Throughout the last few months, the majority of western media outlets have focused on the global food crisis, blaming it primarily on Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, western politicians are trying to shift attention from the fact that the global food crisis was escalating exponentially prior to the crisis. The possibility of a biblical-scale famine and a perfect storm was first mentioned in 2020 by the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme. Over 155 million people in 55 nations have faced serious food security threats.
Let’s discuss the issue with facts and figures. I will start with Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) & Cadre Harmonisé (CH). IPC/CH describes the food security and scarcity in the phases below:
|Households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs without engaging in atypical, unsustainable strategies to access food and income||Households have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in detrimental coping strategies||Households have food consumption gaps with high or above usual acute malnutrition OR accelerated depletion of livelihood assets that will lead to food consumption gaps||Households have large food consumption gaps resulting in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality OR face extreme loss of livelihood assets that will lead to food consumption gaps||Households have an extreme lack of food and other basic needs. Starvation, death and destitution are evident|
Chart 1: Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) & Cadre Harmonise (CH) to analyze global food crisis
In 2021, over 193 million people in 53 countries/territories faced acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3-5; see Chart 1), according to the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2022). In comparison to the already record numbers of 2020, this is an almost 40 million increase. Over half a million people (570,000) in Ethiopia, southern Madagascar, South Sudan, and Yemen were identified as being in the most critical phase of acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 5; see Chart 1) and required immediate assistance to avoid widespread livelihood collapse, famine, and death. The number of people encountering crisis or worse (IPC/CH Phase 3 or higher; see Chart 1) approximately doubled between 2016 and 2021 when looking at the same 39 countries/territories represented in all editions of the report, with persistent increases each year since 2017.
Chart 2: Key findings in Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2022)
According to the EU/FAO/WFP sponsored Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2022), the key drivers behind rising acute food insecurity in 2021 were:
• Conflict (mainly to maintain western world order that pushed 139 million people in 24 countries/territories into acute food insecurity, up from around 99 million in 23 countries/territories in 2020. Note that the war in Ukraine didn’t occur in 2021);
• Weather extremes (over 23 million people in 8 countries/territories, up from 15.7 million in 15 countries/territories);
• Economic shocks – (over 30 million people in 21 countries/territories, down from over 40 million people in 17 countries/territories in 2020 mainly due to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic).
However, Gro Intelligence, a company that supplies global agriculture data and builds predictive models, found that there are five significant issues taking place at the same time escalating the global food crisis. Those are fertilizer shortages, climate changes, record-low cooking oil supplies, record-low grain inventories, and logistical impediments.
On fertilizer shortages, Gro Intelligence found that because of the rebound in crop prices, supply shocks driven by logistical impediments, ongoing COVID-19 related constraints in global value chains, natural gas restrictions that impact fertilizer production, sanctions and export restrictions on Russia amidst its war in Ukraine, global fertilizer prices have nearly tripled year on year and quadrupled over the past two years. High fertilizer prices will limit agricultural yields in key producing regions like Brazil, the United States, and Western Europe in consecutive years, wreaking havoc on global food security and inflation for at least the next three to five years.
On the other hand, Gro intelligence found that drought conditions for wheat around the world are at their worst in over 20 years, and major bread baskets like the United States and Brazil, the world’s two largest agricultural exporters, are also suffering from severe droughts. Besides, droughts are also wreaking havoc on major grain importers in the Middle East and Africa.
According to Gro intelligence findings, in the last two years, the price of palm oil has virtually tripled. Increased biofuel demand, drought in alternative cooking oil producing regions such as Brazil and Canada, record import demand from China, and the loss of nearly 75% of global sunflower oil exports due to western economic sanctions on Russia for conducting a war in Ukraine have increased the price of vegetable oil. Furthermore, the recent export embargo on palm oil in Indonesia, which produces 60% of the world’s palm oil, has put major upward pricing pressure. In the United States, the cost of purchasing seed to plant one acre of soybeans and corn climbed by 325 percent and 259 percent, respectively, between 1995 and 2011, but yield per acre increased by just 18.9% and 29.7%, respectively.
Furthermore, global wheat inventories are approaching 20%, a level not seen since the 2007-2008 financial and commodity crisis. It’s worth noting that the lowest grain inventory levels are currently occurring at a time when fertilizers availability is severely limited, and drought in wheat-growing regions throughout the world is at its worst in 20 years. For years, global storage of large agricultural commodities had been declining, and agricultural investment in production had been at historically low levels.
On the role of logistics disruption due to the war in Ukraine in the global food crisis, it can be said that there is a possibility of global food crisis aggravation since Russia and Ukraine used to export about a third of the world’s wheat and are among the top five corn exporters besides providing 60 percent of the world’s sunflower oil supply.
As a result, this combination of circumstances caused by globalization, as well as a number of others, all had a role in the quick rise in prices and global food scarcity. The African continent is experiencing a severe food crisis, but other parts of the world have been hit as well, with Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and Haiti among the ten worst food crises in the world, where the war in Ukraine has no role to play.
Considering the aforementioned analysis, it can be concluded that the war in Ukraine did not initiate the global food security crisis. It may add extra fuel to a long-burning fire. The global food crisis began long before the COVID 19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of the global supply networks. Even if the war in Ukraine ends tomorrow, the global food crisis will not go away without concerted action. While briefing the UNSC, the head of Gro Intelligence Sara Menker summed up that it’s not the time for blaming, it’s high time for common and coordinated steps to be taken.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed
Geopolitical Analyst and Strategic Thinker