Basic economics tells us that the price of any given commodity will be driven by supply and demand, but for agricultural products the factors determining price can be particularly complicated. A country’s weather will determine the volume of its agricultural production, but environmental conditions in a distant export market can be just as important in the setting of prices. And as the world learned all too well in 2008, energy costs are critical determinants of the price of food. Last week’s insight highlighted the energy-intensive nature of modern farming: the natural gas necessary to manufacture fertilizers, the diesel required for farm machinery to operate, and the need to transport agricultural inputs to destinations around the world.
It’s not just the inputs that must be transported. Agricultural products are increasingly being sold across international borders. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a total of $1.35 trillion in agricultural products were imported around the world in 2011 compared to about $441 billion in 2001. This means that the ability to successfully feed a population increasingly depends on exogenous and distant factors.
This context is important in making sense of the relationship between conflict and food production. Food availability depends on global trends and not just domestic agricultural production.
A fluctuation in food prices is unlikely to lead to conflict in developed nations. When a food shortage ignites conflict, it tends to happen in low-income, developing countries. This is partly due to the fact that developing countries tend to have weaker political institutions, and are therefore more vulnerable to violent civil conflict. Furthermore, poorer countries are often unable to afford social safety nets for their citizens.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of food insecurity: transitory and chronic. While transitory food shortages can have devastating effects, they are by definition temporary and generally attributable to some type of weather shock or anomaly. They do not necessarily suggest government failure and can happen for a variety of reasons to any country. But chronic food insecurity is very different. It is not associated with a specific disaster, but rather with bad governance.
Transitory food insecurity is typically less likely to lead to conflict. A one-off event that might be caused by bad weather cannot be blamed on a particular leader or institution. Also, the possibility that such events can be severe means that people may be less likely to have access to the sustenance and resources they need in order to actually engage in violence.
Despite these well-demonstrated arguments, sudden price hikes and natural disasters do sometimes lead to violence. Food and fuel price increases in cities can spur protests, and exacerbate existing grievances or tensions. And when a weather shock or change is severe enough, it can force people to fight for suddenly precious and limited resources.
Chronic food insecurity, on the other hand, is a structural rather than a fleeting problem. It refers to the inability of citizens to afford food over years or generations and is a reflection of the failure of the state to improve the agricultural sector and to establish appropriate safety nets for citizens. When a chronic food shortage is the backdrop in front of which other politically destabilizing phenomena such as corruption, protests, and ethnic or religious tensions are occurring then the likelihood of conflict swells. That is exactly what happened in Yemen.
Conflict in Yemen
Yemen has roughly eight times the population of neighboring Oman, three times the population of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and approximately the same number of people as regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. The country’s population jumped from 18 million to 24 million from 2001-2013. Yemen has one of the largest numbers of mouths to feed in the region on one of the tightest budgets.
Despite common misconceptions of Yemen, it is not one massive, arid desert. The country has five distinct agro-ecological zones and while its bodies of water may be few in number, Yemenis have been practicing terraced agriculture on the country’s steep hillsides for millennia. Terraced farming, which works for several different types of crops, is built on hillsides and minimizes water wastage. As run-off water flows down into an adjacent field it provides water to the next crop and helps prevent soil erosion.
Yemen mainly produces sorghum, a particularly drought-resistant cereal, as well as potatoes, wheat, corn, and chickpeas. While the country does produce some food, it does not produce nearly enough for domestic consumption, nor does it produce many of the foods that its citizens have developed a particular taste for. In 2013, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $36 billion, Yemen spent $145 million on corn imports, $363 million on rice, $400 million on sugar, and a staggering $1 billion on wheat imports. The price of food in Yemen is simply a reflection of the international price of food—a reality which, for the past several years, has been a very bad thing for the country.
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As the revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring spread through the Middle East in 2011, Yemen’s deep sectarian divides were reignited. Popular protests eventually toppled President Saleh, who had been president of Yemen since its 1990 unification and president of North Yemen prior to that. Following the successful overthrow, there were celebrations and uncertainty. The transitional government demonstrated its weakness by early 2015, when an uprising by rebels plunged the country into its current, ongoing civil war.
Events in Yemen over the past several years make sense when they are viewed through the lens of politics. But they make even more sense when contextualized in regard to food.
While the Yemeni government has historically offered some subsidies to its farmers, they have been relatively modest and therefore so have been the policies’ results. Neighboring Oman, for example, provides more aggressive and effective agricultural support programs, and the average yields for an Omani wheat farmer are nearly twice those of their southwestern neighbors.
This shortcoming in productivity helps feed the dependency on imports, which ultimately means vulnerability to external price shocks. Yemen was at the mercy of the global commodity crisis of 2008, and again during a secondary price spike in 2011. These global shocks were occurring as domestic food security dwindled during a time of drought in 2008 and 2009.
These shocks happened in the context of chronic food insecurity. More than half of Yemeni children suffer from stunted growth, giving the country a level of malnutrition in children second only to Afghanistan. The prevalence of food inadequacy, which is a calculation based on the number of calories that would be necessary to sustain moderate physical activity, is about 36 percent. This means more than one-third of Yemenis do not have enough food. And while poverty and malnutrition rates have been falling in many parts of the world, they have remained unwaveringly high in Yemen.
The overthrow of President Saleh in Yemen’s revolution was not solely attributable to the fragility of the country’s food supply in the period 2008-2011. Other factors, such as corruption, the length of Saleh’s presidency, and the widespread protests across the Middle East and North Africa played a role.
Several scholars around the world have established a correlation between high food prices and the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011. In Yemen, where poverty and hunger is the most severe in any of the Arab Spring states, food is likely to have played an even larger role. Unlike the other affected countries, Yemen gives the impression that if food had been plentiful and cheap, or even if there was a food subsidy scheme like Lebanon’s Baladi Program, things may have turned out very differently.
Without a fundamental change in the way that the Yemeni state treats and addresses agriculture and food issues, it is unlikely that a new government will be able to maintain some semblance of order or security for very long. Tackling chronic food insecurity should be the highest priority for a new government, both in terms of the interest of their citizens and their own political survival.
Conflict and food are related circularly and variably. In developing countries, chronic food shortages can often be indicative of bad governance and may be a catalyst for violent conflict. The best and most effective move on the part of developing country institutions is minimizing food insecurity and ensuring that transitory food shortages do not become permanent. Safety nets, like agricultural input subsidies, targeted cash voucher programs, the encouragement of local crop consumption, or even food subsidies can be the difference between food security and insecurity.