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How will geopolitics affect food security over the next 20 years?

The Council on Geostrategy asks seven strategic experts to explain how geopolitics will affect food security over the next 20 years

Graeme MacRae, Massey University New Zealand

Global food security is already in a state of multi-dimensional crisis, but crises also offer opportunities. Recent geopolitical developments have shown the faults of one model of food security, but also the benefits of an alternative. 

One is a techno-capitalist model of industrialisation and commercialisation designed by large agrifood corporations and widely shared and propagated by large international development and financial organisations, the international network of agrifood research institutions, and increasingly, by national governments. The other is a bottom-up model shared by small farmers, community organisations, grass-roots non-governmental organisations and researchers who work at local levels. This concept of food sovereignty is both a critique of the top-down model and an alternative to it. 

The former model has dominated agrifood development since the 1950s. It has increased global production but at the price of considerable environmental, economic, social and health costs, especially at local levels. It has also failed to provide reliable food security. The latter model provides the majority of the world’s food on a much smaller area of land, using fewer resources, with much less government and institutional support, and with much less environmental impact.

Geopolitics will not go away in the next twenty years. Nor will the cracks in the current model of food security geopolitical developments have exposed.

Fin McCarron, Conservative Environment Network

The recent prevention of wheat exports by the Indian Government because of Russia’s war against Ukraine highlights how interlinked our food system is. Events on the other side of the world can raise the price of bread at home. As the climate changes, farmers will find it harder to adapt and food production will be impacted more regularly by extreme weather. Even if we cut global emissions now, global temperatures are expected to rise until the middle of the century, exacerbating existing food insecurities.

Securing future harvests will mean cutting emissions and adapting farming systems. For climate-vulnerable developing countries, this will be an expensive task, but an important one. If farmers cannot adapt then we will feel the effects of higher prices around the world. Food inflation is being driven already by extreme weather. The price of sugar has risen 50%, partly due to heavy rain in India at the start of the year.

Climate finance is therefore a smart investment. Money from developed countries, like the UK’s £11.6 billion commitment, goes to mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries, including adapting farming to the changing climate. For many, this will be the difference between food and famine.

Roderick Parkes, German Council on Foreign Relations

The European Union (EU) does not work like other, more unitary powers. Even when its members identify common geopolitical aims or weaknesses they seldom address them in a logical way. Over the next 20 years, EU members could well put food security at the top of their shared agenda, but then use it as a political expedient for actions that actually make them more vulnerable; in internal negotiations, they will reduce the term ‘food security’ to a political football, sometimes trying to draw the EU in directions quite removed from actually boosting their collective food security. If their search for ‘food security’ ends up keeping food superpower Ukraine from joining the bloc, this will be an invitation to the EU’s rivals to weaponise food supplies, tipping the EU further into passive-aggressive geopolitics where it blames others for its vulnerabilities. The signs are that this is indeed the direction of travel.

The rhetoric from Brussels and Berlin in recent months has been all about modernising the EU budget and getting Ukraine into the bloc. Paris is historically cool on both, and could exploit the desire to boost EU ‘food autonomy’ to assemble an alliance against these propositions; those member countries that favour big agricultural subsidies tend to follow France in also favouring a generous EU budget and opposing the accession of poorer eastern states. Paris can point to the EU’s current food insecurity to argue that now is not the time for radical reform. It might also rally unexpected new friends: the Dutch, who are usually cheerleaders for slimming down the EU budget, are facing pressure from their farmers for more subsidies and less competition; and the Poles, who are usually at the vanguard of eastern EU enlargement, are worried about the prospect of having to subsidise Ukrainian farmers.

Hanna Shelest, Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism

The future receives its foundation today, and the ability to halt Russia’s manipulation and blockade of grain and food exports from Ukraine will influence future trends and norms. 

One of the main issues here is whether food can be weaponised successfully as a hybrid instrument to spread influence and gain allies. It is not, therefore, only about how geopolitics will affect food security, but also how food security will influence geopolitics. Will it be the so-called ‘Global North’ vs. the ‘Global South’? Or will such simplification not suffice, as geopolitical tensions lead us down a path of more diversified supply chains, greater investment in local production and the development of new international rules and mechanisms?

