3 months ago

In the face of the looming global food crisis

-Reuters file photo
-Reuters file photo

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Seven years ago, world leaders made a commitment to bring an end to global hunger by 2030, which at that time seemed practically rational and achievable. However, this objective is now seemingly more distant than ever before. According to the United Nations (UN) estimates, the number of people who are one step away from famine or who face severe food shortage jumped from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million in 2022. The UN report further shows that about 82.8 million people worldwide sleep hungry every night and about five million people globally are on the edge of starvation. Another estimate shows that the number of people who are forced to compromise on the quantity or quality of food soared to 2.38 billion.

However, not all countries are equally exposed to the looming food crisis. Poor and conflict-stricken regions are feared to be highly vulnerable to food shortage. Some countries in Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and Latin America are extremely susceptible to food crisis. Countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen remain the most vulnerable. About half a million people of these countries are on the brink of experiencing extreme hunger. On the other hand, countries like Congo, Haiti, Kenya are on high alert with deteriorating food conditions.

Like other countries, Bangladesh is also vulnerable to food shortage even if the situation is yet to be declared as a food crisis. Around 30 per cent people in Bangladesh are facing food scarcity. A UN report shows that Bangladesh is one the countries that requires external support to feed its people. These countries apparently lack internal resources to ensure sufficient food supply. Due to the shortage, prices of most essentials including wheat, edible oil, sugar, and other important food items are almost beyond the affordability of the mass population. It is further predicted that production of rice, wheat and maize might decline by 0.4 per cent this year compared to the last year. A survey conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) found that about 6 per cent of the people surveyed can not afford to buy food. The estimate was 5 per cent last year. The survey further showed that the number of people who didn't eat for 24 hours rose to 2 per cent  in May this year from 1 per cent in June last year.

However, the current crisis is not purely a food crisis, it is affordability crisis. There is good stock of food, even if not entirely sufficient to feed the global population; but the problem underlies the lack of affordability. This can be attributed to the soring food prices on the one hand and disruption of supply chain on the other. Globally, prices have risen by about 20 per cent year-on-year basis.

Although numerous reasons can be pointed out for the recent food crisis, both natural and man-made, the drivers of this crisis can be attributed to three basic factors: climate shocks, conflict, and the threat of recent global recession owing to Covid-19. The interplay of these drivers makes life harder each day for the world's most vulnerable segment of the population.

Climate change is one of the key issues for sustainability challenge the world is facing now. It impinges on every aspect of life that keeps us alive, especially the production and distribution of food. As the adverse effect of climate change is taking its toll, food shortage is getting acute worldwide. Floods, drought, tropical storms, tsunami, rising sea level and the resulting demographic shift wreak havoc on agriculture and farming. Looking at Pakistan, the recent damaging flood badly affected more than 30 million people; South Sudan has been affected by unpredictable flood for the fourth consecutive year; Syria received less than average rainfall for the third consecutive season; the damaging effect of La Niña has been continuing for the third year in a row, first time in 20 years.

Economic downturn owing to Covid-19 is one of the major reasons for insufficient food production and supply. It is reported that the pandemic added 118 million people to the hunger list in 2020, making the tally to 768 million people worldwide. Lockdowns due to covid-19 pandemic have disrupted the supply chain worldwide. The recovery plans of countries in the post-covid period have forced them to execute expansionary monetary policy, leading to the rising demand for staples. This has resulted in the rise in price of basic commodities and products. Moreover, as the world endeavours to return to pre-pandemic situation, the movability of commodities has increased significantly, resulting in intense competition, making transportation costs higher. Statistics show that supply chain disruption and galloping inflation rate led the foodprices to an all-time high in 2022. A total of 36 countries experienced food inflation 15 per centor higher. Such a high inflation has caused serious trouble to poor families who spend 50 per cent of their income on food. This has resulted in debt-distress for about 60 per cent of low-income countries.

