Q&A: Emmy Simmons, author of 'Recurring Storms' report, on food insecurity and political instability

Emmy Simmons, author of “Recurring Storms: Food Insecurity, Political Instability and Conflict. Photo by: Environmental Change and Security Program / CC BY-NC-ND

In a new report, “Recurring Storms: Food Insecurity, Political Instability, and Conflict,” Emmy Simmons, senior adviser on global food security project at Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted recent trends in food insecurity and its connection to political instability.

She recommended the establishment of an annual high-level summit to review progress on the global food crisis and called for more collaboration between stakeholders. In this way the international development community can take actions to reduce the political, social and economic shocks caused by events associated with food insecurity.

Devex talked with Simmons to learn more about her research and recommendations for the global development community. Here are highlights from the interview, edited for length and clarity.

How does food insecurity lead to political instability and vice versa?

4 takeaways from 'Recurring Storms: Food Insecurity, Political Instability and Conflict'

A new report, "Recurring Storms: Food Insecurity, Political Instability, and Conflict," looks at the different levers that push societies into a state of crisis by highlighting food insecurity and its connection to political instability. Here are four key expert takeaways from the report's launch in Washington, D.C.

In 2008 — which is what I referred to as the perfect storm — in many countries the price of staple products went up by over 80 percent, just very quickly because there was a big shock in the global market. In many countries, people who are already spending 50 to 60 percent of their income on food went into the market and said: “This can’t be. If the prices are 100 percent higher, I’m going to starve.” In many countries, especially in the capital cities, people — youths in many cases — took to the street to protest against the high prices. In many countries, government took steps to address the issue. They took off import tariffs, prevented food from being exported to ensure extra supplies, imported food on global markets and gave it away through humanitarian programs. But a couple of governments actually failed in 2011 when there was another price spike. In Mozambique, security forces killed eight people during the riots in the streets. So this food insecurity is about the availability and the predictability as much as the actual access that cause people to erupt.

Looking back at the “Harvesting Peace” report and now the “Recurring Storm” report, what would you say has been the most surprising elements in your findings?

The most surprising element has been that we in the international community — particularly in the development and humanitarian communities — think that if we really do a good job and we develop markets for these smallholders then we can improve their food security. But my understanding from the findings is that food security is never achieved because there are so many factors that lead to food security and food insecurity. These factors are changing and evolving all time. And I cited many of them: climate change, demographic change, political change, the actual outbreak of conflict. All of those things are happening all the time. So food security is a moving goal and it needs to be responded to as an emerging issue and needs to have creative ways of dealing with it.

Based on those findings, what would be your recommended best practice for the development community in addressing the issue?

I underscore the lessons of L’Aquila, where high-level political leadership met and discussed it every year. They committed $22 billion for three years; actually, that is not a big amount of money. Nigeria imports more food than that every year and the agricultural, infrastructural and food system investments are way more than that. But it is a fact that agricultural development assistance had been declining since the 1980s. So the perfect storm of 2008 really caused leaders to step back and take action. Just changing the direction of international investments in agriculture was a huge step. So that is an important one that leads to my recommendation to have a summit that involves high-level leaders because if they are aware and they are communicating that priority to their people then there would be a likelihood of more commitments, more action, and more financing. The second recommendation is about taking longer term strategic view and actually making a plan to avoid conflicting actions when addressing the issue.

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About the author

  • Ehidiamen jennifer

    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.