Food security is a bigger problem than you think

The World Food Programme is reporting: 

“As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night, the number of those facing acute food insecurity has soared — from 135 million to 345 million — since 2019. A total of 50 million people in 45 countries are teetering on the edge of famine.”

Meanwhile, the 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition report—issued jointly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UNICEF, The World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization—warns:

“Around 2.3 billion people in the world were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021, and 11.7 percent of the global population faced food insecurity at severe levels.”

The Global Crisis Response Group reports on an unprecedented multidimensional global cost-of-living crisis. Its latest brief outlines a “widespread picture of vulnerability”, in which: 

“94 countries, home to around 1.6 billion people, are severely exposed to at least one dimension of the crisis and unable to cope with it. Out of the 1.6 billion, 1.2 billion or three quarters live in ‘perfect-storm’ countries, meaning countries that are severely exposed and vulnerable to all three dimensions of finance, food, and energy, simultaneously.”

Among the first shockwave insights highlighted by the Global Crisis Response Group is the fact that most nations are also now less able to respond to the compounding crisis, as:  

“60 per cent of workers have lower real incomes than before the pandemic; 60 per cent of the poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it; [and] developing countries miss $1.2 trillion per year to fill the social protection gap…”

Each of those numbers—lower incomes, sovereign debt distress, and reduced social protection funding—mean global resilience is reduced. As a result, a greater number of resilience measures will likely fail, and destabilization is more likely—at local, national, and international levels. 

A dried reservoir in Crimea illustrates just one of the intense stresses on food production and export from Ukraine—one of the world’s key breadbasket countries. Image credit: Alexey Fedenkov.

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is not only one of the major contributing factors driving this global food security crisis. The resulting proliferation of hunger, suffering, and destabilization, has led Vladimir Putin to weaponize food supplies—deliberately putting millions of lives at risk, using hunger as a weapon of war to extort concessions. CSIS cites evidence of “an intentional Russian effort to undermine Ukraine’s agricultural capacity”. 

All of this happens against a backdrop of soaring food prices. The global Food Price Index tracked by FAO hit an all time record high in February and again in March. Though prices have come down from the March high, every month since has been significantly higher than any month prior to February 2022.

The Financial Times notes this is not only a problem for lower income countries, citing concerns at General Mills about a “significant step up in input cost inflation”, estimated to reach “14 per cent for the fiscal year that started in June”, colliding with “reduced consumer spending power”. The same article cites the head of the world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, warning of the geopolitical impact of soaring food prices. 

The heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group, the World Food Programme, and the World Trade Organization, on Friday issued a joint statement on the Global Food Security Crisis. They highlight the need to “avoid further setbacks” in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and they highlight four areas needing both short-term and sustained cooperative effort: 

  1. Providing immediate support to the vulnerable;
  2. Facilitating trade and the international supply of food;
  3. Boosting production;
  4. Investing in climate-resilient agriculture. 

With more than 2 billion people facing some level of food insecurity, with incomes lower across the world, with supplies of food, fuel, and fertilizer disrupted and costing more, and with 50 million people in 45 countries on the brink of famine, the global food crisis is turning into an economic, political, and humanitarian superstorm. 

The food security crisis is worse than you think, because: 

  1. It affects far more people than any solution can conceivably reach; 
  2. Food price increases are already worse than those that have triggered mass unrest in the past; 
  3. The world is projected to lose 250 million acres of productive farmland in the next three decades; 
  4. Ongoing land conversion to open new farmland is accelerating climate change, degrading ecosystems, watersheds, and productive capacity globally; 
  5. Nations and regions could face deep, prolonged destabilization; 
  6. Dominant energy sources are heating the planet and undermining food production capacity; 
  7. No part of the global economy is yet prepared to make emergency adjustments that align with long-term resilience and sustainability; 
  8. These unattended compounding risks touch everyone’s everyday experience. 
Food security depends heavily on international trade. Reduced food supplies could spark another wave of export bans, which would deepen the hunger crisis and destabilize the global economy.

The United States, the UAE, and Israel, are teaming up to help India boost global food production, as part of a new 4-country “I2U2” effort.

  • They will invest billions of dollars and transfer critical irrigation systems and other technology, to expand India’s capacity. 
  • This is necessary, because the US no longer provides the “idled cropland buffer” it used to shore up global food supplies in the mid 20th century. 
  • Severe drought also suggest harvests will decline in the US and other key exporting countries, further stressing global supplies. 

The Good Food Finance Network — co-convened by EAT, FAIRR, Food Systems for the Future, the UN Environment Programme, and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development — is proposing a Co-Investment Platform to catalyze finance for food systems transformation across the public, private, and multilateral sectors. The Platform will address challenges such as:

  • Shifting to climate-smart production;
  • Improving rural livelihoods and nutrition outcomes;
  • Making urban food consumption healthier and more sustainable;
  • Slashing food waste and loss.

This is needed, not only as a response to the crisis outlined above, but because mainstream incentives for food-related investment and trade are not aligned with the goal of avoiding this kind of shock in the future. We need transformational vision, action, funding, and collaboration, to come through the superstorm better positioned to meet human needs sustainably.

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