Crisis in Ukraine and extreme weather have combined with the lingering impact of COVID and economic shocks to create a perfect storm for global food security, exasperating already rising food prices. The Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports has brought shipments from the world’s fourth-largest wheat and corn exporter to a standstill. Drought has impacted harvests in markets from France, to the USA and India. The impact of climate change and ongoing conflicts in Africa are disrupting food production in this region too.
The consequences are already evident on global commodities markets. Take wheat, for example. Prices of the most widely planted crop – which accounts for one in every five calories we consume – have doubled since 2019. India, France and the US – all hit by heatwaves – have seen production forecasts fall by around 12m tonnes. This can be added to the 9m tonnes of Ukrainian wheat that will not find its way onto the global markets.
Because we are so reliant on wheat, these conditions will have a knock-on impact on consumer prices. While shoppers across developed markets like the EU will see the impact on their wallets, people in developing countries highly dependent on wheat imports – places like North Africa and parts the Middle East – will feel the most pain.
Already, aide agencies are warning that it is too late to avert widespread famine in East Africa.
The World Bank says 100m more people are expected to go hungry this year. Each 1% increase in global food prices pushes an extra 10m people into extreme poverty.
According to the FAO’s World Food Programme, it is a race against time to ameliorate the absolute worst consequences of the looming crisis. “We’re facing a perfect storm that is not just going to hurt the poorest of the poor - it’s also going to overwhelm millions of families who until now have just about kept their heads above water,” warned WFP Executive Director David Beasley.
The ripple effects of severe food shortages are stark: social unrest, political instability, conflict and mass migration. “Conditions now are much worse than during the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2007-2008 food price crisis, when 48 countries were rocked by political unrest, riots and protests. We’ve already seen what’s happening in Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, and Sri Lanka – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have solutions. But we need to act, and act fast,” Beasley urged earlier this month.
With this in mind, all eyes now turn to the G7 Leaders’ Summit. Will the world’s largest economies commit to decisive action to try and get ahead of the emergency?
Crop diversification for food system resilience
As the wheat example shows, one of the greatest weaknesses in today’s food system is our over-reliance on a few big crops that are produced and traded globally by a consolidated number of players. This leaves us exposed to disruption from climate change, global heating extreme weather and wars.
According to the WFP – alongside conflict – frequent and recurring climate shocks continue to drive ‘acute hunger’, demonstrating that we have entered a ‘new normal’ where droughts, flooding, hurricanes, and cyclones ‘repeatedly decimate farming and livestock rearing’, driving population displacement and pushing millions to the brink in countries across the world.
“Our over-centralised food system - where trade is focused on a few crops, produced in a small number of countries, and dominated by a handful of corporations - means a conflict between two countries can create chaos across the globe,” observed Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Director of the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University.
Fanzo believes that the G7 needs to address this issue by recalibrating the way it delivers subsidies, which are currently channelled towards big ag outputs. According to a recent UN report, global agricultural support stands at almost US$540bn a year – or 15% of agricultural output - with spending weighted against producers in the developing world. Over two-thirds of this support is considered price-distorting and ‘largely harmful to the environment’, the report concluded.
Addressing this balance is an important opportunity unlock for G7 leaders, Fanzo maintained. “The G7 must pull out all the stops to stop people going hungry now. They must also build a more resilient food system by shifting subsidies and policy support away from industrial agriculture and towards more diverse localised food production.”
José Luis Chicoma, former Minister of Production of Peru and Yale World Fellow, agreed. “The G7’s aim to help developing countries become self-sufficient in food will, if realised, mean fewer hungry people and fewer global food crises. But words are cheap. To make this a reality, G7 leaders must put their political weight and financial muscle behind smallholder producers and more diverse localised food systems.”
Support for smallholders – who provide over 70% of the calories consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – is critical. Currently, Climate Policy Initiative data shows, they receive a tiny proportion of climate finance to help them build resilience to climate change. “The G7 and donors must double the climate finance available for food and agriculture and ensure that smallholder producers - who are critical to food security but receive just 1.7% of climate finance – receive more support,” Chicoma stressed.
Should we be talking crops for food versus fuel?
The G7 finance ministers will discuss the economic viability of biofuels as a response to the energy price crisis and a leaders’ debate is expected to follow.
Currently, the US uses 30-40% of its corn supply to produce ethanol that generates around 5% of transport fuel. In Europe, 10% of cereal production is used for biofuels. Agricultural lobbies support the continued use of crops in the biofuels sector, with Copa Cogeca in Europe insisting that ‘sustainable’ biofuels contribute to the region’s food and fuel security in a recent position paper.
To many commentators, however, the use of food stocks to produce fuel is a waste of resources – and one that serves to further push food prices up.
"The world is facing a global food catastrophe. We must stop burning food crops in our cars,” insisted Transport & Environment biofuels and energy campaigns manager Maik Marahrens. “Halting crop-based biofuels would be the easiest way to free up food supplies and would more than make up for the wheat, corn and sunflower oil currently stuck in Ukraine. G7 leaders can save millions of the world's poorest people from hunger and starvation. They must choose food over fuel."
Food security, climate change and environmental protections
Agricultural lobbies have seized on the current crisis to call for policy to re-focus on the importance of food security and support intensification of agricultural outputs and increased production. For instance, Copa Cogeca wants to see the EU free up ‘all available’ land for agricultural production.
“Copa and Cogeca are asking to be able to cultivate all available land in 2022 to compensate for the blockage of Russian and Ukrainian production. Everything must be done to prevent disruptions in supply chains, which will inevitably lead to shortages in certain parts of the world. This is an essential question of food sovereignty and democratic stability,” the organisations argue.
Copa and Cogeca is calling for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way Brussels thinks about agriculture, starting with the objectives set out in the Farm to Fork, part of the bloc’s flagship sustainability policy, the Green Deal.
Christiane Lambert, Copa President, has insisted increased production thanks to environmental deregulation does not have to come at the expense of food system sustainability. “As with energy, in agriculture we strongly believe that it is possible to strengthen our strategic autonomy while continuing to make progress on sustainability.”
But in a world where food production accounts for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions, reform to address the climate impact of the food system will be necessary to meet the Paris Agreement commitments. And many commentators argue that rolling back climate and environmental policies to deliver short-term yield gains will actually weigh on future food security.
The tension between regulation to protect nature and the demands of powerful farming lobbies is likely to be evident at the G7 meeting. It is understood that Germany is eager that the response to the food crisis recognises links to the climate and nature crises. Other members of the G7, purportedly the US and France, are instead willing to put environmental policies to one side to retain the support of their powerful farming lobbies.
“The G7 risk their climate reputation in how they deal with the food price crisis, We have enough food to feed the world and yet millions are starving, so clearly this is not a question of more intensive production, but rather one of distribution, avoiding wasted food, finding the right production livestock balance, and avoiding the use of food for other purposes,” said Janez Potonik, Co-Chair UNEP International Resource Panel, Partner SYSTEMIQ and former European Commissioner for Science and Research and the Environment.
“Food security depends on a stable climate, healthy soils, water, and pollinators. The world needs more nature, not less and it needs it now if we are to prevent the next big crisis from which we might never recover.”