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Ertharin Cousin talks food insecurity, conflict and climate change


After a year as the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), food security trailblazer Ertharin Cousin gave one last talk in Paul Brest Hall on Monday. Cousin focused on what she sees as the most pertinent food security issues of the twenty-first century: climate change and violent conflict.

Cousin, who is cross-appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, served as the executive director role of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in 2012 under President Barack Obama. Since then, she said she has enjoyed some time to reflect.

“After five years of [serving with the UN], having a year to actually think about the challenges as well as to begin to have the capacity to articulate more of the solutions that are necessary, some of which I’m going to share with you this afternoon, has been a blessing,” Cousin said.

The event was moderated by Center on Food Security and the Environment deputy director David Lobell, who introduced Cousin as an “inspiration,” noting the fact that she holds the unofficial title of “the woman who feeds the world” and helped to feed over 80 million people each year in over 75 countries.

“Food insecurity is the situation in which people lack access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development, and to maintain an active and healthy life,” Cousin said.

According to Cousin, 80 percent of people facing food insecurity lived in climate-marginalized communities (areas suffering floods, hurricanes and tornadoes and other dangerous natural disasters) when she took office at the WFP in 2012. And in 2017, 80 percent of food insecure people were facing conflict. Both issues, she lamented, are significant problems to solve.

“[People facing climate issues] are still there,” she said. “Many of them are now caught in conflicts, but all of them remain impacted by the changes in climate.”

Cousin said research suggests there are increased chances of conflict in areas where divisions already exist between groups of the population and where the population lacks sufficient methods of coping with environmental stressors. The likelihood of violence at the local level rises in agriculturally dependent communities given low incomes, droughts and food insecurity.

Throughout her presentation, Cousin specifically emphasized four factors indicating conflicts as a contributing factor to food insecurity and vice versa.

First, she explained that 56 percent of populations affected by conflict shocks live in rural areas.

According to Cousin, droughts exacerbated by climate change can reduce available land and cause agricultural encroachment on key productive grazing lands for pastoralism and livestock, further inspiring conflict. As productive land shrinks, more conflict occurs between herders and farmers. Violent clashes in previous years over drought can further contribute to food insecurity, creating a dangerous cycle.

“This year, those clashes are set to begin again, but this year there’s something different,” Cousin said. “Another worrying factor, [terrorism], should concern not just those in the country and the region but the entire global community.”

Cousin argued that the failure of governments across the Sahel to provide the necessary funds for food insecure populations in more remote areas allowed violent extremist organizations to expand their resources and outreach across the region. She added that she sees more and more stories of families receiving temporary food security from such organizations in return for their sons’ service.

Second, Cousin noted that conflict affects the economy, including public finances, trade and production in involved countries, which motivates food insecurity and further terrorism efforts when governments delegate inadequate resources toward feeding their populations.

Cousin used the Sahel, the northernmost region of sub-Saharan Africa, as a case study for her analysis.

“The potential for increased unrest and instability across this region multiplies as the hunger grows and agitation expands,” Cousin said. “The long and growing presence of these groups in the region suggests military action alone will not overcome their growing resilience. Addressing the growing food security needs of the affected population is a weapon. It should be one of the primary weapons the international community deploys alongside any military response in these marginalized communities.”

Due to increased communication capabilities of modern citizens, especially teens and young adults, Cousin said individuals concerned with drought-induced food insecurity and other issues can more easily mobilize to stage organized riots.

“The challenge the Sahel faces today is not the problem of one country or even of the region,” Cousin said. “So tackling these drivers of militancy will ultimately require building the resilience of the community, particularly as the threats of climate change continue to impact their lives and livelihoods.”

Third, Cousin highlighted displacement of citizens as a conflict-induced motivator of food insecurity. Essentially, mass movement of citizens in and out of a country hinders food production. She said that, given recent concerns over refugees, policymakers should take interest in the fact that research shows a one percent increase in food insecurity corresponds with a two percent increase in displacement.

Finally, Cousin lamented that long-term conflicts can leave humanitarian actors unable to meet affected civilians’ food security needs due to disproportionate global interest in recently initiated conflicts. 

“The media doesn’t get bored when it’s a quick emergency,” Cousin said. “What you find with a [longer] conflict like Syria, or northeast Nigeria or Yemen, is that you may get coverage for a day or two, and then it’s as if the conflict ends.”

Cousin added that, unfortunately, many of the 19 UN-recognized nations embroiled in conflict-induced food insecurity today, which include 489 million of the world’s 815 million food insecure people, suffer from prolonged conflicts.

“Few recently conflict-affected countries today are truly ever post-conflict, creating protracted food security situations generated by these no less protracted conflicts,” Cousin said. “When the conflict is short, when the impact occurs to a visible identifiable population, the media will pay attention. Donors pay attention. Humanitarian actors [pay attention].”

Cousin listed presence, access, funding, operational capacity and protection as factors integral to successful humanitarian aid in food insecure regions. Of these factors, she indicated legal and “de facto” protection for humanitarian actors as particularly important.

“The hardest calls I have ever had to make were calling family to tell them a family member who worked for WFP who was fighting to save lives had lost their own life during conflict,” Cousin said. “But those were calls that were required to make.”

Still, Cousin said she remains hopeful for the future. She admitted that she does not see food security as a possibility without peace on Earth, but until then she said everyone should make every effort to mitigate the issue. To this point, Cousin recited a quote from John Boyd Orr, the first Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

“We must conquer hunger and want because hunger and want in the midst of plenty are the fatal flaw of civilization,” Cousin read. “They are the fundamental cause of war.”


Contact Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’

Holden Foreman '21 is The Daily's Executive Editor. He hails from the city of St. Louis, Missouri and is studying electrical engineering, computer science and economics. Contact him at hs4man21 'at'