Food (in)security and conflicts: the case of the MENA area

The Global Network Against Food Crises, the union of UN agencies and partners aimed at combating world hunger, has stated that the Covid-19 pandemic will (and is still causing) an unprecedented food crisis: approximately 265 million people are at risk of severe food insecurity, a number that has more than doubled since 2019 [1]. The general trend unfortunately, even in the current year, is to increase these figures, as shown in the latest FAO report of July 2021.

Last year, in fact, 811 million people, equal to almost one tenth of the world's population, faced hunger as a result of a multiplicity of factors: economic shocks that have favored greater volatility of food prices, climate change and conflict. All of these have led to an increase in hunger in both absolute and proportional terms, greater than population growth: more than half of all undernourished people live in Asia (418 million), more than a third in Africa (282 million) and the remainder in Latin America and the Caribbean (60 million) [2]. In addition, more than 2.3 billion of the world's population did not have continued access to food. The pandemic and its economic consequences have certainly slowed down the fight against hunger, but the increase in the growth of food insecurity levels has already been recorded since 2010, as a consequence of the dramatic economic and financial crisis of 2008. The risk that we will not be able to pursue the goal of sustainable development n.2 of the Agenda 2030 zero hunger is now a sad reality, in fact it is feared that not only will not be eradicated hunger and poverty, but there could still be 600 million people affected by this threat [3].

Food security in conflict areas

The increase in the number of people at risk of severe food insecurity has been recorded mainly in conflict zones: of the 265 million mentioned above, at least 77 live in these areas [4]. The scientific literature shows a sort of interdependence between food insecurity and armed conflicts: there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the parties, at the basis of which there is the important variable of economic trends (depressive). Conflicts lead to a partial interruption of trade and, specifically, of food systems and markets, generating in turn a rise in prices of agricultural resources and difficulties in the supply of water, food and fuel. This creates a vicious circle that is hard to break, due to the costs of reconstruction of the affected areas and the high number of displaced people. The war causes the destruction of infrastructure, the abandonment of agricultural land and consequently the collapse of the income of small-medium farmers in developing countries. Generally speaking, it causes a problem not so much of food availability, but of food access: if the post-conflict situation has high levels of food insecurity as in this case, the probability of falling into conflict increases by 40%, which in turn exacerbates food insecurity and so on. [5]

Although these reflections are empirically verifiable, it is also true that food insecurity is not a sufficient condition in itself to generate conflict. Other determining "requirements" are authoritarian regimes, great social inequality, economic crisis and a significant youth population. Today, climate change can also be included among the unconventional threats to the stability of a country. However, it remains clear that the food issue has a weight in these dynamics, especially when it fosters awareness of part of the population of being in relative poverty and - consequently - shows the desire, even in violent form, to want to change their status.

The lack of food security, therefore, is a major threat to the security and stability of a state or, since these are systemic problems, of an entire region. Emblematic is the area of the Middle East and North Africa, considered by FAO and the World Food Programme to be one of the most vulnerable regions in the world in terms of the relationship between food insecurity and armed conflict [6]. The reasons for this unfortunate condition are described as "geopolitical vulnerability" [7] due to geographical, territorial and climatic elements. Water scarcity and desert climate, together with climate change, imply that MENA countries are net food importers, as they cannot meet the demand for food on their own. If we look at agricultural production, it is not very diversified and is often financed by government subsidies, which are unsustainable both economically and environmentally. Global warming will lead to a worsening of the level of food security in the region, where at least 50% of the calories consumed are derived from imported food: it is estimated that by 2050 temperatures will increase by 4°, reaching +6° between 2081 and 2100, making some areas unfit for human consumption [8].

Dependence on imports has consequences which are reflected in the economic conditions of the region. It has determined an oscillation, regarding the best policy to be adopted in the food market, between autarky and quasi-liberalism: if one opens up completely to the market, the volatility of food prices does not guarantee stable food security; on the contrary, autarky is equally unsustainable, because in a desert area like MENA, achieving self-sufficiency in grain and derivatives means exploiting scarce water resources. Notwithstanding the perplexities that can arise from the adoption of an autarkic model in a globalized system, it has been strongly supported following the 2008 global financial crisis: the exorbitant increase in food prices has made authoritarian regimes in particular lean towards state protectionism and the search for self-sufficiency. However, this was a futile and harmful effort, as the intersection of other factors such as the decline in migrant remittances, fluctuating oil prices and the general economic situation caused an increase in food insecurity [9].

