Record heat. Record drought. Record floods. Failing crops and rising food prices. What’s going on? Today Russia announced announced a 12-month extension of its grain export ban, sending wheat prices again sharply higher on world markets. It may be too early to declare another food crisis, but it’s time to ask the larger question, “Are we now living in a chronically food insecure world?”
A decade ago, at the beginning of a new millennium, food experts were convinced that global hunger was on the run. Hopes were high that the number of chronically hungry people in the world could be halved by 2015. Oil prices were at near record lows and the question of whether the world was warming was still sharply debated.
Today, it’s a different world. More than 1 billion people in the world are underfed. Global hunger has been on the rise for a decade now. In the last five years, we’ve seen two global food crises. The first one, the 2007-8 food crisis, was precipitated by the depletion of the world’s grain reserves, and it led to a doubling of wheat and corn prices and a tripling of rice prices. Food riots broke out in more than two dozen countries as many of the world’s urban poor could not afford to buy food. Just a few months after that crisis eased, a second food crisis, triggered by the Global Recession, flared up. Food prices had fallen, but the number of people living in severe poverty shot up, increasing, once again, the ranks of the world’s hungry.
The latest potential food crisis is being blamed on climate change. Droughts in Russia and the Ukraine, along with flooding in Pakistan and China, are putting upward pressures again on world grain prices. It’s too early to determine the extent to which extreme weather will impact food prices, but it’s beginning to look like we are drifting from one food crisis to another.
Last year, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned that global food production would have to rise by 70 percent by 2050 to meet the world’s growing appetite for grain, and that food production in developing countries would need to double to keep pace with rising population.
When that forecast was made a year ago, few people thought that meeting the world’s soaring demand for food would be easy. Farmers would have to overcome a host of obstacles, including the loss of arable land and top soil, rising energy prices, increasing water scarcity, and the effects of climate change.
Today, the challenge of feeding the world’s hungry is looking a whole lot harder. Long before the fires and the floods broke out in Asia, the World Food Programme was desperately trying to raise money to feed 4.5 million people in Niger and other parts of the African Sahel. Now it has to provide emergency relief to Pakistan where 6 million people are in urgent need of food assistance, more than 200,000 farm animals have been killed, topsoil has been eroded, and farmers are in desperate need of seed.
Looking ahead, the challenges are only going to get larger. Maplecroft, a global risk assessment firm based in Bath, England, last month released its Food Security Risk Index. Employing 12 criteria developed in collaboration with the World Food Programme, the index identifies the countries most at risk when food prices rise. The ten countries most at risk (Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Liberia, Chad, and Zimbabwe) are all on track to double, or nearly double, their populations over the next 40 years. And many of them could suffer some of the worst effects of a warming planet. The Maplecroft report concludes that “Climate change is having a profound effect on global food security,” and warns that other countries, like Pakistan, could move up quite quickly on the list of the world’s food insecure.
It may be that the recent bout of record temperatures and severe weather is not a harbinger of things to come and that fears of climate change have been overstated. Let’s hope so. For the more than one billion chronically hungry people in the world today it may be their only hope.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President