The Geopolitics of Food

The Geopolitics of Food

The global food system today is at risk.

Jacob Shapiro
Jacob Shapiro


  • The global agricultural system as it exists today is a manifestation of 100 years of geopolitical competition.
  • The world produces enough food to feed everyone, but hunger is rising, people are getting fatter, and we waste 40% of the food we produce.
  • The future of the world will be determined by changes happening in global fertilizer markets and grain markets.

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The Importance of Food

Food is the essence of geopolitics. There is no more basic human need than securing access to food and water, and, as a result, there is no more important geopolitical imperative for national governments than to ensure their people do not starve. A government that fails to provide food security will not stand long.

This idea is more deeply embedded in your consciousness than you probably realize. Let’s get biblical for a second. Yeah, I said biblical - where else do you get content on the geopolitics of the Bible other than at Lykeion?

In Genesis 41, Joseph is twiddling his thumbs in a jail cell until he is summoned by Pharoah to interpret a vexing dream. Joseph explains to Pharoah that the dream means Egypt will experience 7 years of plenty – followed by 7 years of famine. Pharoah listens – and appoints Joseph to oversee an export ban on Egyptian grain so that 1/5th of the food gathered during the 7 years of plenty is saved for the 7 years of famine. Joseph ends up being right – and manages Egypt’s agricultural sector so well that the Israelite population of Egypt explodes. Eventually, a new Pharoah rises over Egypt and becomes afraid of the Israelite numbers and decides to enslave them and drown their first-born boys. Ok, we won’t digress much more…

There are two extremely important insights to glean from the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolor wheat tariffs:

  • The first is that for most of human civilization, access to food was not assured. Even after the Neolithic Revolution (when agriculture became a thing) and the emergence of large-scale human societies in the crescent of civilization of the Middle East – based largely around rivers as they are more predictable than rain – leaders lost sleep at night over what they would do if a famine occurred.
  • We are all used to going to the grocery store and getting non-GMO organic free-range elk meat whenever we fancy it. Most humans that have ever lived have not enjoyed the predictable and stable access to food we treat as commonplace in the Western world.
  • The second is that when agricultural yields increase, so does population. That can mean all sorts of good things – economic growth, artistic expression, technological innovation – but it can also mean more conflict. Human brains have been conditioned for millennia to worry about scarcity – so that even when we are rich in resources, we tend to compete for them anyway.
  • Remember all that dumb toilet paper hoarding when the pandemic lockdowns first started? The same impulse is behind the depressing fact that the world produces more than enough food to feed almost 1.5 times the global population – and yet global hunger has been on the rise for years.