Organizations and scholars frame the current food crisis as a global phenomenon due to a confluence of events and circumstances like droughts, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. As Samantha Power noted this week, “a decade of progress” has been “obliterated”. The number of people with unmet food needs is steeply increasing after a 30 percent decrease from 2005 to 2015. There are currently 828 million people with unmet food needs (“hungry”). She notes the current drastic uptick in people (and animals) who are actually starving or who are expected to face starvation in the near future.
Measuring Global Food Scarcity
Hunger, starvation, food insecurity, and poverty are all relevant terms. Integrated food security phase classifications have helped quantify the problem. Phase 3 is a crisis where “lives and livelihoods are at risk.” Africa, Central America, and the Middle East have countries where people are experiencing severe deprivation. The IPC map shows the percentage of the population, by country, in each phase of acute food insecurity. Globally, over 12 million people are in a phase 3 crisis; 35 million people are in a phase 4 emergency; almost half a million are in phase 5, a famine.
Matthieu Favas of The Economist cites climate change, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine as contributing to the growing food crisis. Droughts are serious consequences of climate change and have made places not just unfarmable, but sometimes unlivable. For example, Somalia experiences rainy seasons and relies on them. Throughout history, Somalia has experienced droughts, and seven times the area has had three bad droughts in a row. This year, experts predict the region (the horn of Africa) will have its “fourth failed rainy season in a row”. Experts attribute droughts and growing-season disruptors to climate change, highlighting the degree to which public policies ranging from emissions’ limits to adaptation and mitigation strategies have measurable impact.
The pandemic disrupted supply chains and provided a wake-up call, making people rethink the global food supply’s vulnerabilities. During the pandemic, people with means purchased and stored food for the future, driving prices up even more, and furthering the unequal distribution and accessibility of food. Import dependent countries face very high prices. Supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 are expected to push “an additional 9.3 to 13.6 million children into acute malnutrition.”
Twenty-five million tons of corn and wheat were trapped in Ukraine due to the war (although an agreement to release it was just signed). The price of wheat has increased 34 percent since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Inflation and increased gas prices influence farming, shipping, and living costs. All decisions concerning Russian gas are political: political decisions to ban or limit the purchase of gas from Russia and Russia’s impulse to withhold some gas, for example, from countries that would not pay using Russian rubles.
How Food Scarcity Effects Every Country
Food prices are high. Many countries are experiencing inflation all around. That is an economic problem. In countries with people who can afford the steep price increases, even spending a larger percentage of wages on food has not meant starvation. In countries like the US, food insecurity is rising, and people are buying cheap foods. It is rumored that there is a noteworthy increase in the purchases of hot dogs and white bread this summer compared to past summers.
The US has both a nutrition problem and a price problem, but it is unlikely to see starvation. It would be a political and policy abomination to allow people to starve in a country with so much wealth. Had income inequality been addressed sooner, more people may be able to afford the high prices. There is food insecurity in the US, but nearly 90 percent of households in the US were food secure as of 2020. The pandemic increased food insecurity significantly, and the inability to attend school, where many children receive a meal, hurt access to food for many US children.
Globally 3.1 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. In the US, health is a demarcation between rich and poor. While there is food insecurity, rather than starvation and pointy ribcages, the people with nutritional deficits are often obese. There is a distinct gap in the nature of food insecurity in OECD countries and in low-income economies (as designated by the Word Bank), like countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In Northern Africa, Tunisia provides a contrast to the United States. “Twenty-eight percent of children under five and pregnant and nursing women suffer from anemia.” Tunisia gets 42 percent of its grain and a large percentage of its sunflower oil from Ukraine. Across sub-Saharan Africa people spend 40 percent of their wages on food, and some experts suggest it will rise to 50 percent. That means there is little money leftover to spend on a family’s other needs. Internationally, wasting and stunting are signs of malnourishment. While stunting is down from 2000 to 2020, wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, increased globally. And obesity increased globally as well, a sign that high food prices have distinctly different effects in wealthier countries.
Responses Can Make Things Worse
Protectionism is a kneejerk reaction to potential scarcity. Countries may ban exports if they fear their populations will become food insecure or even face starvation. “The World Bank Global Trade Alert indicates that 74 export restrictions have been announced on food and agricultural products this year, with 61 liberalizing import reforms, such as tariff reductions.” Restrictions make farmers lose purchasers of their grains, encouraging hoarding, so that when bans are lifted, they can sell in international commodities exchanges.
