Food Security Issues in Somalia

By: Kyle J. Shimek



This knol analyses the food security issues faced by Somalia, currently facing a massive humanitarian crisis around the ongoing drought and famine in the Eastern horn of Africa.

      Food security is an increasingly complex topic in international political economy, and it plays a critical role in understanding political and economic instability in the world. Researchers Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael developed the concept of food regimes to describe the politicisation of food and agriculture in national and international relations.1 In 2001, Peter Atkins and Ian Bowler described three food regimes – the first begins in the mid-nineteenth century and lasts until World War II, the second lasts from the 1940s to the 1970s and the third lasts from the 1980s to the present.2 The concept of food sovereignty was developed in the mid 1990s and is defined by the international movement Via Campesina as “the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity.”3 Food sovereignty thus refers to food security as a basic right of peoples and their nation which should not be confined or governed by market forces and commodity speculation.

      The eastern Horn of Africa has experienced some of the most volatile and destabilising forces relating to food security. This is especially true for the nation of Somalia, which has been plagued by civil war, guerrilla movements, terrorism and piracy. Currently, Somalia is experiencing a major drought which has caused a severe famine described as “catastrophe level” by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.4 On 20 July 2011, the UN officially declared a famine in Southern Somalia.5 Somalia also experienced a famine in 1984-85 and in 1991-92. The UN estimates that the current famine has put 750,000 people at risk of death.6 A 2003 case study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation described the key food security issues facing Somalia as: the lack of a central government since 1991, ongoing conflict, the high degree of inter-clan diversity relating to agro-ecological and socio-cultural matters, the key role of remittances in the local economy, the dilapidation of farmland property, and the external aid network.7

      A major factor in the recent famines in Somalia is drought, which has been endemic to the region in recent history. Somalia is currently undergoing a major drought which has killed large amounts of livestock, which accounts for 40% of Somalia’s GDP according to the CIA World Factbook.8 The current drought has been caused by an especially strong La Niña and has been exacerbated by global warming.9 The tragedy of the situation is that global warming has severely affected Africa despite the fact that global warming’s cause is in the developed world; Africa has contributed almost nothing to global warming. Drought alone, though, does not cause famine. Currently, as TIME columnist Alex Perry points out, the US state of Texas is experiencing what is potentially its worst drought in its history, yet there is no famine in Texas. This is why Alex Perry describes the Somalia famine as a “mad-made disaster,” pointing to three reasons: the UN was late in declaring the famine, aid agencies are not reaching many of the starving and terrorist group Al-Shabaab is diverting food aid.10 Furthermore, Somalia lacks fertile land, and its most fertile lands are in volatile regions near the capital Mogadishu11 which are plagued by ongoing civil conflict with Al-Shabaab. Terrorism and conflict aggravate the situation by causing instability, ongoing fighting, a failed national government and by using food aid as an instrument of war.

      A comprehensive study on food security in Africa by Joanna Macrae and Anthony Zwi published in 1992, described three types of “attacks on food”: omission, commission and provision.12 Omission is explained as instances where a nation’s government fails to facilitate aid operations, interferes in some way or fails to manage its food resources. Commission is defined as attacks on the production or procurement of food. For example, during the Sudanese Civil War, a large amount of livestock in southern Sudan were killed by northern militia forces. Provision describes a situation in which food is selectively given to only certain members of the population, such as specific ethnic or religious groups, supporters of an insurgency group or of the government, or to lure populations to areas controlled by rebel forces. In Somalia, these attacks on food have created circumstances which cause forced migration of people, exacerbating instability in the Horn of Africa. Macrae and Zwi, citing DeWaal, posit that “food aid is less important than peace in relieving famine.”13

      Fishing previously played a vital role in Somalia’s economy, however, due to overfishing and illegal dumping of toxic waste into the Gulf of Aiden and other nearby waters, fish stocks have become severely depleted. This has lead to many people whose livelihoods previously relied on fishing, to resort to piracy. In fact, much of the current piracy off the coast of Somalia has been contributed to the depletion of fish stocks.14

