National security experts need to put food back on the table as a core issue.
Apopulation’s access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food has been a core state interest since time immemorial. In the Bible, Joseph rose to power after resolving Egypt’s food shortages; as early as perhaps the Zhou dynasty, numerous Chinese emperors lost the “mandate of Heaven,” or the right to rule, when they failed to address famines; during the Cold War, the United States made the strategic decision to launch Food for Peace programs, which provided easier access to food, mostly to its allies.
All these instances show a simple truth: Access to food and national security are tightly connected. The latest reminder of this came on Oct. 9 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme for its efforts to combat hunger. The committee also drew a clear connection between hunger, war, and peace, adding that the WFP should be commended for “bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”
Until very recently, however, food has disappeared as a security question—at least for policymakers in the developed world. Beginning in the 18th century, agricultural advances made hunger in the West a matter of distribution rather than of availability, and since then it has become increasingly rare. Though wartimes led to food rationing (and in rare cases, to hunger, as in Holland in 1944 and 1945), famine on a large scale generally did not touch the West. Meanwhile, large international corporations, such as Nestlé, Unilever, Cargill, and Olam International solidified the centuries-old evolution of global food supply chains. To many Westerners, hunger remained a concern, but it was now occurring in other countries or among society’s most underprivileged. In other words, it became a humanitarian problem.