Global Food Security
A call to action for and from world leaders
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the global economy was suffering from the repercussions of several man-made conflicts, climate shocks, Covid-19 and rising costs — with devastating consequences for poor people in low-income and developing countries. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a major “breadbasket” for the world — and its effects on food, fertilizer and fuel prices globally has created a threat to food security of many countries. Low-income countries especially fear a limited access to financing, commodities and technical assistance due to which they will be unable to feed their populations and help them build resilience to longer-term shocks. So, in order to mobilise action to address global food insecurity, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently hosted the ministerial-level meeting “Global Food Security—Call to Action” at the UN headquarters in New York, bringing together a broad, regionally diverse group of around 36 countries, including those most affected by food insecurity and those in a position to take action to strengthen global food resilience and security. During the meeting, the participants urged the UN member states to keep their food and agricultural markets open and to avoid unjustified restrictive measures, such as export bans on food or fertilizer. They asked governments and international institutions to take action to avert the greatest global food security crisis.
In his address to the august gathering, Secretary Blinken outlined a series of international actions that, he said, must be taken to help countries cope with the situation. “Those with financial resources need to step up and do it fast,” as humanitarian organizations struggle to meet current food security needs, he said. He announced an additional $215 million in emergency food assistance from the United States. “Governments and international organizations can also come together to compel the Russian Federation to create corridors so that food and other vital supplies can safely leave Ukraine by land or by sea,” Blinken said. “There are an estimated 22 million tons of grain sitting in silos in Ukraine right now, food that could immediately go toward helping those in need if it can simply get out of the country,” he added.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, alerted the participants that global hunger levels are at a new high and within a span of just two years, the number of severely food-insecure people has doubled, from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today. He said most low-income countries have no fiscal space to prevent the worst of food insecurity on their own after dealing with a series of ongoing crises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had amplified emergencies like climate change, Covid-19 and inequality. “It threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years,” Guterres said.
Pakistan’s young foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said that despite limited resources, Pakistan had never shirked its responsibility in times of a humanitarian crisis and the country has the potential to meet not only its own food security needs but also that of the region and the world. He said that Pakistan was suffering from the vestiges of colonialism, turbulent history, constant quest to improve democracy, and has been caught in the cross-hairs of global geopolitics. Therefore, it had been unable to unlock its agricultural and economic potential.
“Pakistan faced existential threats of climate change, Covid-19 pandemic and poverty, which resulted in food, water and energy insecurity,” added Bilawal. In his statement, the foreign minister lauded the initiative to unite and mobilise the international community to respond to the urgent food security and nutrition challenges being faced by the world, which had been further aggravated by the recent geopolitical developments.
Bilawal added that hunger has no nationality, poverty does not care for skin colour, infections do not recognize borders, and the threat of climate catastrophe does not recognize ethnicity, and underscored that wars aggravated the challenges of poverty and hunger, and created a humanitarian crisis in their wake.
The United Nations and its relevant agencies WFP, FAO, IFAD, UNDP, he said, should be entrusted with coordinating and executing such an emergency food security plan and fund.
“The countries in a position to do so must ramp up production of wheat and other grains and fertilizer. Support must be provided to enable food producers, especially small holders in developing countries, to contribute to increases in local and national food production through adequate access to seeds, fertilizer and finance,” he suggested.
Status of Food Security
As per the Global Report on Food Crises, an annual report launched by the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC) — an international alliance of the United Nations, the European Union, governmental and non-governmental agencies working to tackle food crises together — the number of people facing acute food insecurity and requiring urgent life-saving food assistance and livelihood support continues to grow at an alarming rate.
The report reveals that around 193 million people in 53 countries or territories experienced acute food insecurity at crisis or worse levels (IPC/CH Phase 3-5) in 2021. This represents an increase of nearly 40 million people compared with the already record numbers of 2020. Of these, over half a million people (570,000) in Ethiopia, southern Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen were classified in the most severe phase of acute food insecurity Catastrophe (IPC/CH Phase 5) and required urgent action to avert widespread collapse of livelihoods, starvation and death.
When looking at the same 39 countries or territories featured in all editions of the report, the number of people facing crisis or worse (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above) nearly doubled between 2016 and 2021, with unabated rises each year since 2018.
These worrying trends are the result of multiple drivers feeding into one another, ranging from conflict to environmental and climate crises, from economic to health crises with poverty and inequality as undelaying causes.
