Deciphering the Links Between Food Crises and Migration

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With news of the war in Ukraine inducing panic about the future of global food security, especially in the global South, some have been asking, what lessons might we take from the 2008 crisis and apply to the current moment? In considering the validity and urgency of this question, however, we must prioritize integrated policy frameworks that account for the complex, interconnected challenges linking food insecurity to climate change and migration.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization recently announced that prices for major commodity foods were at their highest levels ever, owing primarily to food shortages from the ongoing war in Ukraine. Shortly before this announcement, representatives from the UN’s World Food Programme had warned that prices for global food commodities were approximating those spikes last observed during the 2008 global food crisis. In a matter of days, economists and other experts monitoring market trends watched in disbelief as prices of grains, cooking oils, and meats significantly surpassed previous records.

At the time of the last global food crisis, I was researching food insecurity as it compounded with economic precarity in the lives of low-income and immigrant households in the United States. My study site was in southern California, in a region that had historically depended on seasonal labor migration from Mexico to support various industries, including agriculture. However, the post-9/11 environment had brought about a much more militarized approach to border surveillance, thereby severely inhibiting the mobility of transnational households and communities. No longer able to migrate home during the off-season when labor market demands were low, many households were experiencing more regular and prolonged encounters with food insecurity.

As I’ve found through my own ethnographic research over the past two decades in contexts ranging from the US-Mexico borderlands to the central Mediterranean, food insecurity often factors prominently in peoples’ decisions to migrate. Food insecurity also profoundly constrains the experiences of people in transit and during the process of resettlement to the detriment of their physical, emotional, and mental health as well as to their social and economic integration. While my own assessments of what we might expect to happen in the near-term are informed primarily by research that has been done in the global North (e.g., the US and Europe), there are still many parallels with those displaced and migrating within the global South.

Effects for migrant populations 

Changing food habits. Higher food costs put more strain on individuals and households already struggling with limited financial resources. During the 2008 recession for instance, my research participants told me they were doubling down on their search for bargains, redeeming coupons, and traveling farther in search of lower prices. But these strategies were less attainable for those with limited time, and many skipped meals, reported eating less, or ate whatever was cheapest.

Increased pressure on caregivers and those who oversee foodwork. Those charged with the responsibility to manage food resources within households and families endure myriad social and economic stressors and may even experience violence when resources are scarce or in decline. As the act of feeding is often circumscribed as “women’s work”, the effects of food insecurity are highly gendered.

Increased reliance on food aid. While some households might in theory be eligible for government-sponsored assistance, individuals with precarious legal status and mixed-status households often avoid such programs out of fear about contact with authorities – and the real possibility of apprehension, detention, and deportation. In contrast, charitable food assistance programs (i.e., food banks and pantries) are perceived as less threatening, and play a central role alongside home and community gardens, in sustaining the nutritional status of migrant households. Yet access to private assistance often becomes more difficult when demand is high across demographics, as observed during the pandemic. 

Implications for migration

Dispossession and displacement from land-based livelihoods. As the price of agricultural inputs increases, local markets become too competitive, and political environments too threatening – as is the case in Nicaragua and much of Central America, for instance – some may opt to sell their family’s landholdings in order to pay human smugglers who will help them to migrate. They are also motivated in part by climatic conditions that are compromising the viability of agrarian livelihoods, such as in Somalia where a historic drought has displaced more than 500,000 people this year alone; dangerous levels of food insecurity are also threatening the lives of tens of millions in the broader eastern Africa region.

More women and children. In their assigned role in overseeing food procurement and preparation, women are often the first ones to feel the shock of food crises. As these crises become more chronic, women may see no other option than to migrate, or families may decide to send away children, or youth of a working age in the hopes they will send back remittances.

Moving ahead with policy

I do think that broadening our analytical scope to look back and examine trends from recent decades could prove helpful in informing how we approach the present dilemma of escalating food prices and the uneven effects of such an escalation. However, I also think it’s important to look to both proximate and chronic trends – some of which we hope will dissipate in the coming months, others that are certain to intensify over the coming decades – in attempting to understand the problem.

While all of us are likely to be affected by rising food prices, it is indisputable that migrant populations, in addition to those already relegated to the economic margins, will endure the greatest consequences. Food justice activists and others calling attention to the gross disparities that characterize the unevenness of nutritional possibilities across and within human populations today, remind us that “food apartheid” is increasingly a matter of concern as we consider the life chances of migrants.

It is also very likely that as the current situation worsens and compounds with disruptions to food systems brought about by the pandemic and climate change, we will witness increased displacement and migration by those – in addition to the millions of Ukrainians already or soon to be displaced by war  – seeking to alleviate themselves and their loved ones of hunger and food insecurity. Nonetheless, the fact remains that food insecurity is not considered a legitimate basis for seeking asylum.

The complexity of current trends demands that we curtail the business-as-usual approach whereby private interests and other privileged actors wield disproportionate power. Not only is such an approach inherently unbalanced, but it also leads to practices of compartmentalization that inhibit our ability to respond with comprehensive solutions. Instead, we need more integrated policy frameworks that are able to tackle multiple dimensions at once, such as the overlapping realities of food insecurity, climate change, and migration, while also attending to the immediacy of war and other global conflicts.

*MPC is hosting a special round table conversation on May 4th on the “food-climate-migration nexus.” Register here.   

Megan A. Carney, Ph.D., is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist specializing in migration, food studies, and the politics of care. She is a Fulbright Schuman Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre as well as Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. Twitter @megan_a_carney.