Can food build peace or drive conflict?

American University Student
B.A. International Studies


By title alone, it is clear that the course “Conflict Cuisine” at American University is related to the relationship between food and conflict.[1] Less clear, however, is what that relationship actually entails – while food is a necessity for every person in the world, it is not immediately obvious how it is related to a conflict half-a-world away. Why food is so crucial in our understanding of conflict and international relations is that it gives us insight into the immediate, individual impact of international exchange. Following the path of a single food, from production to consumption, helps us understand the systems that govern our world and the conflicts that interrupt those systems. In observing these systems, it becomes clear that food can be a catalyst for conflict, but it can also serve as a medium to build peace. Directly or indirectly, conflict affects our access to food, how it is produced, and the very foods we consume.

Food can be used as a weapon of war; it has been for as long as mankind has been fighting itself.[2] The restriction of access to food is used to control and weaken a population, and while it is considered a war crime, it is a strategy still employed in conflicts today. In Syria, the Assad regime has used starvation as a means to suppress rebel groups and control the population – a crime which has not been largely acknowledged as it is easily lost within the chaos of conflict.[3] Even in conflict zones where food is not used as a weapon, warfare impacts food systems through geographical destruction and damage to human capital through injuries, displacement, and death. In Iraq, for example, the Yazidi people were forced to flee ISIS and their homes in late 2014, retreating to the barren Mount Sinjar, where starvation quickly set in. Escape was difficult, and the entire mountain-side population became reliant on food drops from foreign entities.[4]

But what about regions which are not in the midst of war? There, too, food can be a source of conflict – in Peru, for example, mass exportation of certain crops have sent food prices skyrocketing and have begun to cause unrest with families who can no longer afford to eat.[5] Peru is on the rise as a culinary tourism destination, but the growing popularity of Peruvian food and culture is not without its drawbacks. An increasing international presence in Peru has resulted in the subversion of traditional Peruvian ingredients, like guinea pig and varietals of potatoes, for more standard foods.[6] This loss of culture and even livelihood has left local farmers frustrated and hungry – enough to commit larceny in an attempt to restore some sense of normalcy.[7]

In 1999, Ellen Messer, Marc Cohen, and Thomas Marchione write, “Food wars [h]ad left close to 24 million people in 28 developing countries, transition countries, and territories hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance.”[8] Their definition of food wars encapsulates both the use of “hunger as a weapon in active conflict and the food insecurity that accompanies and follows as a consequence.” The fall of the Selassie regime in Ethiopia came at the heels of a massive famine, and the decades-long civil conflict which ensued was sustained by extensive food insecurity.[9]  It is undeniable that food serves as a catalyst in conflict; millions of people around the world are involved in conflicts which are driven by, or even cause, food insecurity. But food can also be used to overcome such conflict and work towards a more peaceful world, if used effectively.

Food is a form of soft power, the use of which can continue to drive conflict or help resolve it[10]. Providing food aid to a population in a time of conflict, for example, can be used to sway public opinion about various participants in the conflict. Beyond aiding in the survival of a population, strategic food aid initiatives can be used to support one side of a conflict or another – or force a lull in conflict for the purpose of saving lives.[11] Through culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy, food can be used to bring people together, addressing tensions and resolving conflict.[12] From grassroots organizations bringing people together over dinner[13], to state-sanctioned chef diplomats[14], food can be used to build peace and end conflict. As long as food continues to be a basic necessity for human survival, it will be a vital component in both driving conflict and establishing peace.

[1] Mendelson Forman, Johanna, and Sam Chapple-Sokol. “Conflict Cuisine: Teaching War Through Washington’s Ethnic Restaurant Scene.” Public Diplomacy Magazine, March 2, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[2] Grinspan, Jon. “How Coffee Fueled the Civil War.” The New York Times, July 9, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[3] Ciezadlo, Annia. “The War on Bread.” New Republic. February 14, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[4] Masters, Sam. “Iraq Crisis: Starving, Desperate, but Safe from Isis on Mount Sinjar.” The Independent, August 10, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[5] Neuman, William. “Vegetable Spawns Larceny and Luxury in Peru.” The New York Times, December 6, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[6] Garcia, Maria Elena. “A Critical Look at the Peruvian Food Boom.” Culinary Fusion and Colonialism. Fall 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[7] Neuman, William.

[8] Messer, Ellen, Marc Cohen, and Thomas Marchione. “Conflict: A Cause and Effect of Hunger.” ECSP Report, no. 7 (2015): 1-16. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[9] Keller, Edmond J. “Drought, War, And The Politics Of Famine In Ethiopia And Eritrea.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 30, no. 4 (1992): 609-24. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[10] Nye, Joseph S. “Sources of American Soft Power.” In Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New

York: Public Affairs, 2004. Accessed April 1, 2015.

[11] Pasquini, Elena. “How to Distribute Food in Syria’s Logistical Nightmare.” Devex. January 10, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[12] Chapple-Sokol, Sam. “Culinary Diplomacy: Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 2013, 161-83. Accessed April 1, 2015.

[13] Daley, Suzanne. “Filling Stomachs to Open Minds on Immigration.” The New York Times, July 30, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

[14] Sietsema, Tom. “Chefs Are the New Diplomats.” The Washington Post, September 4, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2015. <

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