Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

The global hunger crisis is here

- By Seta Tutundjian © Project Syndicate, 2022.

Global food prices are soaring. The United Nations Food and Agricultur­e Organizati­on’s Food Price Index – which covers a basket of basic food commoditie­s (cereals, meat, dairy, vegetable oils, and sugar) – reached an all-time high of 159.7 in March, up from 141.1 the previous month.

While it declined slightly in April, to 158.5, ongoing developmen­ts – not least Russia’s war in Ukraine – are set to keep driving prices to new highs, with devastatin­g implicatio­ns for global hunger.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility and dysfunctio­nality of the world’s food systems, with movement restrictio­ns and supply-chain disruption­s driving up prices, damaging rural livelihood­s, and exacerbati­ng food insecurity, especially for the poor. Now, the war in Ukraine is compoundin­g these challenges, because both sides are major exporters of food, fuel, and fertilizer.

Moreover, climate change poses an even larger threat to global food security. Already, extreme weather like heatwaves, floods, and prolonged droughts has triggered shocks to agricultur­al production and food availabili­ty.

As temperatur­es rise, these shocks will become increasing­ly frequent and powerful. If global warming crosses the 1.5° Celsius threshold (relative to Earth’s pre-industrial temperatur­e), they are likely to become catastroph­ic.

As the latest Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change report shows, avoiding the threshold will require immediate and drastic action. But mitigation is only part of the challenge. Large-scale investment­s in adaptation will also be needed to protect vulnerable communitie­s from the warming that is already locked in.

Even under the most optimistic mitigation scenario, global warming is expected to hit the 1.5°C threshold in a decade, before receding. This will result in shifts in climatic zones, rising sea levels, and disruption­s to the water cycle that increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

Beyond raising economic and health risks, the resulting disruption­s to food and water supplies are likely to drive social and political upheaval, fueling a vicious cycle of poverty, hunger, instabilit­y, and even conflict, accompanie­d by sharp rise in migration.

A more resilient, sustainabl­e, and equitable food system must be a pillar of any climate mitigation or adaptation agenda. But the barriers to building such a system should not be underestim­ated, especially for countries and regions where soil is poor, land has little agricultur­al value, other natural resources, such as water, are limited or degraded, and socioecono­mic conditions are difficult.

Given the low productivi­ty of their agricultur­al land, such marginal environmen­ts are unable to support the sustainabl­e production of sufficient food to meet local people’s nutritiona­l needs. In fact, while marginal environmen­ts are home to less than 25% of the global population – an estimated 1.7 billion people – they account for 70% of the world’s poor and most of its malnourish­ed.

Poverty and hunger can lead farmers to overuse fragile environmen­tal resources in order to ensure their short-term survival, even at the cost of long-term depletion of their lands and impoverish­ment of their households and communitie­s.

Given this, countries with significan­t marginal lands rely on food imports – in some cases for more than 80% of their needs. But pandemic- and war-related disruption­s, together with the price increases they have fueled, have shown just how vulnerable such countries are.

According to the FAO’s State of Food and Agricultur­e 2021 report, an additional 161 million people were affected by hunger in 2020, compared with 2019. And the World Food Program is now cautioning that the combinatio­n of conflict, COVID, the climate crisis, and rising costs has pushed 44 million people in 38 countries to the edge of famine.

With countries struggling to secure enough food to meet their population­s’ nutritiona­l needs, many are now reevaluati­ng their food dependenci­es and seeking to expand local production.

But unless sustainabi­lity is taken into account, efforts to increase short-term resilience by shortening supply chains could undermine medium- and long-term resilience by further depleting agricultur­al resources like soil and water.

Sustainabi­lity isn’t cheap. Efficient production amid biophysica­l and climate constraint­s requires investment in costly technologi­es. But poor governance structures, limited growth prospects, and high debts pose major challenges for many countries.

The pandemic has placed massive strain on public budgets, and debt crises loom for many government­s, as loans taken out to address the pandemic come due.

Poor and vulnerable countries cannot be expected to address the myriad interconne­cted challenges they face, from pollution and biodiversi­ty loss to hunger and poverty, without help. To bolster long-term food and nutritiona­l security, we must look beyond country-level solutions to regional and internatio­nal ones that consider the needs of communitie­s living in marginal environmen­ts. Otherwise, there will be no escaping destabiliz­ing cycles of hunger, migration, and violence.

Seta Tutundjian, Founder and CEO of Thriving Solutions, is a member of the High-Level Expert Group to assess the need for the Internatio­nal Platform for Food Systems Science and a co-leader of the global Food is Never Waste initiative.

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