Conflict and Food Security: Ministerial-Level Open Debate
On Thursday (19 May), the Security Council will hold a ministerial-level open debate on conflict and food security under the agenda item “Maintenance of international peace and security”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will chair the meeting. Secretary-General António Guterres, World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Director-General Qu Dongyu, and Sara Menker, founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence, are expected to brief. This is a signature event of the US Council presidency this month, which follows the open debate that it organised on conflict and hunger under the same agenda in March 2021.
Rising levels of conflict-driven food insecurity prompted the Security Council to adopt resolution 2417 in May 2018. This resolution recognises how conflict contributes to hunger—through the direct effects of war, such as displacement from farming or grazing land and the destruction of agricultural assets, or indirectly by disrupting markets and increasing food prices, among other things. The annual Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC), released earlier this month, shows that global hunger, primarily driven by conflict, continues to worsen. During 2021, close to 193 million people faced crisis levels of hunger or worse across 53 countries and territories due to conflict and insecurity, economic shocks and weather extremes. Conflict was the primary driver of this hunger for 139 million people in 24 countries and territories. This was a marked increase from 2020, when conflict was the main driver of hunger for 99 million of the 155 million people then experiencing acute hunger.
The situation is expected to worsen in 2022 due to the impact of the war in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of agricultural commodities—such as wheat, corn and barley (a crucial source of animal feed)—and sunflower oil, an important cooking oil. Russia is also a key producer of fertilisers. The war is causing the loss of farmland in Ukraine, and of access to the Black Sea for Ukrainian exports. There are also concerns about the impact of sanctions on Russian exports. Global food prices, which were already high due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have seen significant increases since the start of the war. Poor countries, especially those that rely on Ukrainian and Russian imports, several of which are affected by conflict, are especially vulnerable to these changes. Reduced access to fertilisers also threatens to affect next season’s agricultural productivity.
The US concept note for the debate describes these trends and asserts that “a sharp increase in global food insecurity threatens to destabilize fragile societies and exacerbate armed conflicts and regional instability.” It notes that over 60 percent of people facing hunger worldwide live in areas of armed conflict, such as Yemen, the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, and Syria. The concept note further addresses the effects of the war in Ukraine through its disruption of global supply chains and alarming price increases of staple commodities. According to the concept note, “the open debate seeks to identify ways to break the cycle of conflict-driven food insecurity” and “review and consider ways to mitigate these impacts”.
The Secretary-General is likely to stress just how dire food insecurity is globally. Guterres is expected to recall the Global Crisis Response Group that he established in March to develop strategies and recommendations in response to the Ukrainian war’s impact on food, energy and financial systems. He may highlight the need to lift export restrictions—which some countries have imposed in response to food shortages—and to support national food production to address high prices. Guterres is also likely to highlight the need for conflict parties to show more respect for international humanitarian law. This includes protecting goods such as crops and livestock that are essential to civilian survival and maintaining humanitarian access.
Beasley and Qu are also likely to highlight the clear link between conflict and hunger and the effects of the war in Ukraine on food insecurity. During his briefing, Qu is expected to present some of the data in the GRFC. Beasley may flag the unprecedented demands on relief organisations, while highlighting how the rise in global food prices is increasing the costs of the WFP’s operations.
Menker, who is originally from Ethiopia, may discuss the work of her company Gro Intelligence, which tracks price increases of food imports to identify countries likely to face food shortages, potentially leading to social unrest and conflict. Menker could propose actions to address the global food crisis that the Ukraine war has exacerbated that she set out last month in an article for the New York Times. These include emergency debt relief to vulnerable countries and investments in countries to help make them more food secure in the long term.
Council members are concerned about rising global food insecurity, which they discussed at a 21 April Arria-formula meeting organised by Ireland. Ireland is the informal Council focal point on conflict-induced hunger, a role that former elected members the Dominican Republic and Germany established in 2019, and Council members France, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, the UK, and the US are part of a 12-member Group of Friends of Action on Conflict and Hunger.
During the debate, members may mention specific country situations. The Democratic Republic of the Congo presents the largest food security crisis in the world with approximately 27.2 million people last year facing crisis or emergency levels of hunger, followed by Afghanistan with 22.8 million people and Ethiopia with 16.8 million. Some members could flag emerging food crises, including in northwest Nigeria, as a result of rising insecurity from banditry and intercommunal violence.
Members could highlight the Council’s responsibility to maintain humanitarian access, protect aid workers and hold conflict parties accountable for depriving civilians of food or targeting food production and systems. Resolution 2417 recalled that the Council may impose sanctions on those who obstruct the delivery of, access to, or distribution of humanitarian assistance.
Some members are likely to highlight Russia’s role in exacerbating global food insecurity by invading Ukraine, and in the process, disrupting Ukrainian agricultural production, destroying grain silos, and blockading Black Sea ports. A 14 May statement by the G7 called on Russia to immediately cease its attacks on key transport infrastructure in Ukraine, including ports, so that they can be used for exporting Ukrainian agricultural products. For its part, Russia is likely to draw attention to the effects of unilateral sanctions that western countries have imposed on it, and may contend, as it did in a 15 May statement, that the global food crisis in recent years also results from the accumulation of poor economic, energy, and food policies, as well as the pandemic.
There may be calls for more Secretariat reporting to the Council on conflict and hunger. At last month’s Arria-formula meeting, the US called for OCHA to submit two white notes per year on conflict-induced hunger crises. Resolution 2417 requests the UN to report swiftly when there are risks of famine as a result of conflict, and OCHA has provided several white notes over the years that have prompted Council meetings on deteriorating situations, such as in South Sudan, Yemen and Tigray. Despite the worsening global trend, it is about a year since the last OCHA white note. Members could further raise the importance of the Secretariat’s reporting containing sufficient information on conflict parties and violations of international humanitarian law for the Council to take action.
Some members are skeptical about the Council considering conflict and hunger. Russia has argued for several years that the Council is not the appropriate body to address this subject, especially at a thematic level, since other UN organs are mandated to address hunger, which can have multiple causes. Other members have been wary that the issue could be a pretext for adding situations to the Council’s agenda.
Tomorrow’s open debate is part of a “week of action” that the US has organised to address global food insecurity. Yesterday (17 May), the US and UNICEF hosted a high-level event on how conflict is driving hunger crises among children. Today (18 May), Secretary Blinken also chaired a ministerial meeting with around thirty countries—including major food producers and those facing food crises—to review urgent needs. The outcomes of the ministerial were expected to be outlined in a “Roadmap for Global Food Security—Call to Action”.