Along with unpredictable climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, prolonged civil and ethnic conflicts are also the main drivers behind the food crisis in many parts of the world. Particularly, violent conflict remains the primary driver of acute hunger in African countries. According to statistics from the Observer Reserve Foundation, 60 per cent of the world's hunger-stricken people live in violent and war-torn regions. This situation has been exacerbated by the new polarisation of global geopolitics such as the rise of far-right and conservatives in politics, the Sino-US trade dispute, and most recently Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of the world. The same goes for Russia. Almost 50 countries of the world import at least 30 per cent of their food grains from Ukraine and Russia. To be more specific, about 10 countries of the world import more than half of their essential food grains from these two countries known as the world's grain storehouses. Pre-war Russia and Ukraine alone supplied about 30 per cent of the world's total demand for wheat and barley. As high as 36 crisis-prone and poor countries meet half of their wheat demand by importing from Russia and Ukraine. Russia also ranks first in the world in nitrogen, second in potassium, and third in phosphorus fertiliser exports. The country is trying to control the outcome of the war by restricting export of chemical fertiliser along with food grains. Fertiliser prices were already high before the Russia-Ukraine war. The war has deteriorated the situation.

In addition, the rise of commercial and rentier class who seeks excessive profit by capitalising on the natural calamity or human suffering has added another spike to the ongoing food crisis worldwide. Grain trading is concentrated in the hands of only four companies operating principally in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Europe. They are making record profits from desperately needed dietary staples.

Hence, the remedies for acute food shortage rely on addressing the reasons that deter agriculture and food production. Since man-made and natural elements are responsible, attempts are to be made focusing on two issues: mitigation and adaptation. Man-made crises are to be mitigated and averted while adaptation to the new-normal caused by calamities like the Covid-19 is to be practised.

The primary source of environmental degradation is greenhouse gas emission resulting mainly from increased urbanisation and commercial activities. Since modern lifestyle is impossible without the expansion of city and commercial production and distribution system, environment-friendly technology should be deployed in all segments of the economy. Underdeveloped countries lack the capacity to develop their own environment-friendly technologies. Hence, developed countries, which have already stocked a huge amount of carbon in the atmosphere, must take the lead to develop clean technologies and transfer them to developing and emerging economies. Moreover, adapting climate-resilient crops can be useful for increasing production of crops and food grains.

In addition, ethnic and geo-political conflicts should be resolved through discussion and negotiation instead of using arms and forces. It is to be noted that a war has several impacts on food production and supply chain. A war is an intense polluting event. It pollutes the environment to a significant extent, displaces people from their usual habitats, and disrupts food production and distribution. Russia-Ukraine war has severed the main food supply chain and disrupted transportation and normal movement of goods around the world. Therefore, routes used for transportation and channeling of food grain, fuel, and fertilisers should be kept free from any dispute to ensure food security.

For averting artificial crisis resulting from immoral activities including stock piling, hoarding, and hiking irrational price at the excuse of natural or man-made vulnerability, ethical practice in all areas of economic life should be maintained. Companies making irrational profit owing to scarcity can be brought under the higher tax bracket. This additional tax amount could be used to help feed vulnerable people and create a sustainable food system.

Countries at the time of economic and political uncertainty tend to restrict food export. For example, when Ukraine imposed export restrictions on wheat, barley, rye and corn in 2007 to protect domestic prices, Russia and Kazakhstan followed suit. These trade restrictions nearly doubled global wheat prices in 2008, threatening the food security of some food-importing countries. Since the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, 23 countries have imposed restrictions on food exports.Three countries in the world-- China, India, and the United States have a large food reserve. These countries should be encouraged to release their grain reserves in the international market during the time of crisis. This will greatly reduce food shortage.

Access to food is the most fundamental human right. To sustain human civilisation, it is desirable to have minimum access to the global food supply for all classes of people, rich and poor. Efforts are to be made to remove artificial and natural barriers towards food production and fair distribution. Only then we can expect to avoid undesirable events like hunger and poverty.


Prof M. Kabir Hassan is with University of New Orleans. [email protected] Dr Mohammad Dulal Miah is with University of Nizwa.

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