As the daily staple for millions of Egyptians, bread came to symbolize the demand for a fairer economic system during the uprisings against Mubarak. Photo: Nefissa Naguib.

During the Egyptian uprisings against president Mubarak in 2011, people demanded bread, dignity and social justice. Bread is the daily staple for millions of Egyptians, and came to symbolize the demand for a fairer economic system. But does food insecurity necessarily cause social unrest and conflict?

High food prices were seen as one of the main factors underlying the Arab spring. The failure to maintain low food prices undermined the legitimacy of the state. Demand for bread has been a central feature of social and economic demands ever since the first bread uprising in 1977. Following rising food prices in 2007-2008, a series of violent food riots took place in about 40 countries around the globe.

By 2050, the world population will reach 9 billion and we need to produce between 60 and 70 % more food than we do today. This future scenario harbours an enormous potential for widespread conflict and food riots.

It is well known that conflict situations create food security problems, but do food security problems necessarily cause social conflicts? According to a new report from CMI senior researchers Johan Helland and Gunnar M. Sørbø, the answer is not straight forward.

-Food insecurity increases risks of civil conflicts and riots, but the causal links are complex and ambiguous. The relationship between food insecurity and conflict is highly context- specific, and food insecurity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for political violence and conflict, says Helland.

The case of Darfur
Based on a review of literature as well as an analysis of conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, Sahel and the Horn of Africa, Helland and Sørbø look into food insecurity and the deeper causes of conflict in this region. At first glance, the connection may seem obvious. This is a region vulnerable to climate change and fluctuating food production. It is alsoa region where food subsidies have been part of government policies in many countries. The crisis in Darfur in Sudan is a pertinent example. Declining rainfall and subsequent drought increased the pressure on pasture, farmland and water, and caused a dramatic increase in violent incidents between farmers and herders.

-Food insecurity can be a motivation for political mobilization and increase the risk of unrest, but the effects of food insecurity are always played out in interaction with other conflict-promoting factors. The risk of food insecurity developing into riots depends on a country’s political institutions, economic development, social safety nets and demographic pressures, he says.

Helland and Sørbø argue that high food prices and food insecurity are not enough to cause political unrest and turmoil.

Potential for alleviating poverty
Food production and agricultural development have largely been absent from international development discourse for many years. The global food crisis in 2008 changed this. More and more studies point to the importance of developing the agricultural sector in reducing poverty worldwide. Studies show that growth in agriculture is more than 3 times better at reducing US$ 1/day poverty than growth in other sectors. Development of the agricultural sector is crucial for reaching the Millennium Development Goals. Changing consumer patterns in developing countries have also become part of the agenda.

More research into agricultural development and the impact of food production is needed. The way we deal with food production and consumption patterns will have important consequences for prevention of social unrest and conflict.

-It is estimated that approximately 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is wasted at some point in the food chain. If this food had been properly utilized, it would have kept 800-1000 million people from starving, says Helland.