Food has been a factor in diplomacy since the very inception of the institution of diplomacy and the modern nation-state in the seventeenth century. Throughout history states have competed (and at times fought) for control of and access to food and other natural resources, such as water and energy, because they are essential to human survival and inextricably tied to political and economic development. Food and “food security” have always been important concerns of governments, especially for developing countries that have chronic food problems, such as malnutrition, low agricultural productivity, instability of supply, and food scarcity. Food security is a complicated and increasingly difficult goal to achieve. Although world food output has significantly increased since the end of World War II, poverty, agricultural mismanagement, and population growth in many developing countries undermine prospects for solving the world’s food problems. Indeed food insecurity in developing countries, particularly in Africa, appears to have worsened, highlighting the uneven availability of and access to food and the politicized nature of both food production and distribution and the food aid system.
In general the term food diplomacy refers to the use of a country’s food resources to influence global food markets and to influence international political and economic relations beyond the food market. Using food resources to influence food markets involves goals associated with the functional and structural aspects of the world food economy and the international trade in food, such as increasing the efficiency of food production, meeting minimum levels of food consumption, stabilizing food prices, and managing the disposal and distribution of surpluses. It is this dimension of food diplomacy that deals most explicitly with questions of food security and the policy differences between the major “food exporters” (i.e., the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, and Argentina for wheat and coarse grains; China, Pakistan, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam for rice) and food importers, particularly the poor “food-deficit” countries in the developing world. Using food resources to influence international relationships beyond international food markets involves other foreign policy goals, such as advancing geostrategic interests abroad, increasing economic cooperation or strengthening political relations with another country, and punishing or sanctioning adversaries. This dimension of food diplomacy is much more controversial because it can be at odds with international humanitarian principles and the goal of world food security.
As a practical matter, it is impossible to separate the two dimensions of food diplomacy. There are political and economic consequences of food transfers, as there are for other commodities, such as oil. Even food aid (e.g., the U.S. Food for Peace program) is politicized and is one of the more sensitive points in agricultural trade negotiations between the United States and the European Union in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round. While the number of instances in which food has been employed as a political instrument of a country’s foreign policy is relatively small, there have been some prominent cases. During the cold war, for example, the United States cancelled 17 million tons of grain sales to the Soviet Union as a form of punishment for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and temporarily halted food shipments to Bangladesh because it had traded jute with Cuba. Food has been a key element of efforts by the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Barrett, Christopher B., and Daniel G. Maxwell. 2006. Towards a Global Food Aid Compact. Food Policy 31 (2): 105–118.
Nau, Henry R. 1978. The Diplomacy of World Food: Goals, Capabilities, Issues, and Arenas. International Organization 32 (3): 775–809.
Van Wyk, Jo-Ansie. 2001. Food for Thought? The Politics of Food, Resources, and Development in Africa. New Zealand International Review 26 (2): 14.
James P. Muldoon Jr.