Is the world headed for another food crisis?

One tends to fear that the last century’s achievement in curbing extreme hunger will be undone in the 21st century

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 13 April 2023
Extreme food crises have become a sore point for countries across the world in the 21st century. Representative photo: iStock.

Is the world headed for another year of unprecedented food price rise? All the indicators are pointing towards it. If this happens, 2023 will be the third consecutive year with a record price rise.

Extreme food crises have become a sore point for countries across the world in the 21st century. In the first 22 years of the century, the world has already dealt with three major global food price hikes: in 2007-08, 2010-11 and 2021-22.

This year will add to this record-breaking period of high global food prices. According to the World Bank’s Food Security Update, ”around four-fifths of low-income countries and more than 90 per cent of lower-middle-income countries have seen year-on-year food price increases in excess of 5 per cent in 2023.”

The “cost-of-living crisis” — caused primarily by rising prices — is currently gripping the world to such an extent that the Global Risk Report 2023 by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has found this as the top most severe threat over the coming two years.

The Union Ministry of Finance has already warned that food prices will rise in 2023 due to various reasons, with extreme weather events and the looming El Niño being the prime factors that would impact overall harvests.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has forecast that 345.2 million people will be food insecure this year. This is more than double the number in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic started. It also means that 200 million more people are food insecure in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.

One tends to fear that the last century’s achievement in curbing extreme hunger will be undone in the 21st century. In the 20th century, the world nearly eradicated famines and saw the rise of a system that enabled aversion of extreme food scarcity situations through massive relief operations.

The rise of democratic systems also helped with effective responses to such situations. The last century also reported a drop in severe conflicts that traditionally triggered famines.

But the world is witnessing the descent of famines or famine-like situations, notwithstanding the developments of the past. And during this period, extreme weather events and climatic factors are replacing conflicts and war as the main reasons for triggering such situations.

The food price rise of 2021-22 was in part caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resultant disruption in food supply and distribution. But the number of climate events damaging crops and displacing people also played a definitive role in increasing food prices and thus impacting people’s affordability for food last year.

The famine in the Horn of Africa is primarily caused by climatic events like the unprecedented drought spell. According to WFP, 0.9 million people are already surviving in famine-like conditions right now.

This population has been increasing for the last five years — it has gone up by 10 times. Besides the conflicts, climatic events and rising food prices have played a major role in pushing this population into this desperate situation.

Food price rise has crippling impacts. According to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, on average, “a 5 per cent increase in the real price of food increases the risk of wasting by 9 per cent and severe wasting by 14 per cent.” This adds to the malnutrition burden and, in the face of food scarcity, may lead to mortality.

This is a typical famine situation. While the mortality rate of a famine in the past was high and we could reduce it to near zero, the new century might see a reversal of this. The only difference is that unlike in the past, the current crop damage and price rise are caused by climatic factors.

However, like in the past, the victims nearly remain the same: The vulnerable populations of the poorest and low-income developing countries.

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