People line up for food outside a bakery in the port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, on July 27. Some people have to wait for hours for a bag of subsidized Arabic pitta bread, in short supply as an economic crisis that has lasted years has depleted state coffers. (IBRAHIM CHALHOUB / AFP)
The world has faced a food crisis of unprecedented proportions this year — the largest in modern history, as conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis and rising costs have combined to pose great risks for hungry people across the world.
As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night. The number of those facing acute food insecurity has risen from 135 million to 345 million since 2019. A total of 49 million people in 49 countries are teetering on the edge of famine, according to figures from the United Nations' World Food Programme.
Conflict is still the biggest driver of hunger, with 60 percent of the world's hungry living in areas afflicted by war and violence
"We are facing an unprecedented global food crisis and all signs suggest we have not yet seen the worst. For the last three years, hunger numbers have repeatedly hit new peaks," WFP Executive Director David Beasley said. He warned that things can and will get worse unless there is a large-scale and coordinated effort to address the root causes of this crisis.
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Monika Tothova, an economist with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said there are many reasons for prevailing high levels of food insecurity.
"These reasons, often referred to as drivers, are increasing in frequency and intensity, and include conflicts, climate variability and weather extremes, economic slowdowns and downturns — all exacerbated by the underlying causes of poverty and very high and persistent levels of inequality," she said.
In addition, these drivers often do not act alone. For instance, conflicts are often accompanied by economic downturns, which affect livelihoods and the ability of people to earn resources, leading to increasing poverty levels and higher prevalence of food insecurity, she said.
Unfortunately, the main drivers of high levels of food insecurity have not improved this year. People in the Horn of Africa are facing a fifth consecutive failed rain season in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, which will constrain their production, and is likely to push many deeper into food insecurity.
Conflict is still the biggest driver of hunger, with 60 percent of the world's hungry living in areas afflicted by war and violence. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is further proof of how conflict feeds hunger, forcing people out of their homes and wiping out their sources of income, the WFP said.
Russia and Ukraine are among the world's most important producers of agricultural commodities. Both countries are net exporters of agricultural produce and play leading supply roles in global foodstuffs and fertilizer markets.
Since the outbreak of the conflict on Feb 24, commodity prices reached very high levels as the production, processing and transportation of agricultural commodities have been stagnated by the conflict, said Chen Yangfen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Institute of Agricultural Economics and Development.
On July 22 Russia and Ukraine separately signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Istanbul with Turkiye and the UN on grain and fertilizer exports to ensure supplies to global markets amid the conflict. Russia and Ukraine agreed in November to prolong the deal for a further 120 days.
Tothova said with this deal, more than 13.5 million metric tons of different agricultural commodities were shipped out of Ukraine. Although it is less than the shipments from Ukraine in the previous season, it did improve availability on the world market and sent a signal that it is possible to export from the country.
The initiative also helped Ukrainian farmers to sell their products, giving them resources to plant in the future.
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Overall, there are no shortages globally. However, as energy and food prices are elevated, there are some importing countries that find prices too high, especially when facing balance-of-payments problems. The same applies to consumers. Amid increasing inflation and stagnating livelihoods, some consumers may not have enough resources to purchase sufficient amounts of food.
"At this point, food commodity prices have decreased from their peaks, but remain elevated. What will happen to food commodity prices in the future depends on a number of factors, including how the 2022/23 crop year will develop," she said. At the moment, fertilizer prices remain high, and this could impact the amount of fertilizer farmers use, eventually constraining the quantity produced.
In addition, there is uncertainty about the weather. And climatic shock affecting any major producer or exporter will introduce additional uncertainty into production — and consequently prices — which in turn impact the ability to purchase food, particularly of the most vulnerable people, Tothova said.
Chen said countries need to make joint efforts in the face of food security challenges against the backdrop of global geopolitics, climate change and economic recovery, as unilateralism is not the way out.
If the food situation continues to worsen, it may lead to political instability and even social unrest in some countries and regions, and the global community should work together to help the hungry cope with rising food prices, he said.