World hunger doubled in the five years before Ukraine's breadbasket was hit by war

UN's Global Network Against Food Crises says 193 million people faced severe hunger in 2021

A displaced Yemeni woman collects spilled grains from the ground at a camp on the outskirts of Sanaa. EPA
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Conflict, climate change and Covid-19 have pushed the number of people facing severe food insecurity to “devastating” highs, a UN study has shown.

The Global Network Against Food Crises said in its annual report that the number of people facing acute food insecurity and requiring urgent, life-saving assistance had risen to 193 million in 2021, nearly double the number in 2016 when the agency first began tracking it.

The latest figures represent an increase of nearly 25 per cent — 38 million people — in the past 12 months, compared with the already record numbers of 2020.

“The outlook moving forward is not good. If more is not done to support rural communities, the scale of the devastation in terms of hunger and lost livelihoods will be appalling,” warns the report.

Launched at a virtual roundtable on Wednesday, contributors to the multi-agency study said that the war in Ukraine and its knock-on effects indicated that, without intervention, the worst is still to come.

“We are seeing a perfect storm in the world, just when we couldn’t imagine it getting worse,” David Beasley, the World Food Programme’s executive director, told the virtual conference.

Mr Beasley said the war was “devastating food security around the world” and that millions more would be affected without help.

Rising energy prices have caused the costs of shipping and logistics to surge, while wheat supplies from the breadbasket of Europe are in jeopardy as “agricultural fields turn into battlefields”.

The agency says its own cost of global operations have increased by $70 million a month since 2019.

“We have the money in the banks. Governments and with the private sector need to unleash funds to fight this problem,” said Mr Beasley.

“If we don’t get ahead of this then we will not just have famine but we will have destabilisation in nations and mass migration by necessity.”

Conflict continues to be the primary driver of food insecurity, said the report.

Looking ahead, the study suggests that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses serious risks to global food security, especially in countries facing crisis such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.

The UN’s Humanitarian Affairs agency said the “dramatic” upwards trends was a result of a relentless few years, with more than 80 million people driven from their homes by conflict or other issues, including 50 million internally displaced people “whose numbers rise every year.”

Both Russia and Ukraine are major food producers and the head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Qu Dongyu, said the war had already exposed the “interconnected nature and fragility of global food systems".

In 2021, Somalia received more than 90 per cent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo received 80 per cent, and Madagascar imported 70 per cent.

East Africa is facing its worst drought in nearly half a century, threatening millions of people with water and food shortages.

The report showed that in Ethiopia, South Sudan, southern Madagascar and Yemen, about 570,000 people — 571 per cent more than in 2016 — were in the most severe or “catastrophe” phase of food insecurity, requiring urgent action to avert widespread collapse of livelihoods, starvation and death.

Reflecting on her recent visits to Afghanistan and Ethiopia — both at risk of widespread starvation — Catherine Russell, the executive director of the UN children's agency, said it was time to “take stock of a very sombre reality”.

“Nearly half of all deaths of children under 5 is down to nutrition,” said Ms Russell.

“As a result of the pandemic, [there are] 100 million more children living in poverty and the number of children not getting regular meals has increased. We have some 50 million children now suffering from wasting.”

She said governments and agencies needed to do more to protect retailers and producers but urged countries not to erect trade barriers and duties that would limit food supplies.

Maximo Torero, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said the outlook for the global food economy in 2022 was precarious and that vulnerable countries would be even harder hit than before.

“The world could be facing availability as well as food access,” said Mr Torero, whose organisation recently proposed a global Food Import Financing Facility to give loans to the most economically vulnerable net food-importing countries.

The report said there was a greater need to prioritise small-holder agriculture as a frontline humanitarian response to overcome access constraints and as a solution for reverting long-term negative trends.

“Promoting structural changes to the way external financing is distributed, so that humanitarian assistance can be reduced over time through longer-term development investments, can tackle the root causes of hunger,” it said.

In a joint statement, the EU, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme, together with USAID and the World Bank said: “The situation calls out for at-scale action to move towards integrated approaches to prevention, anticipation, and better targeting to sustainably address the root causes of food crises, including structural rural poverty, marginalisation, population growth and fragile food systems.”

Updated: May 05, 2022, 3:42 AM