Throughout time, access to food has been important to ensuring the satisfaction of a population: Think of the inflated bread and salt prices that played a huge role in fomenting the French Revolution, or New York City’s flour riot of 1837, when outlandish flour prices led hungry workers to plunder private storerooms filled with sacks of hoarded grain. Food riots and urban unrest are well-documented consequences of food insecurity, but a recent study decided to look more specifically at terrorism as a possible result of an inadequate food supply—and the results are surprising.
Published over the summer in Applied Economics Perspective and Policy (AEPP), the study, titled “Food Insecurity and Terrorism,” analyzed data from 130 countries between 2000 and 2014 to see if food insecurity could lead specifically to terrorism in the affected countries. That’s the conclusion at which you might expect such a study to arrive, but its authors, led by Michigan State University professor Adesoji Adelaja, found something different and more nuanced: that countries with greater food abundance are actually more likely—not less—to experience terrorism at home.
As Adelaja explained, he and his coauthors were motivated to examine the issue in part because the US government spends a large amount of money each year investing in food security in other nations, based on the theory that global peace means a decrease in transnational terrorism and, thus, increased safety for Americans. Governmental organizations like USAID combat hunger, poverty, and malnutrition in vulnerable countries around the world, most likely not out of the goodness of the US government’s heart, but out of a motivation to, by proxy, protect its own citizens.
“The major global security threat today is terrorism; that’s what Americans tend to worry about,” Adelaja told MUNCHIES. “There’s concern that unrest in other countries will spill over into transnational incidents. If the reason why we’re investing abroad is to ensure that their terrorism doesn’t reach us, it seemed worthwhile to see if those investments are actually paying off.”
In their paper, Adelaja and his team make a distinction between food availability—basically, the amount of food a country raises and imports—and food access, or the portion of that available food that the average citizen actually gets. Even in countries where food availability is sufficient, food access can be poor, for a variety of reasons: inadequate systems for transporting and distributing food, for example, or market prices that are too high for anyone but richer citizens to afford. In those circumstances, the authors found, a terrorist group can actually exploit the situation, blaming the government for widespread hunger and attracting desperate people to its base.
“While greater food availability would seem to reduce the likelihood of terrorism, it could also aid terrorists by enhancing their resource base for recruiting and maintaining operatives,” they write in the report.
Adelaja used the example of Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based organization that made headlines in 2014 when the group kidnapped 276 schoolgirls with the stated intention of selling them into slavery. One of tactics the organization employs, Adelaja explained, is the violent takeover of fertile farming areas; once they gain control, they use the farms to continue to grow food that they then offer to potential adherents. Other terrorist groups use similar strategies, taking advantage of a country’s available food and water resources and distributing them in order to advance their own agendas.
“Terror groups such as Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attempt to run parallel states by amassing food and other resources, creating a pool of sympathizers and recruiting children and young people,” the report’s authors write. “To gain public support, these groups have used tactics such as the distribution of food in drought-affected areas, rebranding of food aid to falsely claim credit and creation of anti-state rhetoric in food and water-scarce environments.”
Once a new recruit is under the thrall of a terrorist organization, Adelaja said, the groups make it very, very difficult for the person to leave, thereby expanding both the reach and the influence of the group.
“Once you’re in, you’re brainwashed, and it’s hard to get out,” he said. They basically control you, and if you resist, they kill you.”
While greater food availability—which can be exploited by violent groups—is correlated with an increase in terrorism, the study’s authors found that by contrast, greater food access is linked to lower incidences of terrorism. The thinking that a well-fed population is a happy population—an idea funded by governments and NGOs all over the world—is supported by the data that Adelaja and his coauthors analyzed. If countries and organizations are going to continue investing in food security, Adelaja said, they should focus on facilitating greater access, not just availability.
“They should be putting a lot of money into access-related policies, he said. “A number of them have already instituted social protection programs; unfortunately, many countries just can’t afford a welfare program.”
“The theory is, ‘If we don’t take care of the people, they won’t take care of us,’” he continued. “The people in those countries, it’s in their best interest to provide access to low income people. If they don’t do that, that breeds terrorism in their country.”
Adelaja noted another finding of the study: that while food insecurity can breed local terrorism, that area-specific unrest does not tend to expand into transnational events, as many Americans seem to fear. And so while the US might not have a national security incentive to continue funding food programs abroad, there’s certainly a humanitarian obligation to help global citizens access an adequate amount of food.
“It’s definitely in our best interest to have global stability even if we’re not directly affected here at home,” he said.