Food prices reached their highest level ever this spring, adding to growing concerns about a global hunger crisis and hindering the work of humanitarian organizations.
The food price spike was triggered by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, both major players in worldwide food production. Between them, Russia and Ukraine account for about 30 percent of global wheat exports, 20 percent of maize exports, and the majority of sunflower oil exports. The conflict has disrupted supply chains, pushed up prices for fuel and fertilizer inputs, and disrupted the spring planting season in Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine is only the latest addition to overlapping factors that have driven food prices sharply higher over the past two years. Canadian Foodgrains Bank Executive Director Andy Harrington explained that “there are three major drivers [to rising food prices]: conflict, climate change, and the impacts of the pandemic. We hope that last one is going to plateau off, but what we’ve seen this year is that climate and conflict are just getting worse.”
A coming ‘hunger catastrophe’
The frequency, length and intensity of conflicts in the world have increased over the past 10 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Conflicts cause hunger and raise food prices by destroying crops and agricultural assets, displacing people, and disrupting transportation systems and markets. Climate change impacts also continue to worsen, hampering crop production through changes in temperature and rainfall patterns as well as increases in flooding, droughts and storms. And the pandemic contributed to hunger by disrupting supply chains and food production through border closures and lockdowns, with some of those impacts still lingering.
As a result of all these factors, the World Food Programme is warning of a “hunger catastrophe” in 2022. After over a decade of decline, the number of undernourished people in the world began creeping upwards a few years ago and spiked in 2020, with an estimated 118 million additional people facing hunger. Although full data is not available yet for 2021, the number of people who are acutely food insecure – meaning that their lives or livelihoods are in immediate danger from lack of food – looks to have increased by at least another 40 million. And the conflict in Ukraine is making things even worse – not only for the millions of people who have been displaced from their homes in Ukraine and need emergency food assistance, but also for people in 45 countries in the Global South who are dependent on imports from Ukraine and Russia for their basic food needs. Looking forward, the World Food Programme estimates that an additional 33-47 million people may become acutely food insecure in 2022 due to the conflict in Ukraine, on top of hundreds of millions who were already expected to be hungry this year.
In addition to increasing need, high food prices are having a significant impact on humanitarian organizations tasked with responding to hunger and food insecurity. The World Food Programme, for example, is paying 30 percent more for basic food baskets than it was in 2019.
The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is also paying more, said Harrington, and is having a hard time sourcing some kinds of food at all. “We’re seeing inflationary increases right across our work, and that means that the footprint of what we can do is lowered. It’s leading us to the possibility that unless we see an increase in support, we’re going to have to make cuts in the food assistance we supply to those who are in the greatest need.”
With all of this dire news, how should Christians in relatively wealthy nations such as Canada respond?
Though there was early speculation that Canadian farmers could help make up the shortfall resulting from the current conflict, it’s not that simple. Wayne Groot, a grain farmer in Alberta, explained: “We can only grow so many crops. There’s not much farmland that’s just sitting idle, and most farmers are already maxed out in what they can produce per acre.” Farmers could grow more wheat, he said, but “at the expense of something else.” Groot noted that commodity prices are high across the board, signaling that the global need is not just for wheat, but other crops as well. “In reality on our farm, we’re not really changing anything; we’re just sticking with our rotation.”
Groot is also involved with one of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s growing projects, where farmers raise funds for the CFGB by growing crops and donating the proceeds. With high commodity prices this year, the growing projects will likely raise extra money, especially since all inputs – which have also gone up in price – are donated by the farmers and partner companies. “That’s kind of a silver lining for us” said Harrington, “but this is where it gets difficult: that’s hunger. That’s people who can’t afford to buy that product, certainly around the world, and here in Canada as well.”
So what’s the answer? In actual fact, “there is enough food for everyone in the world,” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, told the UN Security Council on May 19. The problem, he said, is distribution. High prices, partly driven by speculation and hoarding, mean the poor can’t afford to buy the food that’s available, and transportation disruptions caused by the conflict in Ukraine, among other factors, are making it difficult to get the food to where it’s needed.
Seeking lasting solutions
Some of these issues are things that individuals, or even organizations like the CFGB, simply can’t address, although it would certainly be worthwhile contacting our elected representatives to urge the Canadian government to take action by increasing funding to address hunger and food insecurity. In the short run, those of us who have more than we need can also dig into our pockets to enable organizations like the CFGB to respond to the current crisis.
In the long run, though, the crisis highlights the need to invest in local, sustainable and resilient food systems, reducing people’s vulnerability to disruptions in the global food system. This is work that the CFGB and its partners are already doing. For example, Harrington described their work in conservation agriculture, which enables smallholder farmers to dramatically increase their crop yields using relatively simple cultivation techniques. CFGB is also working on nature-based solutions such as biodiversity, reforestation and watershed management, with the goal of building climate-resilient food systems. “We don’t ever want to be in a place where all we’re doing is throwing a bandaid on something here and a bandaid on something there and then going away and it’s all happening again,” he said. “We want to be in a place where we’re increasing sustainability.” The need for that kind of work won’t go away, even when the current crisis ends.
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