From bombs to biodiversity: why we need a conceptual shift in security

By Cebuan Bliss

Photo credits: James Calalang

The Copenhagen School’s concept of securitisation is a response to their dissatisfaction with traditional, narrow definitions of military security which were prevalent during the Cold War. They argue for a broadening of the concept of security and established a new framework for analysis, one which considers issues of increasing prominence, including economic and societal security, and the environment (Buzan et al., 1998). Thus, it is a useful framework with which to comprehend the threat of biodiversity loss to human security.

For Buzan et al., security is ‘a kind of stabilization of conflictual or threatening relations, often through emergency mobilization of the state’ (1998, p4). Securitisation entails moving beyond the normal politicisation of an issue, where ‘speech acts’ are used to frame an issue as an existential threat.  In other words, the issue is urgent, and its magnitude requires extraordinary measures. The key elements to be considered are ‘who securitizes, on what issues (threats) [and] for whom (referent object)’ (Buzan et al., 1998, p32).  

While there were some scholars, even in the late 1980s, arguing that biodiversity loss could be conceptualised as a security threat (Myers, 1989; Tuchman Mathews, 1989), the possibility and necessity of its securitisation has not been analysed. This may be in part because evidence on the extent and consequences of biodiversity loss has only recently come to the fore.

With the second United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal outlined as ‘Zero Hunger’ and dire warnings issued about the current rate of species loss (IPBES, 2019), it is essential that policy-makers comprehend the existential risk that biodiversity loss poses to food, and consequently human, security. Food security as defined by the 1974 World Food Summit is: ‘the availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices’ (UN, 2018a). However, despite the efforts of recent years, the number of undernourished people has increased, after decades of decreasing (UN Security Council, 2018).

Securitisation and the environment

In People, States and Fear, Buzan outlines the need for a broader conception of security (Buzan, 2007). To count as a security issue, threats and vulnerabilities ‘have to be staged as existential threats to a referent object by a securitizing actor’ (Buzan et al., 1998, p5). This actor can endorse emergency measures which may go beyond normal rules of engagement.

Expanding on this, Floyd questions under what circumstances securitisation can be deemed morally right or just. She argues that three criteria need to be fulfilled simultaneously to ensure the securitisation is morally right: 1) there must be an objective existential threat as defined by a powerful actor which defines and responds to them (which endangers the survival of the referent object); 2) the referent object must be morally legitimate, in that it is required for human well-being (normatively assessed as the satisfaction of human needs such as adequate nutrition or a healthy environment); and 3) the security response must be appropriate to the threat in question (2011, 428).

With regards to food security, biodiversity loss, particularly the loss of genetic variety, is significant as low diversity reduces resilience and increases vulnerability to shocks (McGowen et al. 2017). Cramer et al. argue that linking these two and finding synergies between them could ‘generate multiple benefits for social, ecological, and economic development’ (2017, p1257). Securitisation is a method to create that link and alert states to an existential threat, prompting collective action which may be impossible without the opportunity to pursue emergency measures, as sanctioned by extreme security threats.

Biodiversity loss: an existential threat

Ultimately, biodiversity is essential to our life on earth, providing food security, as well as medicines, fuel and sustaining livelihoods (UNEP, 2018). Therefore, it is necessary that biodiversity loss be conceptualised as a security problem. It is a worsening transnational issue which affects all who live on this planet. Consequently, the coordination and cooperation of states is essential to tackle such an urgent, global problem and it could be considered as morally right to do so, according to Floyd’s criteria outlined above.

Photo credit: James Calalang

By using the discourse of securitisation to shift conceptions of what constitutes a security threat, governments (and other important actors, such as the UN Security Council, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and G20 Agriculture Ministers) enhance their authority to implement measures to prevent and reverse biodiversity loss to ensure food security. This would go beyond standard policies, as securitisation allows for extraordinary measures. These measures would likely be counterintuitive to modern, mono-cultural agricultural methods because ‘biodiversity losses…can compromise ecosystem functionality and resilience in agriculture’ (Tscharntke et al., 2012, p55). In other words, humans rely on a very small number of species for food, which lowers our resilience. If any of these is compromised due to disease, conflict or climate change, we expose ourselves to greater risks of food insecurity.

