In the wake of Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, food prices are skyrocketing, compounding an existing food crisis. In March, the FAO’s Food Price Index reached its highest level ever, an increase of 30% from the year before.
COVID-related supply chain challenges, poor harvests and climate change have played a role in making 2022 a terrible year for food. Droughts in North and East Africa, a heatwave in India and conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia mean that Putin’s invasion lit an already primed fuse.
But there is a deeper story. Years of rising demand driven by population growth and rising prosperity in Asia have been met with stagnating supply.
- In 2021, there were 193 million people in urgent need of food assistance. If this population were a country, it would be the 8th largest in the world.
- Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, an additional +54.2 million people are experiencing hunger.
- Gender inequalities are widening. Before the pandemic, women were 6% more likely than men to experience hunger. During the height of the pandemic, it was 10%.
- Credible estimates put the global cost of ending hunger between $39 billion and $50 billion a year, less than half the $110 billion spent on pet food last year.
What is hunger?
Hunger is the most visible indicator of poverty. Every one of us needs food to stay alive and healthy. Families will almost always prioritise food over other expenses. So when they can’t afford to eat, you know they are in crisis.
When meals are skipped, the body begins to break down stored fat and protein. This affects energy and concentration levels, and leads to irritability, anger, and frustration. After a week of no food, the body starts to turn fat into ketones for energy. When fat stores are depleted, the body breaks down protein in muscles. The eyes begin to sink in and glass over. The skin loosens and turns pale. When protein runs out, essential organs cease to function and the heart often stops.
It’s a painful and heartbreaking story repeated 25,000 times every day. Once every three seconds.
Hunger isn’t just about access to calories for survival, it also impacts development. Micro-nutrients are particularly important for the first 1000 days of life from conception to two years old.
A child that doesn’t get the right nutrients at the start of life faces a lifetime of stunted growth because critical stages of brain and body development are missed. Stunted children (who are smaller than expected for their age) are 19% less likely to be able to read a simple sentence aged 8, and go on to earn 20% less as adults.
The travesty of this is how preventable it is. This hidden hunger affects whole generations but can be solved with simple things like low cost medicines, and fortified foods. There’s a business case too. Reducing malnutrition in Africa and Asia could increase a country’s overall economic productivity by 11 percent.
Credible estimates put the global cost of ending hunger at $39 billion and $50 billion a year. To put that in context, the global pet food market was valued at $110 billion in 2021.
How is Hunger defined?
Hunger is an umbrella term used to mean a number of different things, which can be confusing. Technically called food insecurity, the issue is divided into five categories by what’s called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.
In the first phase, households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs, but as we move through the phases, hunger gets more extreme.
In 2022, there are:
- 267.2 million people in 47 countries in Phase 2 – stressed
- 147.5 million people in 47 countries in Phase 3 – crisis
- 41.2 million people in 41 countries in Phase 4 – emergency
- 0.9 million people in 4 countries in Phase 5 – catastrophe
What drives hunger?
In short, poverty. When food is in short supply due to poor harvests, war or other shocks, prices go up and those without resources can’t afford to pay for it.
Families adapt by eating less, eating less nutritious food, pulling children from school, or selling productive assets – such as livestock – that they used to earn money. This can deplete their resilience to future food crises.
Women often eat “last and least” as they prioritise their children’s meals or face cultural norms that prioritise men.
In some instances, families may make heartbreaking choices like facilitating a child marriage to increase their or their daughter’s food security, or women may trade sex for food.
A hungry mob is an angry mob
Bob Marley famously sang that ‘a hungry mob is an angry mob.’ Significant increases in food prices have preceded riots and instability.
Between 2004 and 2012, food prices skyrocketed – and during that period 30 countries experienced food related social unrest.
Food insecurity also exacerbates sexual exploitation and abuse, particularly in conflict settings. In turn gender-based violence leads to decreased agricultural outputs and food security – a violent and toxic cycle.
Hunger also drives displacement. In Somalia, 245,000 people facing drought have fled since the beginning of 2021. This could rise to 1.4 million. For women and girls, this carries a risk of exploitation, abuse and trafficking.
The Fertiliser Conundrum
Higher food prices generally mean higher incomes for farmers. And if a crop is profitable, large farmers will plant more. But there is a lag time between planting and harvesting, and making accurate predictions in the face of uncertainty is challenging.
It only makes sense for farmers to invest in expensive fertilisers if crop prices are going to pay off. And smallholders who feed the majority of the global rural poor are understandably risk-averse and it can be very challenging to convince them to change their crop rotation.
Russia and Belarus are among the world’s largest suppliers of potash, a critical ingredient in fertiliser. If this supply disappears from the global market, prices will increase and sales will inevitably go to the highest bidder.
Africa, which comprises just 3-4% of the world fertiliser market, could lose out in the bidding war. Female farmers – who grow 70% of Africa’s food – already have unequal access to fertiliser, which will only worsen with increased prices.
Building more self-sufficiency in fertiliser production is necessary, but setting up potash and phosphate production requires a 10-year time horizon, and urea, another key fertiliser component, requires 5 years of investment to produce at scale.
What should countries do about it?
- Countries should avoid making things worse.
- Resist export bans on key commodities and avoid panic buying.
- Ensure that vulnerable countries have access to fertilisers, even when prices increase.
- Fully funding emergency humanitarian appeals.
- Create a ‘humanitarian corridor’ in the Black Sea to facilitate grain exports from Ukraine.
- Countries should target subsidies and social protection to the most vulnerable and support countries with the fiscal space to do so.
- Rapidly fulfill the G7 and G20 commitment to recycle US$100 billion IMF Special Drawing Rights to support low- and middle-income countries with their response to the crisis.
- Provide an effective solution to debt sustainability through fixing the G20’s Common Framework.
- Build Shock-Response Social Protection systems that respond to mass-scale, multi-dimensional shocks like drought/food insecurity inclusive of people forced to flee (refugees, IDPs/stateless persons, returnees).
- Countries should make investments to scale up food production
- Commit to medium-term investments to boost production – including gender-responsive approaches to land ownership, financial services and agricultural inputs.
- Establish emergency mechanisms that make fertiliser available to vulnerable countries, ensuring equal gender distribution, when prices increase dramatically.
How can I lean more and stay informed?
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