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The Geopolitics of Food Security: Barriers to the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger

This paper seeks to give geopolitics a more prominent place in the food security debate, outlining its impact across a range of areas that directly affect food security.
Multiple Authors
Wheat harvest in the Texas Panhandle


The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. The second of these goals, Zero Hunger, seeks to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. But since the goals were adopted in 2015, the number of people who are undernourished has actually increased to 690 million in 2019, up by almost 60 million since 2014.

There are complex and interrelated factors that hinder international efforts to eradicate hunger and achieve SDG 2, from the economic to the environmental. However, food insecurity represents, in particular, a political failure; indeed, global food production has long surpassed the level necessary to keep all people fed.

On that basis, this paper highlights geopolitics as an important dimension of that political failure. It seeks to give geopolitics a more prominent place in the food security debate, outlining its impact across a range of areas that directly affect food security.

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To explore the relationship between geopolitics and the achievement of SDG2: Zero Hunger, this SIPRI Insights report explores four key areas where geopolitics and food security connect. Authors, drawing on a variety of academic and policy literature, consider how natural resources, trade, violent conflict, and climate change each intersect with broader geopolitical challenges.

Between governance and geopolitics: Room for analysis

Beyond states and state-based multilateral institutions, transnational corporations, civil society organizations, private philanthropic foundations and financial actors—both within and outside the food and agriculture sector—are increasingly shaping the governance landscape for food security. Their initiatives and efforts may align with SDG 2, as well as the long-standing mandates to address global hunger of intergovernmental organizations.

However, while there has been a new wave of international cooperation on the hunger agenda, the global food crises have also served to entrench the idea of food as an object of strategic national importance. As certain countries acted to secure access to overseas natural resources, others acted to reduce exposure to international markets and increase domestic self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, climate change and shifting resource landscapes are having an impact on the balance of material power across states as traditional export giants in the Global North are being challenged by emerging agricultural powers such as Brazil, China, India and Russia.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 notes how heightened international tensions increase the risk of ‘geopolitically motivated food-supply disruptions’. Geopolitical competition—in addition to affecting food security itself—also hinders efforts to improve dialogue and coordination, if not cooperation, among various actors on achieving the goal of eradicating hunger for ‘all people’. In other words, geopolitics affects both food security and the environment within which Zero Hunger is pursued.

The competition for natural resources

Global competition for agricultural resources highlights the inherent asymmetries in natural resource endowments and constraints, which are closely related to the food security of states and their populations.

The governments of middle- and high-income states, such as the oil-producing states of the Gulf and East Asian countries, have subsequently engaged in the strategic acquisition of and investment in agricultural resources abroad. Such ‘resource grabs’, including of agricultural land, have frequently taken place in developing countries that have available productive resources but face higher levels of food insecurity, weaker institutions and lower levels of social protection than the acquiring or investor state.

As well as land and soil, uneven distribution and heightened demand and competition apply to other relevant resources such as water and nutrients.

It is not just governments concerned about security of supply that have undertaken large-scale resource acquisitions: transnational and domestic corporations and financial firms have also acquired land and associated agricultural resources, for more speculative, non-food-based motives.

Finally, the drive for environmental sustainability is a further phenomenon that has contributed to a competition for agricultural resources—referred to as ‘green grabbing’—that has the potential to endanger local livelihoods and food security. Green grabbing includes the production of biofuels and biomass energy through forestry and other activities that have an impact on land use.

The necessity of trade

Natural resource constraints, prohibitive costs or environmental concerns mean that food self-sufficiency is not possible for all countries. Trade has become a key feature of the contemporary food system. International trade can moderate production shocks in individual countries and regions, while more broadly helping to smooth the uneven distribution across countries of land, water and nutrient resources.

While trade is and will continue to be necessary to ensure global food security, heated debate continues about the optimal degree of liberalization in agricultural trade, as well as about the effects of those policies on global and national food security and welfare.

