A mother in Somalia skips another meal so her children can eat. A father in Syria works 13 hours but still cannot afford to feed his family. A father in Niger sees his children go to sleep hungry.
Food prices, already on the rise since the pandemic, have soared due to the war in Ukraine; the World Bank estimates a shocking 37% increase. The price of wheat soared by 80% between April 2020 and December 2021. In Syria, food prices doubled last year.
The world was already in the grip of hunger before the Covid-19 hit. In 2020, up to 811 million people – nearly one in 10 people – did not have enough food. And now the world is hurtling towards an unprecedented hunger crisis.
Many poor countries are unable – and too often are unable by an unequal global food system – to produce enough food to feed their people. They have to rely on food imports. The reason is simple: crops are difficult to grow. The reasons are less simple: human-caused climate degradation is intensifying floods and droughts, locusts are ravaging crops, conflict is destroying farmland and infrastructure, and people simply don’t have enough money to buy seeds and materials to grow crops.
Moreover, half of the world’s crops are now used to produce biofuels, animal feed and other products, such as textiles. Many of these crops are monocultures, growing only one type of crop that destroys biodiversity and extracts nutrients from the soil. Not only is valuable farmland being used to grow non-food crops, but the type of farming used also harms the environment and leads to crop decline in the long run.
Dependence on food imports creates extreme vulnerability to external shocks. Almost half of African countries import more than a third of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Fifteen countries, including Lebanon, Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo, import more than half of their share. Almost all the wheat in Somalia, where the worst drought in more than 40 years has left millions facing near-famine conditions, comes from Russia and Ukraine.
Thus, rising and fluctuating food prices have hit vulnerable countries like a sledgehammer. Forty-two percent of Yemen’s wheat was shipped from Ukraine in the three months from December 20, 2021 to March 6, 2022, according to a shipment source seen by Oxfam. A week after the start of the war in Ukraine, wheat prices in war-torn Yemen have risen by 24%. The United Nations has said the country’s already severe hunger crisis “is on the brink of outright disaster”. Lesson learned: Addiction is dangerous.
Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Proponents of large-scale, intensive industrial agriculture say, once again, that we should increase global production. But that’s not the solution. The world’s farmers produce enough food to feed the world’s population, and in recent years the world has seen record harvests of grain production. The main problem is access to food, not availability. We need systemic change, not a short-term fix.
Governments tried to cut corners during the 2007-2008 global food crisis which saw wheat and rice prices almost double, pushing 100 million people into poverty and, in 2009, more than a billion into poverty. hunger. Policy responses were either one-off, short-term initiatives or focused on the wrong target – increasing production and private sector investment. These measures have only closed existing cracks in the global food system, a system that is unsustainable for people and the planet.
We must recognize that the underlying causes of hunger lie in extreme inequality. Immediately, governments must urgently close the gap between what people can afford and the price of the food they need. More funds are needed to help people facing hunger around the world. More importantly, donor governments should not plunder aid budgets earmarked for crises in poor countries to pay for the new costs of Ukrainian aid.
Denmark has already cut its funding to Mali, Syria and Bangladesh. Sweden followed suit. No life is worth more than another. Rich countries have rightly spent billions of dollars to save their economies from the impact of the pandemic. A mere fraction of that is needed to ensure people around the world can put food on the table. But governments must go much further. This means investing in a sustainable future for all, in which small family farming plays a key role.
Small family farms feed a third of the world’s population and, in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, they provide more than 70% of the food supply. If these farmers had more access to land, water, finance, infrastructure and markets, and if their rights were protected, they could produce much more food. They could significantly reduce poverty and hunger. This means, vitally, tackling the unequal climate crisis in which the poorest people and small farmers who have contributed the least to the crisis are suffering the most at the expense of overconsumption by one percent. And that means tackling extreme land inequalities, including by securing land rights for women small-scale farmers.
These are all things governments can – and must – do urgently. Hunger is unacceptable in the 21st century. To see millions close to starvation in a world of plenty, in a world where the wealth of billionaires has exploded, is an abomination. Only the right political choices can end hunger.
This article was originally published under the title: “Ukraine: from the granary to the breadcrumbs”.