Biodiversity loss has not been accorded the attention it requires. International cooperation and emergency measures are long overdue and required to stem further losses and enhance resilience to food insecurity. Conceptualising this as a security threat is one of the surest ways to achieve this. Buzan et al. explicitly state that ‘the environment has to survive; therefore, this issue should take priority over all others, because if the environment is degraded to the point of no return all other issues will lose their meaning’ (1998, p36).

Securitising in the Anthropocene

At the turn of the millennium, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, extolled ‘respect for nature’ and stated that: ‘new security challenges require us to think creatively, and to adapt our traditional approaches to better meet the needs of our new era. But one time-honoured precept holds more firmly today than ever: it all begins with prevention’ (Annan, 2000, p44).

The sixth mass extinction characterising the Anthropocene and resulting loss of biodiversity diminishes human resilience and increases food insecurity. A problem of this magnitude warrants nothing less than adaptive and preventative measures; it is morally right according to Floyd’s criteria.

Cristiana Paşca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the CBD, states that ‘governments must send a clear message that safeguarding biodiversity and the health of the planetary ecosystems is fundamental to our survival and the social and economic well-being of everybody, everywhere’ (UNEP, 2018). Despite such calls, and the consensus that we are facing a food security crisis, I suggest that biodiversity loss has, for the most part, not been securitised.

Given the urgency of the situation, desecuritisation is not an option. Ultimately, ‘security is about survival’ (Buzan et al.,1998, p21). From an anthropocentric stance, the survival of humanity, indeed, depends on biodiversity. Its loss poses an existential threat and a conceptual shift allowing it to be treated as such would allow actors such as states to pursue measures to mitigate the loss of biodiversity and ensuing food insecurity.

NB: The author supports academic freedom in IR and this blog is not an endorsement of Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan’s interactions with Security Dialogue.


Annan, K. (2000). We the Peoples. Retrieved from:

Buzan, B. (2007). People, States and Fear (2nd Ed.). Colchester, UK: ECPR Press.

Buzan, B., Wæver, O., & Wilde, J. (1998). Security: a new framework for analysis. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Chappell, M. J., & Lavalle, L. A. (2011). Food security and biodiversity: can we have both? An agroecological analysis. Agriculture and Human Values, 28(1), 3-26.

Cramer, W., Egea, E., Fischer, J., Lux, A., Salles, J. M., Settele, J., & Tichit, M. (2017). Biodiversity and food security: from trade-offs to synergies. Regional Environmental Change, 17(5), 1257-1259.

Floyd, R. (2011). Can securitization theory be used in normative analysis? Towards a just securitization theory. Security Dialogue, 42(4-5), 427-439.

Hameiri, S., & Jones, L. (2013). The politics and governance of non-traditional security. International Studies Quarterly, 57(3), 462-473.

IPBES. (2019). IPBES Summary for Policymakers of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

McGowan, P., Mair, L., Symes, A., Westrip, J, Wheatley, H., Brook, S., . . . Butchart, S. (2018). Tracking trends in the extinction risk of wild relatives of domesticated species to assess progress against global biodiversity targets. Conservation Letters, 1-8.

Tscharntke, T., Clough, Y., Wanger, T. C., Jackson, L., Motzke, I., Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. & Whitbread, A. (2012). Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation, 151(1), 53-59.

Tuchman Mathews, J. (1989). Redefining Security. Foreign affairs, 68(2), 162-177.

UNEP. (12 September 2018). More needs to be done to protect biodiversity. Retrieved from:

Wæver, O. (2011). Politics, security, theory. Security Dialogue, 42(4-5), 465-480.

Wæver, O. (1995). Securitization and desecuritization in Lipschutz, R. D. On security. New York: Columbia University Press.

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