How Political Power Grows from the Ground

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My primary takeaway from these lessons has been the massive role that political power plays in how food and water systems are managed throughout the globe. The way these systems are managed often correlates to the distribution of political power, especially so in developing nations. Throughout history, it is clear that hunger has been consistently used as a weapon by state entities to gain power. Even though it is often asserted that societies with liberal institutions are less likely to precipitate famines, history has shown this only partially true. An excellent example of this was the British Empire (and its parliamentary state institutions), as asserted by Peter Quinn, who utilized the Irish Potato Famine to attempt to reform Ireland’s economy into one of an increasingly centralized and industrialized variety. The consequences were catastrophic, with over two million deaths resulting due to this misguided intervention.     Food and water systems do not simply play a significant role in domestic policy but regional balances of power as well. And the deadliest possibility for conflict without doubt can be found in the nations of India and Pakistan. These two nuclear armed nations, who have been arch-enemies since their inception, will be on ground zero for climate change’s effects on food and water systems. Such is the case as both of these nations already have water and food systems which exist at the mercy of droughts as their supplies of groundwater are insufficient for the needs of their respective populations. Six of the ten worst droughts of the last century occurred in India which effected roughly 300 million people, a problem which is exacerbated by the fact groundwater constitutes sixty-percent of the water used for irrigation (Potsdam). Out of these, fifteen percent of India’s groundwater sources are overexploited (Potsdam). As we know, climate change is likely to drastically effect monsoon patterns which these already overused groundwater sources rely on to sustain themselves. Especially in contested regions such as Kashmir where civil strife has consistently proven itself both lethal and prolific, it is very likely that prolonged periods of limited rainfall will greatly depress agricultural output which will in turn facilitate greater degrees of violence between Muslim and Hindu populations. As this example shows, management of water and food systems has clear implications on the distribution of regional balances of political power. Another more benign example of role food systems play in international balances of power can be found in America’s agricultural system. Such is the case as massive agricultural production is often encouraged regardless of demand due to the fact the government frequently ships surpluses to other nations in need, such as Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. However, this is not simply charity as the American government recognizes the great influence it gains over nations that depend on its generosity for food. Oftentimes this policy even makes beneficiaries more dependent on American agricultural exports as the low prices will put local farmers out of business. This foreign aid strategy along with politically powerful private energy interests have worked together to create America’s food production system as it exists today. “It is true that high-yield agriculture pumped with fossil fuels have contributed to the obesity epidemic in America (by offering relatively domestically cheap food loaded with sugars) …and fertilizer use and runoff have been decisively proven to have serious environmental consequences” (Little). This is an excellent example of how America’s fossil fuels industry utilizes food systems to gain political power. In summary, food and water systems often dictate how power is distributed even in democracies such as the United States.

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. “Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience.” Open Knowledge Repository, Washington, DC: World Bank, 19 June 2013,

Quinn, Peter. “Hunger Games.” Commonweal Magazine, 5 May 2014,

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