World hunger calls for collective action

The global system that feeds humanity has been under strain for two years. It started with the coronavirus pandemic, which created food insecurity by disrupting agricultural production, supply chains and livelihoods. The cost of critical inputs for agriculture – energy and fertilizer – has risen sharply, with crude oil prices tripling between late 2020 and early 2022. The Russian-Ukrainian war has strangled crucial sources of supply, with both countries contributing 28% to world wheat exports and 15% to world corn exports. Exports from Ukraine are simply not possible, as the port of Odessa is blocked by Russia and mined by Ukraine, while exports from Russia are squeezed by sanctions. Climate change has exacerbated the problem for wheat in 2022. Unexpected rains in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, an unprecedented heat wave in India, the world’s second largest wheat producer, and insufficient rains in the wheat belts of the United States. United and France, all have reduced production. Drought in the Horn of Africa has severely affected wheat and maize production.

In less than six months, world wheat prices have increased by 60%. The outlook is worrying.

War-ravaged Ukraine may not be able to store what is left of the upcoming harvest, or sow for the next season. Russia will inevitably experience constraints. Soaring prices for energy, fertilizers and pesticides will squeeze profit margins or decrease their use, reducing agricultural yields and production everywhere, especially for poor farmers in developing countries. The specter of a global food shortage looms on the horizon. In a May 18 statement, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, said: “Global hunger levels have reached a new high. In just two years, the number of severely food insecure people has doubled, from 135 million to 276 million. , mass hunger and starvation, in a crisis that could last for years.”

The availability of food grains for human consumption is limited not only by production levels, but also by other uses. On the one hand, the proportion of cereals used to feed animals is alarming. Estimates suggest that 33% of corn produced in the US and 40% of wheat produced by the EU is eaten by cows, while a huge amount of corn grown and imported by China is used to feed pigs. On the other hand, a significant, albeit smaller, proportion of grains and vegetable oils is used to make biofuels – ethanol and biodiesel – which keep cars or trucks on the road, although the aim is to reduce Pollution.

There is a deeper structural problem in the global food system. Production and exports are concentrated in 10-12 countries, while the consumption and imports of more widely distributed foodstuffs depend on population and income levels. Moreover, a relatively small proportion of world production—25% for wheat and 15% for corn—is exported. The focus should be on wheat, the most important cereal for human consumption, except in Asia, where it is rice.

Eleven countries represent 70% of world wheat production: China and India (the two leading producers) for 31%, Russia and Ukraine for 15%, the United States, Canada, France, Germany and Australia for 19%, Turkey and Argentina for 5%. %. Only ten countries represent 86% of world wheat exports: the United States, Canada, France, Australia, Germany and Poland for 50%, Russia and Ukraine for 28%, Argentina and Kazakhstan for 8%. Essentially, rich countries, which also use wheat for animal feed and biofuels, are the exporters. Similarly, only ten countries account for 83% of world imports, but on the other hand, all ten are developing countries, ranked in descending order of import volumes: Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, China, Algeria, Bangladesh, Morocco, Nigeria, Brazil and the Philippines. Regions that depend on wheat imports for food include North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Most of these countries and regions are vulnerable as Russia and Ukraine supply 25-75% of their wheat imports.

More than two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are net food importers, mostly in the developing world. The poor in these countries spend at least 40%, if not more, of their income on food. For the poorest, wheat and bread also provide a significant portion of the calories needed to fight hunger. And, when there is a food shortage, it is the poor who go without.

Satyajit Ray’s portrayal of the 1940s Bengal famine in Distant Thunder, or Amartya Sen’s analysis in Poverty and Famines, both show that starvation deaths are attributable to the lack of income of the poor rather than to food shortages. In the current global context, it will be the poor countries that cannot afford to buy scarce foodstuffs at high prices, and hunger will be the fate of their poor.

World hunger is a global problem. National actions taken in isolation, such as export restrictions, are not enough. International collective action, driven by solidarity and implemented through cooperation, is the need of the hour. If the world cannot feed its people, the resulting hunger and famine will fuel conflict by triggering economic, social and political tensions within countries that could spill over national borders.

Deepak Nayyar is Emeritus Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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