There is robust debate about whether self-sufficiency is better than reliance on the global food trade. In a video published by The Economist, Arif Husain, Chief Economist of the World Food Program, argues that self-sufficiency is unrealistic. The World Bank, however, set aside $30 billion for loans to countries aiming for food self-sufficiency. Competing theories are important in the fight against world hunger. Using all tools together as opposed to putting all of the available funding into one strategy seems wise and humble. The humanitarian endeavors to feed people everywhere use many strategies. Immediate cash may be more helpful than other forms of aid. Implementing multiple strategies at once is crucial to problem solving. Premature consensus can leave out alternative good ideas. Ensuring that ways to help are not exclusive, exploring varying assumptions, and reassessing are crucial steps to humanitarian aid.
A therapeutic nutrition packet treats wasting. Children who have three packets a day for six weeks have a 90 percent recovery rate. Without them, 90 percent of children with wasting will die. In South Sudan, where the rate of death in the first five years of life is 96 per 100,000 (compared to 2 to 4 per 100,000 in Denmark and the UK, for example), malnutrition is a leading cause of death in children. There, children with wasting had a 95 percent recovery rate with ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).
Economic policy, commodities markets, and political decisions contribute to food supply and to starvation. Connecting war in one country to starvation in another highlights food system vulnerability. War may not always be predictable, and it is a humanmade act, but vulnerability to food shortages is a constant problem. Humanitarian aid tends to kick in at phase 3. We need to address the constant global vulnerability to food shortages whether due to weather events, climate change, war, poor public policy, or economic downturns and inflation. After the dam bursts, it is difficult to feed those most affected.
Big Ethical Questions
What are the duties of wealthy countries to poorer countries? Is there a duty to rescue people from a distant emergency, a moral obligation to provide humanitarian aid? And what do we make of good Samaritans? How do we distinguish between being citizens of countries that help out and having an individual duty to help in a more personal way? USAID spearheads the US efforts to provide humanitarian aid to developing countries. Does taxpaying to countries that contribute absolve citizens of the need to offer charitable aid?
What about world leaders? Who are they? Have democratic processes worked? Do democratic elections and successful democracies correlate to food supply? (Food shortages have resulted where communism took hold throughout history, where authoritarian regimes ruled, and where conflicts between military powers were prevalent.) The political ecology of famine is complex with many viewpoints on how and why certain styles of leadership, economics, or political structures cause food insecurity. While famine in the Soviet Union and China are notably interwoven with communist revolution, other militarized governments and war-torn countries experienced famine during political unrest, like Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. Politics exacerbate the damage of climate change, droughts, and difficult growing seasons, although some argue food scarcity sparks political unrest. A fear of going hungry may be at the root of some violent protests and civil unrest. Stable democratic governments seem at a glance to have better defenses against famine. Is that due to citizen and government wealth or political stability?
Access to food is a human right. UNICEF cites malnutrition as a violation of children’s rights. The food supply is global for better or worse. An odd terrible effect of a global food supply and a dynamic food transportation network is that people are food insecure in states like Iowa that produce about one sixth of the corn and grains that grow in the US. The corn for corn syrup and cow feed, the soybeans for processed oils are part of the problem. Processed foods may be more transportable, but they are much less nutritious. Their vast availability and their cheap price tags stave off starvation but provide poor nutritional choices to an unhealthy population. Globally, foodstuffs have taken over food. While in dire need, they suffice, their production leads to their supplanting traditional, healthier diets comprised of whole, fresh foods. Should the right to food, this human right or children’s right that UNICEF cites, be a right to unprocessed food? Perhaps that is too much to ask, but it would align solutions in different parts of the world, addressing obesity as well as starvation.
Every country, even those that are not bordering the phase 3 levels of hunger, needs safeguards. Diversifying the countries from which food and other staple goods are imported would help stabilize the global system. Each country should look to how it relies on others. Is there a maximum percentage of imports from each country that could protect all countries? For example, if a country imported no more than 5 percent of its grain or oil from one country, then when climate change or war ties up that exporting country’s resources, the importing country would not be as vulnerable.
Lots to think about as the crisis plods on…