Can Food Build Peace or Drive Conflict?

The strategic use and interpretation of flame to cook is one of the major things that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. From the chosen medium (pot, corn husk, etc.) to the flavor pairings and affinities, humans have utilized culinary engineering to satiate the most basic human need – food. While chopping up fresh broccoli and spinach for his special “green soup”, Chef Mariano of the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School expressed the fact that before formal agriculture and food production, there was culture and interpersonal connections. As humans developed over time and began to see cooking food beyond utility as a tool of communal interaction, cultural diplomacy was born.

Delving deeper into the interconnectivity of food and human interaction necessitates a greater understanding of how the availability and context of food has and continues to influence worldviews. While food may seem like a banal and unlikely key to understanding domestic and international relations, at closer glance we can begin to realize how food has the profound ability to affect beliefs and practices that permeate other segments of society.

In a world where approximately 13 percent of the population suffers from hunger, the rhetoric of global security and peace often falls on deaf ears, or rather, empty stomachs (Simmons 2013). Without the ability to fulfill one of the most basic physiological needs, hungry populations are rendered vulnerable and seek out radical measures for survival – measures that stand in direct contradiction to achieving peace.

Countries like Iran have witnessed firsthand how lack of food and the government’s strategic provision of food can either drive conflict or keep it at bay (Ciedzalo 2011). Plagued with international sanctions and the grumbling stomachs of its citizenry, the Iranian government has often resorted to placating its people with luxurious food spreads and chicken subsidies – a calculated PR move to suppress both hunger and public mistrust of government (Torbati 2011). This “resistance economy” of sustaining food needs through cheap means like egg soup can only last but so long; young Iranians are increasingly blaming their government for the country’s isolation and economic desolation instead of the international community.


According to Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “the government will certainly attempt to recreate the narrative of Iran versus the world, but at the end of the day far more Iranians care about the price of chicken than they do enriched uranium”(Torbati 2011).


The case of Iran is not anomalous – it is part of a larger sociopolitical dilemma that is directly linked to food. In 2008, rapid spikes in global grain prices due to poor crop yields caused the outbreak of civil unrest in over 40 nations (Simmons 2013). Hunger provided a foundation for this violence. Several government buildings were burnt in Burkino Faso; looters infiltrated local markets and grocery stores. Several days later in Cameroon, protesters took to the streets to raise their voice against food prices with machetes and Molotov cocktails in hand. Across the world at approximately the same time in West Bengal, India, angry civilians broke out in protest and burned several hundred food ration stores. The ability of food to foster peace in this volatile landscape seemed nearly impossible (Walt 2008).


Hunger is but one of the many issues that continues to plague the world. It is nestled between other problems such as war, genocide, disease, environmental degradation, and poverty. In trying to solve the social, political, economic, and environmental problems we face while continuing to ignore the underlying cause that generates them, we are in effect treating symptoms without addressing the root of the disease. In using food as an analytical lens, it allows for a refreshing perspective for resolving these issues and promoting a more peaceful and harmonious world (Poon 2014).


However, this dream deferred is gradually being realized by governments and grassroots organizations as a method for mitigating conflict and cultivating peace. An example of this is humanitarian aid. Trapped in the desolate slopes of Mount Sinjar, the Yazidis are cut off from food and other basic supplies in their quest for religious freedom and security in the midst of the Syrian conflict (Jansson and Hosam 2014). In cases like this, the many Ready-to-Eat Meals (MREs) dropped by U.S. military aircrafts represented more than a strategic foreign policy move; they represented a kind humanity affirming gesture – one of peace. The crackers, dried fruit, and chili in these food packages meant the difference between life and death for the Yazidis.

In a more nuanced sense the, U.S. has utilized culinary diplomacy through the State Department’s recent Diplomatic Culinary Partnership initiative – placing emphasis on the ability of food to progress efforts public diplomacy (U.S. Department of State 2012). A logical move, given that several studies have shown that being exposed to a country’s cuisine causes individuals to think more positively about that particular country (Poon 2014). This program and others like it are giving new meaning to “bread democracy” (Ciedzalo 2011).


Whether directly or indirectly, food and conflict are deeply connected; suggesting that food can foster peace without considering that the lack of it can drive conflict is problematic. Accordingly, the convergence of governance, food security, and food culture are critical in understanding the patterns of contemporary international relations (Poon 2014). Surely world peace will be but a figment of the imagination until stomachs across the world cease to grumble.

About the Author:

Kristen Shannon is a graduating senior in the School of International Service at American University, with concentrations in International Development, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Public Policy. Kristen studied abroad in South Africa  during the Spring 2014 semester.She has blogged for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, as well as the International Executive Service Corps.In her free time, Kristen enjoys exploring the various restaurants, poetry venues, and thrift stores in the District. 

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One Comment

  1. Very well written this one statement sums it up for me
    Without the ability to fulfill one of the most basic physiological needs, hungry populations are rendered vulnerable and seek out radical measures for survival – measures that stand in direct contradiction to achieving peace. The earth itself produces enough food to feed people over and over again and yet people starve while others are overweight.