A new vision for agriculture
momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
such as health, development, strategy and defense. Its objective is to promote regulation
of agricultural markets by creating new evaluation tools, such as economic models and indicators,
and by drawing up proposals for an agricultural and international food policy.
Point of view

Food Security and National Defense,
A Geopolitical Perspective

by Jacques Carles,

Executive Vice President, momagri

and Paul-Florent Montfort,

Analyst, momagri

Food security has always been a fundamental issue for peoples, long before they formed political structures. In prehistoric times, the major migrations were guided by the need for food––the search for victuals. Later, it served as partial justification for invasions, colonialism and the opening of trade routes. Agriculture then represented a historical factor of political power, was considered as decisive criterion of national wealth ––for the physiocrats for instance––and generated the widest protectionist policies in all economic sectors. Such policies enabled most governments in developed countries to consolidate their agricultural activities and base their economic development on sound agriculture and food security.

Since the end of the 1980s however, the economic approach seems to have prevailed over the strategic approach and became the primary engine for influence and power. With the goal of building multilateral cooperation––following an especially deadly conflict––the international community thus applied itself to bringing peoples together through economic and commercial ties. In fact, the creation of the European Union is based on such rationale: lowering tariffs for industrial products (first for first coal and steel, followed by all manufactured goods), trade liberalization designed as the antidote to protectionism, as well as an environment of international aid and support. For a while, agriculture retained its special status and benefited from the EU system of preferences, which allowed maintaining protective trade barriers. Yet, driven by the neoliberal ideas that prevailed until today, this system of preferences is currently trimmed down to its smallest dimension, and agriculture has become an economic activity similar to others.

So much so that in many developed countries––and especially in Europe––food security is not even mentioned in specialized published writings on national defense. In France, for one, the latest white papers (1994 and 2008), which define the broad lines of the nation’s defense policy, do not explicitly refer to any food imperative requirement. And this in spite of the progressive broadening of the notion of national security to “the defense of the nation’s vital interests”, since WWII and the transformation of geostrategic stakes (disappearance of the cross-border military enemy with the collapse of the USSR and the rise of terrorism that poses a global threat). Yet, food security precisely represents an integral part of “the nation’s vital interests”.

In official statements of doctrine, the only mentions of food security are relating to its proclivity to generate tension, instability and conflicts. It concerns an indirect threat beyond our borders, and only seems to be considered because global interconnection is now a given fact.

France is not the only country implicated. In the foreword of its latest book on agricultural policies, the OECD even wrote “the objective of producing adequate amounts of food at reasonable prices to feed the growing urban population in the industrializing society is of less relevance now in OECD countries”1.

Only a few countries––among which the United States––have clearly identified agricultural and food concerns as key issues in terms of national security. We will get back to that later.

In developed countries, considering food security as a given and basing power on economic and commercial factors have led to a progressive neglect of agriculture. As a result, we are now increasingly witnessing:

  • A lack of recognition of the basics of agriculture (price hyper-volatility and responsiveness to speculation) that justify specific guidelines policies;

  • An elimination of policies to support agriculture in wealthy nations, particularly observed in Europe (such as the CAP Health Check), which also fits the quasi “ideology” of economic development based on the above-mentioned trade liberalization;

  • An emergence of the “greed is good” behavior (hyper-competition and land purchases).
As a rule, a circumstantial approach is now given priority over long-term strategic and political choices, which should nevertheless prevail in the running of a nation’s business.

Yet, because of population growth (the world will count nine billion people in 2050), the proliferation of sources of tension throughout the world, the increase of people suffering from hunger (one billion), those whose income is below the poverty line (two billion) and the objectives of carbon emission reduction, agriculture is now more than ever a vital and a relevant issue. This is true of course for developing countries, which are subject to a strong population explosion and home to a great majority of the world’s starving people. But it is also valid for developed nations, which must strive to guarantee stability worldwide and which are not sheltered from food insecurity. And we also can add countries whose food sovereignty is vulnerable (Japan for instance), as well as all the nations that are not taking steps to protect their farmers from exogenous and endogenous risks linked to such specific activity.

Because the threats affecting food security are many and multiform, we can single out four types:
  • Political and geopolitical threats: breakdown of transportation channels, global instability, etc;

  • Economic threats: population growth, lack of investment in agriculture, absence of international agricultural policy, etc;

  • Ideological threats: denial of the specific nature of agriculture, conformity to the neoliberal doctrine, etc;

  • Sectorial threats linked to agriculture: yield caps, limited availability of land, price instability, terrorist contamination of foodstuffs, etc.
All these threats must be dealt with by political decision-makers, all the more so since by generating local food insecurity, they directly impact global insecurity, as seen with the 2008 hunger riots, the armed conflicts about food supply, or “food wars”2, and the immigration waves. Global food insecurity therefore leads to political and social insecurity. It is a vicious circle.

