Global food prices are soaring. Natural gas costs are ballooning. Facing a life-and-death situation, millions around the planet are facing stark starvation and subsequent death. Truly, food fragilities are throwing nations into a cesspool of worries. Snags in supplies are inflating food import costs, threatening vulnerable nations with grave consequences. Will this unprecedented food crisis spell doom for humanity?

The numbers may offer an answer. Shortages have driven up food costs and pumped up food import bills by more than $ 25 billion in many nations. This brings up the disheartening prospect of throwing 1.7 billion people into an abyss of unforeseen food crisis.

Staring at a Scary Hellhole

Who is to be blamed? Undoubtedly, the ongoing Ukraine war. Internal conflicts in many regions are precipitating the crisis. Climate change and slowing economic growth caused by Covid are making the wounds fester. Vulnerable economies are already starting at a scary hellhole. The disastrous impact of the Ukraine war is not an exaggeration. The war has paralysed cereal exports from Ukraine and Russia, the two supply behemoths. As many as 50 countries depend on these two for 30 per cent of their cereal imports. As many as 20 of them import more than 50 per cent of their cereal needs.,%2C%20Jord an%2C%20and%20Morocco2.

This apart, Russia is a dominant exporter of nitrogen, potassium- phosphorus fertilisers. The Ukraine war has slammed a halt to their exports, driving up food prices to dizzying heights. The cumulative effect of such halts and rising cost of imports of food-fertilisers is tearing global farmers apart. The coming years will be terrible for food security. More so as North African nations import more than half of their wheat requirements from Russia and Ukraine alone.

An Alarming Dimension

Inevitably, the crisis is hurting 1.7 billion people living in more than 60 fragile economies around the globe. As the Ukraine war shows no signs of drawing to a close, the global food crisis should get worse.  If the Indian monsoon comes to a disappointing close, it will add to the woes of rice-consuming regions of the world. Catastrophic floods and drought in many of these regions will hurt them.

What adds an alarming dimension to this crisis is a piece of scary statistics. Together, ongoing conflicts on this earth account for more than 70 per cent of today’s global food fragility. The fact conflict-hit nations are mired in debt and entangled in balance of payments problem makes the situation more serious. Thus, the problem nations are forced to import inferior produce in reduced volumes. With their credit worthiness under a cloud, these damned nations are unable to import food as and when they need. This creates gaps in their imports which get wider with the passage of time.

The Climatic Trapeze

Worse, payments crisis in food importing nations is precipitated by climate change. Acute drought and alarming floods make regions swing dangerously on a climatic trapeze. Immense heat has become a normal climate event in South Asia and the United States. Drought keeps hitting many regions in Europe, East Africa and China. Unseen floods are killing crops in Korea. These climate calamities are making available food scarce, unbearably inferior in quality and more expensive.

In such a disheartening situation, weaker economies find it hard to subsidise crop insurance. With no exit route in sight, farmers fall prey to the climate-change monster. Multinational insurance companies, who underwrite farm losses, find it unprofitable to do so in these economies.

Thus, food-importing nations need assistance to fill the gaps in their food import bills. Easing food-export restrictions and aggressive social security programmes may help to soften the impact of a global food crisis. Sadly, United Nations could do nothing more than mediating a decision to re-open the Black Sea for allowing ships carrying food. This is scratching the surface and not enough.

UN Proposes Russia Disposes

The 22 July agreement between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations to renew food exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports did make wheat prices drop by 14.5 per cent at once. Doomed to an agonising start, this export renewal exercise finally ended up as an unlikely victim to marauding and maiming Russian missiles raining on the port of Odesa. Miserably, where the United Nations proposed, Russia disposed.

Can a quick action salvage the situation now? Again, the numbers offer a negative response. As the task on hand is formidable, Herculean efforts are needed to bridge the annual gap of 14 billion Euros in food security spending by humanitarian agencies. This is what the Ceres 2030 report says. More worrisome is the disastrous drought and dearth of food which have hit the Horn of Africa and its 26 million people. With no recourse, as many as 50 million have fallen into a deep abyss of acute food insecurity in East Africa and the surrounding regions. No doubt, this is an unmitigated disaster.

Woeful World Food Programme

What will make this Operation Salvage more difficult is ‘real’ food inflation, which is rearing its fearsome head again in food-importing economies. Consider Lebanon for example. Here, real food inflation is more than 120 per cent. Domestic food-price inflation is killingly high in many other low and middle-income economies. Can the planet look up to the World Food Programme for deliverance?

Comb through the following statistics for an answer. The World Food Programme says as many as 49 million in 46 economies could soon face famine or ‘famine-like’ conditions. Among those worst hit will be   Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. Cumulatively, as many as 750,000 could die of starvation in these economies. With meagre resources at its disposal, the World Food Programme will not be able to rise up to global expectations.

Can the World Food Programme help at least Sri Lanka and its ilk which are not able to import food because of dwindling forex reserves? Again, nope. The programme is counting on donations of 8 billion USD received this year. But, it needs a whopping 22 billion USD to do justice to the job at hand. Too wide a gap to be filled with skimpy funds.

The Challenge of Food Security

Truly, the future is bleak. The World Bank says the Ukraine war could drive 95 million people into a hellhole of dire poverty. This will confer on 2022 the distinction of being the second-worst year in the history of poverty reduction. The worst year was 2020. Counter-productive export bans and restrictions are aggravating a crisis. The seven large advanced economies (G-7) might have vowed to end export bans. But, food insecurity will remain a challenge. As long as wars and conflicts continue to tear food security apart, this challenge cannot be wished away.

Against the backdrop of this challenge, consider the following words of the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “It takes a world to fix the world.” Threatened by a grave unprecedented food crisis, nations have no option but to unite under an umbrella of common responsibility and universal welfare. Prosperous nations alone can improve the lot of deprived nations. This should be done right now, before it gets too late for redemption.

In Conclusion

Replay now what the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said in a June 2022 Economic and Social Council meeting: “Food is a fundamental human right. We must alleviate suffering through humanitarian assistance and by investing in social protection systems.” In fact, food precedes all other fundamental rights.

We, global citizens need to accept one stark mocking-on-the-face reality. Today, we are living in a world where fundamental rights are regularly violated, trampled upon, crushed and taken away with no compunction whatsoever. Will food too get politicised and meet a similar fate? Will food too become a fundamental right meant to be violated in the years ahead? This is an irresistible food for thought.