Food is a geopolitical matter and Africa has the future

Julia Rijssenbeek is researcher of Freedomlab Thinktank and focuses on the future of food. In this article in the Dutch newspaper NRC, she explains why food has become a pressing geopolitical matter. Below you find the English translation:

When you hear the word geopolitics, you may think of the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S., the grand technology strategy Europe doesn’t have (yet), and of the Chinese 5G infrastructure we’re allowing in the interim. We like to talk about groundbreaking technological advancements and how they’re shaping the world of tomorrow. But there’s another dimension that’s increasingly marking the game of geopolitics. A more fundamental and earthly layer of our existence: how do we cultivate our land, where do we get the resources to feed ourselves and what relationships do we form with other countries to get our food? Sometimes it can be helpful to have a look at the roots of our existence in order to understand where our future lies. One message recurred in all the conversations I had with food organizations of the United Nations in Rome last March: we must think geopolitically again.

In the past decades, food was less of a pressing geopolitical matter. The so-called Green Revolution that took place in agriculture from the sixties on, mostly in Asia, saved many people from hunger. An enormous improvement. Long gone are the days when we spent more than half of our income on food, as in the fifties. However, several recent developments have put food as a geopolitical theme back on the agenda.

Hunger, protectionism, conflicts
First, world hunger is increasing again. Our relationship with the planet is strained, now that we’re asking too much of her. And relationships between countries are deteriorating due to protectionism and the trade war between the U.S. and China. Countries suffering because of that are trying to govern their natural resources more carefully again. Hunger is leading to more conflict again. States that are unable to provide their population with food are at risk of having protests and political instability on their hands. The Arab Spring and the unrest that contributed to the war in Syria exemplify this. And even though climate change plays an important part, food scarcity is often the result of political decision-making. Even more poignant is the situation in Yemen, where hunger serves as a weapon of war. Especially in the Middle East and in Africa, food scarcity has been a catalyst for migration in the past years.

The new scramble for Africa
Africa is becoming the target of this new geopolitical reality of food. We now often think of the continent in terms of aid, but we’re the ones who urgently need Africa. Of course, developed countries want to conquer the fast-growing markets of the continent – it is projected that by 2025, Africa will be importing 110 billion dollars’ worth of food to feed its own population. But aside from that, there is great agricultural potential in the fertile continent. While in Western countries, we are unable to increase production much more, 60 percent of the world’s unused farmland is in Africa.

Superpowers China and the U.S. are acutely aware of this. The arrival of China in the continent intensifies the new ‘scramble for Africa’. The question that matters now is: who can eat Africa the quickest? The West has a long tradition of taking resources from the continent while simultaneously disposing of butter mountains and milk lakes on the local markets. Meanwhile we’re criticizing China, which, as a new superpower, is buying land in countless African countries to safeguard its own food supply. Africa seems unable to profit from this battle for food.

Chinese food giants
A second shift: for decades, American food companies controlled the world, but China seems to be on the rise as a food power. The country has been investing in agriculture in a hundred countries under the ‘Go Out’ food strategy of Xi Jinping. This is not merely a way to safeguard its own food supply. China has created food giants this way to defy the dominance of American ‘Big Food’ in the world’s markets. The geopolitical battle over food appears, like the battle over technology, to be fought between the two superpowers.

Showing strength in the face of China and the U.S.
But alternatives are on the horizon. African leaders recently signed a new treaty that could lead to the greatest free trade zone in the world: the African Continental Free Trade Area. This new deal also aims to increase food security and could make the continent less dependent on food imports because of flourishing trade between countries. If, in addition to this, African countries also develop their own food strategies, something Rwanda successfully done already, they will be able to become more self-reliant.

Aside from that, smaller powers, who are now at the mercy of the battle between China and the U.S., and for which protectionism is not an option because they are dependent on other countries – will be able to position themselves as allies of the African continent. Not on the basis of old-fashioned developmental aid, but on the basis of reciprocity. This holds opportunities for the Netherlands, which, as a food nation, is good at building partnerships abroad. The Dutch Diamond Approach, in which governments, business and knowledge institutions cooperate, is known for this.

The Netherlands will not be able to maintain the export relationship it now has with the world in the future – simply because exporting large volumes isn’t sustainable. The small country could, however, make more strategic use of its expertise on food and water and make the Netherlands a leader, such as in circular agriculture. Now, food policy is conducted separately by the Ministries of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs. But by thinking in terms of geopolitics, they could formulate a Dutch food strategy together. That way, the Netherlands would be able to remain a food nation as well as contribute the world’s food problems.