Climate, food, and onset of conflicts: the roots of a complex nexus

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How do food resources affect violent conflicts? A study led by researchers affiliated with the CMCC Foundation and [email protected]’Foscari highlights that the combined effect of climate extremes and crop production concentration, increases the probability of the onset of conflicts by up to 14% in agriculturally dependent countries.

Substantive agreement exists on the role of climate variability and food scarcity in increasing violence, especially in developing countries, which are heavily dependent on agriculture, bear the brunt of climate change impacts and often have a grim legacy of conflict. Yet, a limited number of studies have investigated how food resources affect violent conflict.
In a new study in Journal of Peace Research, a team of researchers from Uppsala University, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, European Commission – Joint Research Centre –JRC, and [email protected]’Foscari – a joint program of Ca’Foscari University of Venice and CMCC Foundation -, explores the complex linkages between climate variability, agricultural production and conflict onset.

The authors hypothesized that spatial differences in crop production within countries were a relevant factor in shaping the impact of climate variability on conflict in agriculturally dependent countries. “The main argument of this study”, explains Paola Vesco, researcher at Uppsala University and a research affiliate at the CMCC ‘Economic analysis of Climate Impacts and Policy’ (ECIP) division, “follows three steps, leading from climate extremes to conflict. First, the negative impacts of climate variability increase the spatial concentration of crop production across locations. Second, the spatial distribution of crop production, which measures how food access and livelihood conditions vary across locations, is a relevant factor to shape the impact of climate on conflict in agriculturally dependent countries. Third, the combined effect of climate extremes and spatial concentration of crop production increases the likelihood of conflict onset.”

To test this hypothesis, the authors assessed the spatial distribution of crops (with an index of crop production, a good measure of populations’ livelihood and access to food. ed.), that is, how concentrated or dispersed crop production is across locations, while examining how the spatial distribution of agricultural resources shapes the effect of climate on conflict over time.
“Our method”, explains Malcolm Mistry, researcher and lecturer at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and a research affiliate at the CMCC Foundation, “enables us to explicitly examine the effect of climate extremes on the spatial distribution of crop production, within countries and over time, and therefore to examine how the spatial distribution of agricultural resources shapes the effect of climate on conflicts over time. Our analysis captures a spatial dimension of vulnerability related to crop production while investigating the effect that geographical patterns of crop production may exert on conflict. We find that the effect of climate is especially detrimental in those countries that are dependent on agriculture and where food production is concentrated in few areas.”

Results in fact show that the negative impacts of climate variability lead to an increase in the spatial concentration of agricultural production within countries. In turn, the combined effect of climate extremes and crop production concentration increases the predicted probability of conflict onset by up to 14% in agriculturally dependent countries.
“Climate shocks to crop production are likely to affect livelihood conditions both directly, through changes in the availability of and access to food, and indirectly, through related changes in agricultural income, food price fluctuations and changes in consumers’ purchasing power” adds Mistry. “Heterogeneously distributed crop failures due to climate shocks will hence lead to unequal impairments in food entitlements and livelihood conditions across locations and communities. For this reason, conflicts tend to occur in areas experiencing increased demand and lower supply of food resources. Resource competition may also result in an increase in migration flows, and climate-induced migrations can steer resource competition in the receiving areas and foster ethno-political tensions between migrants and host communities, increasing the probability of conflict. This happened, for example, during the civil conflict in Darfur: the relative deterioration of resources in some regions compared to the others triggered nomadic movements of affected groups towards resource-abundant regions, fostered reciprocal accusations of overexploiting local resources, and reinforced pre-existing societal and ethnic cleavages, thus contributing to the conflict.”

Overall, the authors also highlight that differences in food access across locations are most likely to aid in mobilizing protests around pre-existing grievances, some unrelated to food access, rather than developing new grievances. Quite the opposite, more efficient institutional systems can mediate the negative consequences of climatic changes and attenuate tensions while assuring a more just management and distribution of resources.
“In this perspective”, Vesco concludes, “the analysis will be extended to test how socio-economic and institutional characteristics may influence the relationship between climate, the spatial distribution of crops and conflict onset.”

Read the integral version of the paper:
Climate variability, crop and conflict: Exploring the impacts of spatial concentration in agricultural production
Vesco P., Kovacic M., Mistry M., Croicu M.
2021, Journal of Peace Research, Vol 58, 1, 98-113, DOI: 10.1177/0022343320971020

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