All countries are not passive while confronted by these threats. The land purchases, which were widely reported in the recent media, are one of the strategies implemented by governments to meet the risks hanging over food security. Countries are investing in foreign land to secure supply, either because their food security directly relies on imports (Saudi Arabia, Japan, Korea and Libya for instance), or because they intend to turn it into means of power and additional food reserves (China for instance). The fact remains that for the past three years, farming rights for 74 million acres in developing countries––the equivalent of the France’s Surface Agricole Utile (arable land area)––were sold to foreign governments or funds3.

Other countries are going even further by explicitly incorporating the food security objective into their defense efforts. This is for example the case of the United States, where agricultural and food concerns are clearly identified and presented as key issues of national security, as shown by the steady renewal of the budgets of the Farm Bill––now renamed Farm and Energy Bill––as well as two recent events:
  • On September 24, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elevated food security to the level of “key component” of the US foreign policy, by stating that hunger “threatens the stability of governments, societies and borders. (…) Food security not only about food but it is all about security.”

  • On June 25, 2009, the US Senate condemned excessive speculation in agricultural commodity markets and called on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to regulate speculative positions. Interestingly enough, the Senate permanent investigations sub-committee that prepared the report directly reports to Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and not to Economic or Agricultural Affairs.
China is not to be outdone, since dependency (at any level) is considered as foreign interference in the doctrine of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In an environment of declining arable land (desertification, land pollution and expansion of urban areas that translates into a yearly drop of 2.5 to 3.7 million acres) and population growth, China implemented a multifaceted strategy to ensure food security:
  • Fixing a self-sufficiency level of 85 percent of food consumption by the Chinese Communist Party. Thanks to efforts to improve yields (mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides), the level should be reached in 2015;

  • Emphasizing grain production yields. It is one of the priorities of the 11th five-year plan (2006-10);

  • Getting around the American powerhouse (Anglo-Saxon countries are controlling 50 percent of grain exports) by opening up supply sources in Brazil and Argentina;

  • Purchasing land, especially in Africa.
Last but not least, other countries, such as India or Argentina, are not hesitating to implement exceptional export restrictions when international agricultural markets are particularly tight. That was the case during the 2008 food crisis.

We must also mention countries that use food issues as a foreign policy tool. Such is the case of the United States, which introduced, in the early years of the Cold War, a policy of food aid for poor nations with the goal of promoting a positive image worldwide and blocking the progress of communism in third world nations4. Launched on July 10, 1954 by President Eisenhower and named Public Law 480, the program was renamed Food for Peace in 1961 by President Kennedy, who gave it a new thrust as the Cold War was intensifying with the 1962 Cuban crisis. More recently, Senator Richard Lugar just introduced the draft of a bill––the Global Food Security Act––which extends the Food for Peace program. In his statement5, the Senator considers “food insecurity as an opportunity for the US” to center its foreign policy and improve its image in developing countries.

In comparison with policies implemented by many great powers worldwide, the European Union pales and seems to be resting on a false sense of security. That is the reason why, as we face increasing and bigger threats, it is now time for Europe to reconsider the significance of the food security imperative. It represents a convincing stake for any country in terms of:
  • Political independence;

  • International influence;

  • Ability to contribute to international cooperation.
This is an essential cause, now that the European Union seeks to empower itself with political strength and carry weight in the international arena.

Still, momagri believes a country’s food security will be ensured if said country is capable of:
  • Managing a return to market stability in case of turmoil;

  • Allowing farmers to make a living from their work;

  • Encouraging innovation and environmental preservation;

  • Above all, designing a long-term strategy to implement a food security policy.
The CAP, whose mission statement included food security among other components, has relatively well kept such imperative. However, while the drive for regulation policies intensifies, we may ask ourselves what is going to happen to tomorrow’s food security…

1 OECD, 2008 Agricultural Policy Design and Implementation, A Synthesis, page 12
2 In Rwanda for instance, where competition for agricultural land and support programs directly preceded the ethnic conflict.
3 Source: French Center for Strategic Analysis
4 September 22, 1960 speech of then Senator John F. Kennedy at the National Plowing Contest in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
5 February 5, 2009 speech by Senator Richard Lugar on Global Food Security.
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Paris, 19 June 2019