The response from African leaders to Vladimir Putin’s proposal for donating them grain, saying they do not need charity but a Russian return to the grain deal, demonstrates clearly how there has been a shift in understanding food security as an instrument of geopolitical confrontation, as happened to energy and information in the past. And for Russia, its use as such is so far failing.

Patrick Triglavcanin, Council on Geostrategy

Russia’s mask-off moment as an unreformed imperialist power has devastated global food security. When looking at the Indo-Pacific, however, the visibility of Russian aggression contrasts with the more murky way geopolitics affects food security in this region, where differing interpretations of history, international law, and the use of global commons intersect to form a simmering challenge which will likely persist for the next 20 years.

Tackling illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing is a primary concern of Indo-Pacific nations, particularly those in Southeast Asia reliant on the industry for their sustenance and livelihoods. Incursions into other exclusive economic zones by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) dual-use fishing vessels have increased as a result of rising hull numbers and confidence in their ability to intimidate. And the Chinese use of ‘lawfare’ has been refined and continues to be employed to discredit global interpretations of international law.

As food security issues in the Indo-Pacific persist into the future, mini and multilateral groupings will be required to alleviate struggle and build relationships. Groups lacking a harder edge such as the Quad have already demonstrated this through the 2022 launch of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. And the impact of climate change on Indo-Pacific food security must not be forgotten, with regional voices growing louder and striking similar notes in multilateral settings. In fact, the ability of these groups to manage rising geopolitical tensions and food security issues may become the key metric their effectiveness is judged upon in the future.

Laura Wellesley, Chatham House

Perhaps the greatest direct threat from geopolitics comes in the form of interruptions to global trade – interruptions with malicious intent, as in the case of Russia’s blockading of grain exports from Ukraine, and those with protectionist intent, in the form of trade restrictions. Such interruptions distort global markets and worsen food price crises and are ever more probable as climate-driven disruptions to food supply intensify and as trade in critical resources – food included – becomes increasingly intertwined with national security interests.

Indirectly, it is the interaction of geopolitics with other threats to food security that is of greatest concern. A continuation of the war against Ukraine and a push for greater resource security among other geopolitical powers will see energy prices remain high, in turn driving high fertiliser and transport costs, contributing to high food prices. Existing sociopolitical tensions will be exacerbated by growing competition for stressed water and land, leading to unrest, conflict, and migration. Demand for humanitarian aid to support the most food-insecure will rise in an age of ‘permacrisis’, but more inward-looking politics and a further fracturing of international relations could see already paltry humanitarian resources dwindle.

Should worsening geopolitical tensions derail climate mitigation and efforts to transform an inherently unsustainable food system, risks to global food security will increase exponentially in the next 20 years.

William Young, Council on Geostrategy

The disruption of Ukrainian harvests and exports in 2022-2023 has reminded many – in developed and developing countries – of the importance and precarious nature of food supplies. The 50% fall in wheat prices from their 2022 peak has also reminded us of our resilience and adaptability. Can we really rely on targeted diplomatic initiatives, judiciously applied military monitoring and the power of global markets for the next 20 years?

In answering this, one must first look to the future. By 2050, it is estimated that an area ‘nearly twice the size of India [will be] converted to agriculture’ as a result of land competition. The ‘protection and restor[ation of] land to fight climate change, prevent biodiversity loss and sustain other ecosystem services’ will grow, as will 1.5°C climate scenarios that have a detrimental effect on food prices. This is all not to mention continued stockpiling by food insecure and authoritarian regimes. We should be clear-eyed about the risks, but more importantly, the opportunities.

Some – but not all – of the tools to solve and create economic value from the land squeeze are in our hands. This could be done through precision breeding, enabled by the recent Genetic Technology Act, or engineering biology – an action plan for which is expected after the close of consultations in September. Furthermore, the establishment of a British sovereign capability of Earth Observation data services, as recommended by UK Space, would allow for its provision to more climate-vulnerable countries and others conducting important research or managing businesses.

Brazil’s hosting of the 2024 G20 Summit and COP30 – where land use and agriculture will have top billing – provides Britain with an opportunity to present a proportionate, pragmatic and hopeful story to domestic and international audiences. But it must devise it first.

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