Food crises highlighted deficiencies in the regulatory framework of the global trading system. WTO provisions continue to allow export restrictions on essential supplies, and continued disagreement between states has prevented the adoption of new provisions to regulate export restrictions. Furthermore, these problems are embedded in an international trade system whose terms are highly uneven across countries. Agriculture in particular is one of the least liberalized sectors of trade, especially among the member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Critically, these debates about food trade intersect directly with the geopolitical contest between states.

In addition, food and agriculture have been exploited in broader economic and political disputes. Russia’s ban on Western food imports since 2014 has employed arguments that cite national security. Meanwhile, the trade war between China and the USA that began in 2018 has also disrupted normal agricultural flows, particularly in the soybean sector.

Economic unilateralism and protectionism have seemingly only accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with trade interdependence increasingly treated as a liability by national governments. States have increasingly attempted to mitigate risks by pursuing self-sufficiency, diversifying supply sources and shortening supply chains. However, these national risk-mitigation strategies may yet prove counterproductive by limiting the scope for international economic cooperation, which remains critical for sustainable development.

The interaction with armed conflicts

Armed conflict is one of the main drivers of food insecurity, and it has been largely responsible for the increase in global food insecurity since 2014. In 2016 the majority of undernourished populations lived in countries affected by armed conflict.

Armed conflict has an impact on food security in a variety of ways, both direct and indirect, from physical disruptions to agricultural production and food availability to disruptions that affect local trade, transport, and physical, social and economic access to food.

While it is clear that armed conflict affects food security, climate change has led to more attention being paid to the opposite relationship: the possible impact of food insecurity on armed conflict and social unrest, with repercussions in the international system. Overall, there is evidence that there are indeed such links, but only under certain conditions.

It is clear that armed conflicts and social unrest events that are partly driven by food insecurity can have geopolitical repercussions. Yet, because precise pathways are highly context-specific, two important tasks are to advance the understanding in general of when and under what circumstances food insecurity drives armed conflict; and to understand how this applies during particular major events of geopolitical importance, such as the Syrian War. In terms of policy interventions, there is a need for further research on measures that can effectively address food insecurity and conflict simultaneously.

The impact of climate change

Climate change interacts with the above three phenomena—resource security, trade and armed conflict—in their various effects on food security. Moreover, the global food system currently contributes up to one quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, agriculture is one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change.

Importantly, the medium-term effects of climate change on agricultural and food systems are likely to be uneven: low-latitude countries are most exposed, while northern latitudes may even benefit in certain cases. Given that food insecurity is currently concentrated in developing countries in low latitudes, climate change may exacerbate and widen inequality on an international scale.

Increased pressure on agricultural production due to climate change may also accentuate existing geopolitical tensions over resources. Widening gaps and shifting distributions of material power due to climate change have the potential to create new geopolitical leverage points—for instance in the context of trade.

Recent studies suggest that climate risks can be transmitted via agricultural trade networks, affecting consumers many thousands of kilometres away. As a plausible response, some have argued that import diversification and reduction in trade barriers constitute an effective adaptation strategy. However, while this may reduce transboundary risks in some cases, it will be less effective for large importers and well-integrated economies that already have substantial and diverse import portfolios.

The impact of climate change on food security is not limited to production and trade. Climate change is likely to interface with all the other geopolitical challenges related to food security. A failure to address climate change will thus not only be to the direct detriment of SDG 2 but will also amplify the geopolitical challenges identified elsewhere in this paper.

Conclusions: Beyond the return of geopolitics

In short, both geopolitical competition and diversified governance are hallmarks of the current global food security landscape. However, more needs to be understood about both the new risks of competition and the opportunities for collaboration that this diversity brings about.

Analysts and practitioners of global food security should base their understanding on an account that combines awareness of shifting power dynamics and frictions with a holistic appreciation of rapidly evolving global governance institutions.

Better understanding of the former will also help proponents of SDG 2 to address and combat exclusionary understandings and practices of security, leading towards the positive-sum, inclusive frameworks so necessary to obtain food security ‘for all’.

Suggested Citation

Zhou, J., Dellmuth, L., Adams, K. M., Neset, T.S., and von Uexkull, N. 2020. “The Geopolitics of Food Security: Barriers to the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger.” SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security. Stockholm, Sweden.

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