If the world is producing enough food for all, why is global hunger rising?

The problem isn't just the outcome of climate change and conflict

A man buys bread in Ulus district of Ankara, Turkey, in May 2022. AP Photo
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Our beloved hummus is threatened as a global chickpea shortage drives up prices. Supplies have shrunk by 20 per cent and prices have increased by 17 per cent compared to three years ago. This matters, as chickpeas are an important protein source in the Middle East, as well as in South Asian curries. The same can be said for 1.5 billion vegetarians worldwide who rely on chickpea stews and soups, and the half a billion people with wheat gluten sensitivity who use chickpea flour to bake bread.

A double whammy of climate change and conflict has triggered the chickpea crisis. Big producers such as the US and Australia are struggling with drought and flood respectively, while the Russia-Ukraine war has halted their massive chickpea exports.

The humble chickpea is emblematic of a generalised dysfunction that has seen prices soaring at their fastest rate in 14 years, according to the global food price index. This is made of a weighted basket of key commodities including cereals, oils, sugar, dairy, fish and meat, which make the bulk of our diet. The aggregate index is 22 per cent higher than last year, with cereals higher by 56 per cent and vegetable oils by 25 per cent.

Two thirds of us eat bread daily in one or another of its delicious and diverse forms. It is not just the stuff of life but has acquired spiritual and political meaning over millennia. Its power to disrupt societies and civilisations is well known. History is full of riots and revolutions that followed upheavals in bread affordability. Supermarkets in some places have restricted how much vegetable oil and flour customers can buy and employed extra guards to counter thieving.

Unsurprisingly, many governments are responding to the food crisis through price subsidies, controls and rationing. They are also trying to diversify imports away from suppliers such as Ukraine and Russia.

But when everyone engages in the same game, prices are pushed up. This is exacerbated by the protectionist policies of several “food basket” countries who restrict exports to ensure their own food security. Turkey has restricted chickpea exports, Argentina meat and India wheat. Indonesia did the same earlier with palm oil. Egypt’s struggle provides a salutary illustration of the negative market effects: the world’s largest wheat importer is paying 50 per cent higher prices on the global market.

The war of narratives around Russia and Ukraine means that their contribution to supply disruption is bitterly disputed. On one hand, a relatively modest 13 per cent of world wheat is grown there, of which a significant part is eaten by their combined 190 million population. The war should not, by itself, cause a global crisis.

A worker displays harvested chickpeas on a farm in Nabatieh, Lebanon, last week. Bloomberg
The current food dilemma cannot be solved by technical fixes or charitable tinkering

However, the consequences are undoubtedly devastating for countries that rely on large wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. For countries in Africa and Middle East, import levels range from 40 to 90 per cent. In our globalised age, what matters is not just domestic production but countries’ share of “internationally traded” foodstuffs. Ukraine and Russia are the source of 30 per cent of the world’s traded wheat, 20 per cent of maize and barley, and 75 per cent of sunflower oil.

Ukraine’s share of food exports is currently blockaded by Russia. As 25 million tons of wheat rot in silos, the incoming harvest cannot be stored. Continuing war, widescale mining of agricultural land and labour shortages, as farmers become soldiers, affect the next growing cycle. Meanwhile, Russia’s share of exports is affected by massive war-related risk premiums and shippers’ reluctance to trade with a sanctioned country, even though the food business is exempt.

Additionally, today’s conflicts are waged in multiple dimensions, particularly economic, causing shockwaves well beyond the battlefield. The war – and retaliatory sanctions by the West – have secondary effects on energy costs that impact agriculture. Also on fertiliser: one quarter of Africa’s supplies come from Russia.

Nevertheless, global food insecurity is not new. Food prices were already increasing due to Covid-19 disruptions alongside climate shocks. This shrank livelihoods and reduced the purchasing power of people everywhere. For example, The Guardian reports that a rapidly growing number of UK households are now forced to use charity foodbanks.

It is not just the Ukraine-Russia war that is disruptive. We live in deadly times, with some 130 armed conflicts raging across the world. In these conflicts, strangling an opponent’s food supply has almost become normal, even if doing so breaches international humanitarian law.

According to the UN, 811 million people were already hungry before the Ukraine-Russia war. That included 135 million who were seriously food-insecure; their numbers have nearly trebled now to 345 million. These are the populations of utmost humanitarian concern – refugees, displaced and other conflict and disaster-affected groups. Of that number, 50 million face famine.

Forty-five countries are in a state of critical food insecurity, in whole or in part, including well-known crisis hotspots such as Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Haiti, as well as Lebanon, Bangladesh, North Korea, Pakistan and Venezuela. The remaining 33 are in Africa, where the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, north-eastern Nigeria, the Sahel, Somalia, Southern Madagascar, South Sudan and Sudan are in emergency. They comprise 100 million people who depend wholly or largely on emergency food assistance.

Feeding the most destitute is the job of the World Food Programme, which is $10 billion short of the $22bn it requires in 2022. The gap in its funding is widening due to record global inflation, and it is obliging WFP to cut its food packages. More hunger and starvation are anticipated along with already-exploding levels of child malnutrition.

A worker carries a sack of grain in a warehouse of the World Food Programme in the city of Abala, Ethiopia, in June 2022. AFP

Prospects look grim at a time of lengthy, ruthless war-making alongside the deepening impacts of climate change. But the irony is that even at a time of many simultaneous crises, the world is still producing enough food for everyone’s needs. Exhortations to the better side our shared humanity including humanitarian appeals may provide some relief here and there. But they are no solutions, in either short or long term.

The dream for a world of zero hunger rests on transforming our food system and making it more resilient through mobilising knowledge, resources, technologies, capacities, and co-operation modalities. That requires a massive orchestration of collective will and, most difficult of all, shifting personal and social attitudes towards what and how we eat.

For example, the world has 50,000 edible plants. Why do we depend on just three for two thirds of our calories? Of course, it is tough to persuade creatures of habit to get away from their favourite eats. But diversification could not just fill bellies but also improve nutrition and health. Fortunately, several non-traditional staples are also more climate-resilient, and much research is under way to get alternative foods into the kitchen.

Meanwhile, a moral and political re-think is necessary around basic foods being considered as profit-making, internationally tradeable commodities, in the same way that Covid-19 did for essential medicines and vaccines. This goes to the heart of the simmering discontent with the current model of globalisation that made the world more prosperous but generated destabilising inequalities and dependencies. It is not too fanciful to imagine that the next major war could be over food and water.

A corollary of dysfunctional internationalism is flawed nationalism. When a country cannot feed its citizens, their core contract is broken, and the legitimacy of the state can be questioned – even disputed. Should all nations, therefore, aim for food self-sufficiency as strategic policy? This may or may not be economically efficient depending on specific circumstances. Substituting imports by expanded domestic food production is capital- and technology-intensive. Besides, growing crops in already-marginal areas may harm the environment amidst the climate crisis.

The current food dilemma cannot be solved by technical fixes or charitable tinkering. This is an opportunity to transform personal and societal dispositions towards a better food system. To do less would be to waste yet another crisis.

After all, we eventually become what we eat.

Published: July 22, 2022, 4:00 AM