, hopelessness and injustice among different sectors of the population. There may also be a perceived lack of support from formal and informal institutions in addressing the risks of human and food insecurity. These grievances can then be exploited by individuals and groups in order to take up arms in retaliation.

Link between food insecurity, unrest

This year, I can think of examples of where food insecurity caused unrest and where unrest caused food insecurity.

Last year, the Sri Lankan government banned imported chemical fertilizers. A country dependent on chemical inputs went organic. Any farmer transitioning to organic production will tell you that it is hard. It can take years of organic inputs to get back to the yield levels you previously had. It’s also expensive and complicated so organic farmers here are given education and resources to help them. In Sri Lanka, the law didn’t include outreach programs. It didn’t include farmer education. It didn’t include crop insurance. It didn’t include the assistance necessary.

Sri Lankan farmers were using seed varieties that respond well to chemical fertilizers. These varieties are also susceptible to pests requiring different pesticides than are allowed under organic production. No new seeds were provided.

According to the World Food Programme, Sri Lanka went from producing 300,000 tons of maize to hardly any. We know what happened next. Sri Lankans stormed their President’s palace in July. Now, inflation there in September hit 73.7% but food inflation hit 90%. Can you imagine? The World Food Programme now estimates that 30% of the population is food insecure.

And, we know how unrest causes food insecurity ripple effects by the impact of the Russian war in Ukraine and the blockade Russia imposed on grain coming from Ukraine – grain that could have helped feed Sri Lankans and many other people. Last year’s Ukrainian grain has started to move but there won’t be Ukrainian grain this fall. Researchers project that the urban poor will be at greater risk than the rural poor due to the Russian war. Rural poor will still suffer but they have more resources to grow food and cope than the urban poor who have to purchase food.

Of course, it’s not just the price of food that causes conflict. Climate-related events and competition for natural resources do too.

Food can also be used as a deliberate weapon. As I mentioned in my first story, both the rebels and the national army in Nepal destroyed granaries. Fighting parties have also planted land mines in agricultural land or poisoned wells. Our own military will also limit the production of tall plants such as corn in areas where they are actively fighting.

Paths toward food security

So, let’s talk about solutions.

I don’t have direct solutions for conflict but Johan Galtung does.

Johan Galtung is a Peace Researcher. He advocates for positive peace – not just an absence of conflict. He was a former mathematician and even has a formula for peace. He says that peace equals Equity times Harmony divided by Trauma times Conflict. In this ratio, it’s important that equity and harmony outweighs trauma and conflict. He outlines four tasks that build peace but all require training, skills development, and leadership education.

First, to construct equity, Galtung says that individuals, communities, and governments must cooperate for mutual and equal benefits for all people – this is a cosmopolitan approach. Second, to construct harmony, he draws on Eastern philosophies to encourage emotional resiliency by being able to enjoy the joy and suffer the suffering of others. Third, he believes that governments and leaders must clear the past, acknowledge wrongs, pursue dialogues about why and how wrongs were allowed to happen to reconcile past trauma. Finally, to resolve present conflict, he believes that we work to make seemingly incompatible and contradictory goals more compatible – arriving at a Middle Way.

I do know more about strategies used to support food security.

So, what can be done? Unfortunately, there isn’t one solution that fits every situation. There are direct impacts on food security by armed conflict. Wars disrupt incomes, food production networks, health and sanitation. Remember that food must be available, accessible, safe, nutritious and in stable supply. There are indirect impacts too such as the impact on people’s mental health or the way that the rest of the world treats the conflict – do they see others sending aid? 

But there are some things that can help people cope with conflict and increase their resiliency and food security. Investments must be made at the nation or regional level to shore up input supply chains, trade, and financial institutions that support farmers. We need to build resiliency to shocks at the household and community level. This means supporting women, creating opportunities for education, and improving health outcomes. That needs to be done in peace time because those types of interventions are difficult to do during conflict.

Role of gender

Women are at the center of conflict in a lot of ways. They can be impacted by the violence directly, suffering rape or worse. In addition, when men are engaged in conflict, women become the primary caregivers and become responsible for providing all of the food and health needs for their families. Unfortunately, women are paid less for their labor and are often not given access to education or skills as men. This is a downward spiral. As they have less access to income and resources, they become more vulnerable and resort to riskier coping strategies.