Conflict remains the main driver of food insecurity. While the analysis predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the report finds that the war has already exposed the interconnected nature and fragility of global food systems, with serious consequences for global food and nutrition security. Countries already coping with high levels of acute hunger are particularly vulnerable to the risks created by the war in Eastern Europe, notably due to their high dependency on imports of food and agricultural inputs and vulnerability to global food price shocks, it notes.
Key Drivers of Insecurity
The key drivers behind rising acute food insecurity in 2021 were:
· conflict (main driver, pushing 139 million people in 24 countries/territories into acute food insecurity, up from around 99 million in 23 countries/territories in in 2020);
· weather extremes (over 23 million people in eight countries/territories, up from 15.7 million in 15 countries/territories);
· economic shocks – (over 30 million people in 21 countries/territories, down from over 40 million people in 17 countries/territories in 2020 mainly due to the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic).
The latest food insecurity crisis spreading around the world is not happening in a vacuum. Amid the Covid pandemic, supply chain issues and soaring inflation, global food prices have been on the rise since mid-2020 and are now at an all-time high. In 36 countries, food inflation is at 15% or higher, causing major problems for poor families who spend upwards of 50% of their income on food. Sixty percent of low-income countries are at a high risk of, or are already in, debt distress, up from 30% in 2015. Fuel prices are at a seven-year high.
Global food markets are extremely concentrated, both in terms of supplies and reserves. Seven countries make up 86% of wheat exports, while three countries hold 68% of the world’s wheat reserves. The figures are similar when it comes to coarse grains, corn, rice and soybean. Russia and Ukraine supplied about 30% of the world’s wheat and barley before the war. Thirty-six countries, including some of the world’s most vulnerable and impoverished, relied on them for more than half of their wheat imports.
Such concentrated and thin markets mean that when crises, like the war in Ukraine happen, the global supply of food can be derailed quickly, leading to high costs. For example, insurance premiums are skyrocketing for vessels operating in the Black Sea, which only further raises prices for staple foods. Many countries are turning to alternative sources, but there are cost increases associated with these manoeuvres as well. Countries in Europe or the Middle East that relied on Russian or Ukrainian food imports now suddenly have to pivot to acquiring them from Canada or Australia, for example, which will be more expensive given the greater distance travelled. Shocks like the war in Ukraine put into stark relief that food insecurity challenges are not always related to availability issues. Rather, it’s a question of accessibility and affordability.
As the war drags on, already record levels of acute food insecurity are expected to sharply rise. In the 81 countries where the UN World Food Programme (WFP) works, acute hunger is projected to increase by an additional 47 million people, from 276 million to 323 million — this is a staggering 17% jump, with the steepest rises in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Way Forward
The participating countries put forward a 7-point list whereby they called for the following actions:
1. UN member states with available resources to make new, additive financial donations to key humanitarian organizations providing immediate life-saving humanitarian assistance, including cash, food and nutrition supplies, health and nutrition programming, water and sanitation, and humanitarian protection to populations at the most severe risk, while, at the same time, strengthening their resilience to multiple shocks wherever possible.
2. UN member states with available resources, including those with large emergency food stockpiles, to provide in-kind donations and necessary associated costs to key humanitarian organizations for transportation and delivery of food commodities, based on assessed needs by governments of affected countries or humanitarian organizations.
3. All UN member states to keep their food and agricultural markets open and to avoid unjustified restrictive measures, such as export bans on food or fertilizer, which increase market volatility and threaten food security and nutrition at a global scale, especially among those in vulnerable situations already experiencing increased poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and call on all members to ensure safe maritime transportation in the Black Sea.
4. UN member states with available resources to temporarily increase fertilizer production in order to compensate shortages, support fertilizer innovations and promote methods to maximize fertilizer efficiency, invest in diversifying sustainable production of fertilizers, and increase the use of residues as fertilizers to create longer-term supply chain resilience for this key input.
5. UN member states with available resources to increase efforts to support the sustainable transformation of agriculture and food systems to make them more resilient and available to smallholder farmers, and strengthen the infrastructure, logistical support and innovation needed to cultivate, store and distribute food.
6. All UN member states to increase their investments in research to develop and implement science-based and climate-resilient agricultural innovations, including seeds, that contribute to building sustainable and resilient agricultural sectors and food systems.
7. All UN member states and regional organizations to closely monitor markets affecting food systems, including futures markets, to ensure full transparency, and to share reliable and timely data and information on global food market developments, especially through the relevant international organizations.
The writer is a member of staff.
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