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The World Food Day: Grim Realities, the ‘F word’, and Securitization

Fisseha Fantahun Tefera | 9 November 2021

Every year since 1979, October 16 is observed as World Food Day, commemorating the anniversary of establishment of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO). This year’s World Food Day, themed “Our Actions are Our Futures” is observed while the world is facing a grim reality of reversal in its path to ending hunger by 2030. The grassroots organization La via Campesina (LvC) commemorates the day as the International Day of Action for Peoples’ Food Sovereignty and against Transnational corporations. Despite distinct philosophies and approaches, both FAO and LvC agree on one thing: eradicating hunger by 2030 is impossible on the current path.

Conflicts, climate variability and extremes, and economic downturn (also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic) are the main drivers preventing the accomplishment of global zero hunger by 2030, according to the latest The Sate of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, published just a few months ago. About 800 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020. This is 118 million more people than in 2019. The increase in food insecurity for 2020 is also estimated to be equal to the increase in the past five years combined. These are just some of the main findings, from a report concerned with hunger, nutrition, and food systems.

Securitization of ‘Food Crisis’

A closely related issue, mostly conflated with hunger and malnutrition, is the situation of ‘famines’, which is covered by a separate annual Global Report on Food Crisis (GRFC). The 2021 GRFC report from May 2021 (and its September updated version) details worrying developments in global food crises. As of September 2021, from 42 out of 55 countries considered in food crisis, around 161 million people are acutely food-insecure (Crisis or worse (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above)). Of these, around 584,000 people in four countries are estimated to be in the Catastrophe phase, the fifth and final phase in the IPC classification system. This is the highest record in the past five years since the start of the publication of the annual report. Once again, conflicts are the main drivers together with climate extremes and variability, and economic downturn, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Famines cause the death and suffering of many people. For instance, in a recent case, at least 250,000 people are estimated to have died due to famine in southern Somalia in 2011. Current global food production is estimated to be more than enough to meet the demand. Yet, we are witnessing famines and famine-like situations resurging recently. This should remind us of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s argument that famines are not the result of food scarcity but rather problems of access or ‘entitlement failure’. This is also in line with recent scholarly works that distinguish between hunger and malnutrition, and famine. The claim being, even if hunger and malnutrition and related situations take a long time and process to tackle, eradicating and preventing famine is a ‘straightforward’ task that is manageable in this modern age.

Reinforcing this, in 2019 an amendment was made to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to include the use of starvation as a war crime in non-international armed conflicts. In 2018, the United Nations Security Council had already adopted UNSC Resolution 2417 which recognizes the link between famines and armed conflicts. The World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 for ‘its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.’ And in March 2021, the UN body tasked with world peace and security, the UN Security Council, held a debate on conflicts and food security. This was followed by the appointment of a High-level Task Force on Preventing Famine by the Secretary-General. All of these initiatives feed into the growing understanding that famine and mass starvation are (1) distinct from overlapping conditions of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, (2) they are created by people and political systems and are thus, preventable, and (3) they are issues of peace and security. With this ‘securitization’, the process or act of transforming an issue into a ‘security’ concern comes challenges and implications.

The ‘F word’ and the Politics of Famine Relief Operations

Famine, once considered a ‘supernatural’ or ‘natural’ phenomenon, has now become a highly sensitive political term. Even with the most advanced early warning systems available, declaring ‘Famine’ has become a highly contested political process. For instance, of the reported 584,000 people currently experiencing famine, about 400,000 people are in Ethiopia, attributed to the armed conflict that started in November last year. However, as the GRFC report notes, the Ethiopian government does not endorse this data. The 2017 famine declared in South Sudan was also preceded by a series of contestations with the government of South Sudan. Declaring famine has benefits for relief operations, for example, in the case of South Sudan, funding and support doubled once famine was declared. On the other hand, even as far back as the 1969 Biafra civil war in Nigeria, armed rebel groups are known for using ‘Famine’ as a political propaganda tool.

With growing attention to famines as subjects of global peace and security, the ‘F word’ brings consequences for national governments, including political pressure as we are currently witnessing in the case of Ethiopia, and the threat of accountability. Declaring ‘Famine’, particularly in armed conflict contexts, thus becomes a site of contestation, from at least three dimensions, i.e., relief agencies/operations, rebel groups, and national governments. Added to these are other global and regional actors that have an interest in the armed conflict.

The implications of heightened ‘securitization’ of famine and famine-like situations go beyond the contestations in declaring ‘Famine’. Even before ‘famine’ is declared or afterwards, relief operations take centre stage in coordinating lifesaving humanitarian interventions. Humanitarian corridors being used by rebels, the use of relief aid by rebels, governments blockading aid and infrastructures, global powers’ use of humanitarian operations as covers, and closely related concerns have long been controversial. Current controversies and tensions between the government of Ethiopia and aid agencies are a relevant example. This includes delayed aid trucks, aid trucks sent to rebel-controlled areas being used by rebels for military purposes, and the expulsion of aid agency senior officials. With the growing ‘securitization’ of famines and famine-like situations, relief operations are more subject to be sites of political contestations.

To sum up, it is clear that achieving Goal 2 of the SDGs through ending global hunger by 2030 requires a massive and radical shift in global food production and consumption. Unfortunately, even being able to achieve that target does not guarantee the elimination of famine, one of the great sources of human death and suffering. What we have learnt over the past decades in general and the past few years in particular is that eliminating famines has more to do with peace and security than with achieving zero hunger. On the positive side, after a period of decline, we are now witnessing increased attention and understanding by both scholars and policymakers towards the distinct nature of famines and their connection with armed conflicts. However, this increased attention and reframing of famines as subjects of ‘peace and security’, which I think can be explained as a ‘securitization’ process, needs to be studied and understood cautiously. As we can learn from other areas, including from recent experiences in the securitization of migration, such a process comes with its challenges and adverse effects.


Fisseha Fantahun Tefera is a doctoral student within the Peace and Development Program of the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. He is currently working within the research project ‘Famines as Mass Atrocities: Reconsidering Violence, Memory and Justice in Relation to Hunger’.


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