Seven years ago, world leaders committed to a highly ambitious target: ending hunger by 2030. That goal is now more distant than ever. The United Nations estimates that the number of people in “hunger emergencies” – just one step away from famine – has jumped from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million. This week the UN humanitarian chief warned that famine is “at the door” in Somalia. Across the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa, 22 million are at risk of starvation. Almost a third of Pakistan is underwater, and as much as four-fifths of its livestock have died. In southern China, drought and a heatwave are putting crops at risk. These follow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which affected supplies from two major exporters, and sent energy and fertiliser prices soaring.
Arif Husain, the UN World Food Programme’s chief economist, has noted that the war itself did not create the crisis, but rather “put a lot of fuel on an already burning fire”. Multiple conflicts and climate shocks were already having an impact when the pandemic hit. Though its effects on food production were not as severe as many had feared, it depleted reserves and many have not recovered. It looks highly likely that 2023 will be worse. Two-thirds of those affected by hunger last year were women – with the food security gap between women and men multiplying by 8.4 since 2018.
The UN stresses that at the moment the issue is not supply but access and affordability. Globally, prices have risen by about 20% year-on-year (while food inflation stands at 33% in Iran and a staggering 122% in Lebanon). But production is an increasing concern. Fertiliser prices have soared by as much as 300% in some countries in Africa; wars and extreme weather are disrupting planting for next year’s crops.
The crisis is laying bare the broken food system that underlies it, in which consumers, and often producers, struggle while others make huge profits. Grain trading is concentrated in the hands of only four companies, which are making record profits from desperately needed dietary staples. Speculation and profiteering were blamed for helping cause the Arab spring in the last food crisis; the fear is that they are once more prevailing.
The resumption of Ukrainian grain exports, though sorely needed, cannot fix this even if it endures. A good harvest would help, if major food-producing regions are luckier with the weather next year. A windfall tax on companies that have profited richly from the pandemic could be used to help feed people now and create a sustainable food system, as Oxfam has proposed.
Any long-term solution will require curbing carbon emissions, adapting crops as the climate crisis takes hold, reducing dependence on chemical fertilisers – and challenging the dominance of a small number of players in food markets. Even the UN’s own human rights experts attacked its major food systems summit last year for failing to include the voices of the most vulnerable or effect any meaningful change.
The failure of governments to address the real problems has left the way clear for companies to exploit high prices for excessive profit, and Vladimir Putin to manipulate food for political ends – a tactic that others may be tempted to adopt in future, knowing full well its deadly cost. Meeting the 2030 goal is now a more daunting challenge than ever. The backwards slide must be halted.