Dealing with Global Food Crisis

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Asad Tahir Jappa

In the final analysis, collaborative global action is needed by the developed countries to address this crisis of alarming proportions

The world today faces a global food crisis of colossal proportions which is fast sliding from bad to worse. In just about two years, the number of people facing acute food insecurity has increased from 135 million in 53 countries pre-pandemic to 345 million in 82 countries. Compounded by conflict, climate shocks, and COVID-19, the crisis is further escalating as the war in Ukraine drives up the costs of food, fuel, and fertilizers. Millions of people are struggling to put food on the table and are being driven closer to starvation in a storm of staggering magnitude. The world is at critical crossroads of history. The time has already come to rise to the challenge of meeting people’s immediate food needs, while at the same time supporting programs that build long-term resilience. The alternative is hunger, death, and death on a catastrophic scale.
The World Food Program (WFP) is prioritizing emergency action to prevent millions from dying of hunger and help build and stabilize national food systems and related supply chains. The WFP aims to support a record 152 million food-insecure people in 2022, a significant increase from 128 million in 2021. The program is diversifying its supplier base, promoting local food procurement, and negotiating for humanitarian access and export waivers. Its operational needs are now at an all-time high of US$22.2 billion, with confirmed contributions of US$4.8 billion (or 22 percent) as of the end of June. WFP has a plan for 2022 – the most ambitious in its history – but needs renewed and larger commitments to help deliver millions of people from disaster. The ambitious WFP is grappling with triple jeopardy: operational costs increase, the number of acutely hungry people rises to unprecedented levels, and donors are squeezed by multiple demands. Without additional resources, WFP will be forced to continue drastic prioritization in many of the countries where it operates, including during humanitarian crises.
There are five major contributory factors to this sorry state of affairs. Firstly, conflict is the biggest driver of hunger globally, responsible for 65% of people currently facing hunger and food insecurity. “Conflict tears families, communities, infrastructures, food systems, and entire regions apart,” says Santiago ‘Jimmy’ Mellado, CEO of Compassion International. According to the World Food Programme, up to 811 million people go to bed hungry every night, and the number of people facing severe food insecurity has doubled, from 135 million to 276 million, in two years. For the global food supply chain, there are a few worse countries to be at war than Russia and Ukraine. Together, the two provide almost 30% of the world’s wheat plus barley, sunflower seed oil, and corn, feeding billions of people. This war is tipping our fragile world toward mass hunger, reports The Economist. Meanwhile, Russia and Belarus are two of the world’s top producers of potash, an ingredient in fertilizer. Unfortunately, farmers worldwide are affected.
So with Russia’s exports blocked by many countries and Ukraine’s planting season impacted by the fighting, a huge supply chain of the world’s food is terribly disrupted. According to The World Bank, this hits poor and low-income countries hardest as they depend on food imports the most. Food has suddenly become very expensive. Secondly, the Russia-Ukraine war is worsening this inflation, making it even harder to get food at a decent price. With families in emerging economies spending an average of 25% of their budgets on food up to 40% in sub-Saharan Africa and 60% in Haiti, the rising cost of living could place households with children in life-or-death situations. “Food price increases are having devastating effects on the poorest and most vulnerable,” says World Bank Group President.
Thirdly, extreme weather like hurricanes and droughts is increasing global hunger by shrinking harvests and skyrocketing food prices. Fourthly, many of the world’s poorest countries rely on agriculture as their main industry, and they eat seasonally according to their harvest. This means when there is no harvest, there is often no food. The Horn of Africa is in the grips of a severe drought after three rainy seasons have failed to materialize. Imagine your entire income being dependent not on your hard work or experience but on the weather. Imagine three years of income wiped out because it didn’t rain. Last but not least is the devastating impact of COVID-19 that pushed more people into poverty. Lockdowns devastated family livelihoods, and the economy, and disrupted supply chains. Two years later, these families are still struggling to put food on the table.
How to deal with this global hunger that is already ringing alarm bells across the world? The first and most key intervention required is that nations need blueprints for providing nutritious, secure, and low-carbon food to the growing global population. Thanks to similar planning in recent years, the international community is more united on the steps needed to decarbonize the global energy sector in ways that provide energy for all: far more renewable energy, zero-emission vehicles, electric appliances, efficient buildings, clean hydrogen, and carbon storage.
When it comes to the food system, in contrast, policymakers have yet to reach a consensus on how to simultaneously increase global food production, slash emissions from agriculture, and protect nature, while providing nutrition for all. Both globally and at the national level, consensus-building processes are needed to signal how investors and businesses should reallocate capital. Internationally, the G-20 should commission such a plan from the U.N. and International Energy Agency. That plan focuses on near-term steps to address the present food crisis but does not provide an actionable blueprint for harmonizing the hunger, climate, and nutrition agendas over the long term. At the national level, countries should develop national food strategies just as the United Kingdom has done through effective planning in ways that also promote climate action and better nutrition. This effort could build on already existing fora.
Furthermore, the world needs to produce more food and improve agricultural livelihoods to enhance food security and eliminate extreme poverty. One of the best ways to do this is to get advanced seed varieties that increase yields for small-scale farmers. Adding to local production would improve food security, raise farm incomes, and reduce emissions from food transportation. It is especially important that meat consumption and excess calories in countries with high levels of meat consumption and obesity are reduced. Consuming far less meat provides the greatest ability to feed more people with less land within the US, for example, where meat consumption is particularly high.
Every global study of diet and greenhouse gases indicates that reduced meat consumption is the biggest driver of reducing greenhouse gas release via dietary change. Approximately 1.1 Million hectares of excess corn production are needed to produce the excess calories consumed by just Americans annually. Likewise, food wastage needs to be addressed on a war footing. Although food is lost throughout the supply chain, it’s estimated the greatest losses occur at the consumer level in the global north. In addition, a large amount of produce is wasted for not meeting retail cosmetic standards. All of the energy for production, transportation, and processing of this food is also wasted. Similarly, very little of the global North’s enormous farm policy budgets tend to be spent on policies such as conservation, agroecological research, and organic production.
Policies that stimulate new farmer development, regional market, and supply chain development, prioritize appropriate technology development at smaller scales and price points, sustainable energy production, and research to minimize external inputs while maintaining high productivity are needed in order to help propel their development.
In the final analysis, collaborative global action is needed by the developed countries to address this crisis of alarming proportions. Taking the lead, the United States should make the availability of low-greenhouse-gas protein a major goal in food and climate diplomacy. The U.S. companies are leaders in low-greenhouse-gas protein technologies, and the economy would benefit from extending to this sector the tax incentives and loan programs currently available only to renewable energy. All in all, much more attention needs to be paid to the sustainability of the planet’s urban food systems. If the situation continues unchanged, our food supply chains will soon be in deep trouble, leaving more millions in the worst food crisis ever in human history.