      Globalised market forces also play a role in food security in Somalia. In 2007-08, food prices experienced a major increase. Food prices went down during the peak of the Global Financial Crisis, but subsequently have begun rising again beginning in 2010. In Somalia, cereal prices increased by between 100% and 160% in 2007 and between 130% and 190% in 2008. Rice prices surged during this period.15 In July 2008, the price of rice in some parts of the country was as much as seven times higher than the price in January 2007.16 After the worldwide peak in food prices in 2008, there was a general decrease in most of the world, however, Somalia did not experience the same decrease in prices as other countries. In Somalia, sorghum prices increased by 72 and imported rice by 32 percent from March 2008 to March 2009. 17 Many factors have been blamed for the food price crisis, including the growing world population, oil prices, factors effecting production (such as weather conditions and Global Warming), demand for more energy-intensive foods, structural changes in agriculture production and the “food-vs-fuel” debate surrounding increased usage of biofuels.18 Additionally, financial speculation on commodity futures has been criticised for causing food prices to skyrocket, for the profit of the financial industry. Frederick Kaufman discusses how the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index created a speculative bubble on food commodity futures which created a massive spike in food prices.19 20

      The future does not look much brighter for Somalia, either. According to the United Nations University’s Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, “if current trends of soil degradation and population growth continue, the continent might only be able to feed 25 percent of its population by 2025.”21 Given these trends, continuing conflict in the country and increasingly rising food prices, it is unlikely that Somalia will be able to sustain its population on any widespread scale in the near future without heavy reliance on external food aid.  


  1. Atkins, Peter and Bowler, Ian 2001, Food in Society: Economy, Culture, Geography, published by: Arnold, London
  2. Ibid.
  3. Patel, Raj 2009, “Food Sovereignty”, Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 36 Issue 3, 30 Oct 2009, pgs 663-706
  4. “Famine in Southern Somalia: Evidence for an Updated Declaration”, 2011, Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNet), 2 Sep 2011, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  5. “UN Declares Famine in Two Regions of Southern Somalia”, 2011, UN News Centre, 20 July 2011, accessed 11 Sept 2011, <;
  6. “Somalia Famine: UN Warns of 750,000 Deaths”, 2011, BBC News, 5 Sep 2011, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  7. Hemrich, Günter 2003, “Matching Food Security Analysis to Context: the experience of the Somalia Food Security Assessment Unit”, Food and Agriculture Orgnisation (FAO), accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  8. “Somalia”, The CIA World Factbook, updated 16 Aug 2011, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  9. “Somalia: Persistent Humanitarian Crisis”, 2011, Africa Research Bulletin: Economic, Financial and Technical Series, Vol. 48 Issue 2 April 2011, pgs 19014B – 19014C
  10. Perry, Alex 2011, “Somalia: A Very Man-Made Disaster”, CNN Global Public Square, 18 Aug 2011, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  11. “Worsening food security reported in southern Somalia after poor harvest”, 2007, BBC Monitoring Africa, 16 Aug 2007
  12. Macrae, Joanna and Zwi, Anthony 1992, “Food as an Instrument of War in Contemporary African famines: A Review of the Evidence”, Disasters, Vol. 16 No. 4, published by Overseas Development Institute and Blackwell Publishers
  13. Ibid.
  14. Biegon, Rubrick 2009, “Somali Piracy and the International Response”, Foreign Policy in Focus, edited by: Saif Rahman, 29 Jan 2009, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  15. Holleman, Cindy and Moloney, Grainne 2009, “Somalia’s Growing Urban Food Security Crisis”, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 42 March 2009, published by the Humanitarian Practice Network, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  16. Ibid.
  17. “USAID Response to Global Food Crisis”, 2009, USAID, 22 May 2009, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  18. Ibid.
  19. Kaufman, Frederick 2010, “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It”, Harper’s Magazine, July 2010
  20. Kaufman, Frederick 2011, “How Goldman Sachs Created the Food Crisis”, Foreign Policy Magazine, 27 April 2011, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;
  21. Webersik, Christian 2008, “Call for Action on African Food Security”, United Nations University, 22 July 2008, accessed 11 Sep 2011, <;