We can counter that downward spiral with a positive one. Increased gender equality has been shown to result in a more sustaining peace. Women are often the peace builders. When they are given increased civic and political power, there is more peace. Unfortunately, after a conflict the old patriarchy returns and women are moved about of these positions of power. It’s important to keep them there.

We know that gender equality programming done alongside agricultural interventions does work – regardless of whether that is done in times of peace or conflict. During peacetime, gender equality training increases women’s access to agricultural inputs and markets. During conflict, creating better attitudes about women’s capabilities gives them more say in the peace building and peace sustaining process.

Strengthening markets and agricultural employment is important before a conflict. In times of crisis, farming households need to be able to pivot. They need access to credit, insurance, or alternative employment to weather the shocks. Then, when shocks come – whether it is a spike in energy prices, a spike in food prices, a natural disaster, or a conflict – those families can be resilient to that shock.

Giving people a tool to weather a shock also reduces the probability they will become a migrant or a refugee and gives them a place to return to when the conflict or shock has subsided.

Without added resiliency strategies, people simply cope. They do what they can.

There are short term coping strategies that, when they turn long term, become irreversible. A person can make small adjustments to their diet – eating less protein, skipping a meal. While less than ideal, the harm of this can be reversed, particularly for adults. But when those small coping mechanisms become permanent, the poor are forced into coping strategies that damage their future. They may sell their livestock or farm assets. They may shift from high value crops to subsistence crops.

Build resiliency

There are a lot of ways to build resiliency. The greatest thing I have seen is to simply include farmers and a variety of people in the decision making process. Disaster researchers know that women survive a disaster better if women were the ones who designed disaster plans. For example, a disaster plan might include a plan to mobilize 1 doctor for every 100 people. But a disaster plan designed by a woman is more likely to include an additional OB GYN or midwife per 100 women. A disaster plan might include a recommended amount of food. But a disaster plan designed by a mother might include baby formula or baby cereal.

Likewise, when farmers, particularly marginalized farmers, are involved in designing resiliency strategies or designing food security strategies, or even included on a peace plan, imagine what could happen. Farmers might have encouraged the Sri Lankan government to transition to organic over time. Minority ethnic groups might advocate for easier land access in Bosnia and Herzegovina – a country I visited recently that has less than 50% arable land under cultivation because of land access laws that make it difficult for certain ethnic groups to regain the land they lived on before the collapse of Yugoslavia. Women might advocate for subsidies of highly nutritious foods for their children instead of subsidies focused on commodities and cash crops. Farmers might request cash during times of conflict to buy what they need and avoid selling their assets.

Community, inclusivity

Community driven and inclusive solutions are key.

Isha, who told the initial story about the Nepalese civil war and the mistrust and hunger that ensued, told me another story. It’s more hopeful.

The same community she described above has a very long history of caste-based discrimination. Imagine that you were born to a family that belonged to a certain ethnic group and based on your last name, you are considered untouchable to everyone else from your community for the rest of your life.

What began as the social stratification of people based on the labor was weaponized to oppress people from the “lower castes”. The lowest caste people, the Dalits are denied basic human rights like access to clean water resources, education and employment opportunities and any kind of power at all.

At present, the government of Nepal has criminalized any form of discrimination and tried to eradicate the caste system. But this is a lot more difficult than one can imagine. Even in places where overt discrimination is illegal, there are still subtle ways that the caste system remains and discrimination exists. You see it every day. For example, at a wedding feast, two groups of women will need to cook because the non-Dalits can’t or more precisely won’t eat food prepared by a Dalit. So non-Dalits cook for non-Dalits and Dalits cook for Dalits.

But, because of an NGO, this dividing line is gradually fading.

This same community has school feeding program that a local NGO has introduced into the only school where the kids from every household go. Even though these programs are adopted in almost every public school of Nepal mostly by the government, the community chose the NGO’s program because it promised a variety of foods every day for the week. Because kids are getting a variety of food, school officials report increased enrollment and retention

This school feeding program requires that parents take turns cooking for the school children. So every parent takes their turn and feeds the entire student body. Because the kids from both Dalit and non-Dalit community go to the same school, they eat the same food irrespective of who cooks it. This has become the space where their identities matter less and what and how their kids get to eat make a difference. And while this has not made into an open discussion funnily enough, the communities are coming together. Food becomes the reason they do. It’s building peace in a small way.

Thanks so much. I’m happy for us to continue this conversation.

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