The same dynamics can be re-enacted in the present day, with the disastrous economic crisis following the Covid-19 pandemic. The implementation of sanitary measures, with general lockdowns, induced an economic contraction starting from March 2020: the closure of commercial activities and trade, the collapse of tourism, the drop in remittances etc. are at the origin of the collapse of GDP in the region and an increase in poverty among the population. According to the International Monetary Fund, it will take more than 4 years to return to pre-pandemic levels: Covid-19 was a threat multiplier in an area of the world already the scene of several crises, especially in those states subject to armed conflicts [10].

The most critical situations are in Yemen and Syria, labeled as countries with the most serious food crises by the World Food Programme. In Yemen it is estimated that there are 15.9 million people in serious food insecurity and a good part in advanced malnutrition: food security in the country was poor even before the outbreak of the conflict, which however has clearly exacerbated this condition. Moreover, food has been used as a weapon of war: it was thought that by blocking the transit of food resources, the population would rebel (both pro-government and Houthi) [11]. In Syria instead, before the outbreak of the civil war, the level of food security was stable, but then degenerated due to armed clashes and the economic repercussions of US and EU sanctions, the Lebanese economic crisis and the pandemic: the most food insecure areas are the governorate of Dara'a, the areas held by pro-Turkish rebels such as the north-west and the Kurds in the north-east, but also in the capital Damascus itself food access is not guaranteed on a continuous basis [12].

Following this analysis, it is clear that food security is extremely important, not only for the development of the individual or the region in which he lives, but also to ensure stability and security. Investing more and finding solutions to ensure access to food for all, especially in the area of the southern shores of the Mediterranean, interests us in primis as Europeans. A proposal to be considered within the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean, would be to extend the European New Green Deal to the Maghreb and Mashreq countries, in order to improve the living conditions of the population and to contain crisis situations (from migration to climate). Not through land-grabbing, but through inclusive and sustainable projects for both parties.

Fonti consultate

[1] O. Karasapan, Brookings, Middle East food security amid the COVID-19 pandemic,, 14/07/2020

[2] Report FAO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,, 12/07/2021

[3] Report World Food Programme, Annual Review 2020,, 7/07/2020

[4] O. Karasapan, Brookings, Middle East food security amid the COVID-19 pandemic,, 14/07/2020

[5] A. Perteghella, ISPI, The Circular Crisis: Food Insecurity in the Middle East's War Zones,, 11/07/2020

[6] Report World Food Programme, 2020 - Global Report on Food Crises,, 20/04/2020

[7] E. Woertz, ISPI, Report MED2020: Navigating the Pandemic,, novembre 2020

[8] P. Hergersberg, J. Lelieveld, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Hot Air in the Orient,

[9] Zolfaghari, Mehdi e Jariani, Farzaneh, MPRA, Food Security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA),, 1/01/2021

[10] Y. Ido, JIIA, Food Security in the Middle East and North Africa -- Common Regional Challenges and National Approaches to Food Supply,, 28/04/2021

[11] P. Sleet, Future Directions International, Food Security in the Middle East During the Covid-19 Pandemic: From Bad to Worse,, 2/03/2021

[12] Ibidem

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  • L'Autore

    Sara Oldani

    Sara Oldani, classe 1998, ha conseguito la laurea triennale in Scienze politiche e relazioni internazionali presso l’Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, sede di Milano, con una tesi dal titolo “La protezione internazionale delle minoranze: il caso dei curdi del Rojava”.

    I suoi interessi principali sono la geopolitica e la politica internazionale, in particolare dell’area MENA dove ha potuto svolgere uno stage in Israele e Palestina durante il periodo di studi. La passione per questa zona geografica l’ha spinta a cimentarsi nello studio della lingua araba e della cultura stessa.

    Dopo la laurea ha svolto un tirocinio per una ONG a tutela dei diritti umani e si è trasferita a Roma per intraprendere la laurea magistrale in Criminalità e sicurezza internazionale.

    Attualmente ricopre il ruolo di Caporedattore per il tema Framing the World e da marzo 2021 è autrice per la sezione Medio oriente e Nord Africa.

    Sara Oldani, born in 1998, got a Bachelor's Degree in Political sciences and international relations at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan, with a thesis entitled "The international protection of minorities: the case of the Kurds of Rojava".

    Her main interests are geopolitics and international politics, in particular the MENA area where she was able to carry out a stage in Israel and Palestine during the period of study. The passion for this area led her to learn Arabic language and culture.

    After graduating, she attended an interniship for a NGO which promotes human rights and moved to Rome to undertake a Master's Degree in Crime and international security.

    She currently holds the role of Editor-in-Chief for the Framing the World project and since March 2021 she has been author for the Middle East and North Africa section.


From the World Middle East & North Africa Sections Environment & Development 2030 Agenda Eradicate hunger Framing the World


Medio Oriente Nordafrica Foodcrisis food security conflitti Crisi economica

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