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Based on a scientific study by TMG Think Tank, the authors highlight various challenges in the fight against the hunger crisis. The findings show that climate change, conflict and covid-19 are increasing food and energy prices.
The reliability of international markets to deliver affordable food to almost 2 billion vulnerable people who depend on imports of staples to meet their basic dietary needs is once again called into question. Lessons of the crisis episodes in the past two decades, those of 2006-09 and 2010-2014, have not been heeded. The mantra of the only recognised multilateral governance institution, the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) of the G20, “to keep markets well-supplied and free-flowing” was never sufficient and the fragility of our food systems is becoming increasingly exposed.
With the necessary political will, the G7 could make a significant contribution to prevent devastating hunger and the ensuing instability in a growing number of regions, which were already vulnerable. Yet commitments are not always followed by deeds. The global response today, as in past crises, has been myopic. The laissez faire approach of ensuring efficient global market functioning and free of export restrictions (though India still persists with its export ban on wheat), while hoping the world will farm its way out of trouble, carries with it significant risks, especially when the climate crisis is wreaking havoc today and will likely do so tomorrow.
The climate crisis is revealing just how destructive its effects can be even at the current rate of warming at 1.2°C with drought and heat stress afflicting crops and livestock in the major breadbaskets of the world, especially the US, China, Europe and India. The four Cs, Covid-19, Conflict and Climate change, have sent the Cost of living to an unprecedented high – and are conspiring to put the world at a cusp of the most catastrophic food crisis in 50 years. While international food prices are falling back to pre-war levels, they are still substantially higher than a year ago.
With soaring inflation coupled with a spiralling US Dollar (the choice currency of global trade), a new problem is emerging, in that purchasing power measured by real exchange rates is collapsing, particularly in poorer countries. Added to their plight is the lack of foreign exchange to import the most basic of all necessities – food. While food is still available in abundance, availability seldomly translates into access to affordable food.
Worst yet to come?
While we may escape the worst in 2022, next year we could be at the crossroads. The reason being is that natural gas quotations continue to soar, propelling the price of urea to the point that global farmers will be priced out of the market. Even urea manufactures have either begun to close or have slashed capacity. At current natural gas prices, production of this fertilizer is uneconomical. As a consequence, we can only expect a massive reduction in the next global harvest.
How can we avert a catastrophic food crisis from transpiring?
Moratoria should be placed on feeding the biofuel and livestock sectors (over one billion tonnes of grains are being diverted from food to feed and energy markets. Profits of oil companies are also under scrutiny with the UN Secretary General’s plea to (windfall) tax “immoral” and “excessive oil and gas profits.” The same is justifiable for the handful of food-vested corporations that have monopolised the global food system and are always the winners in times of crisis. Just four enterprises have as much as a 90 percent controlling stake in the world’s entire grain trade, with Cargill Inc. recently reporting record earnings of USD 165 billion in 2022. A windfall tax on their profits could help finance food deliveries to the poor.
What about the longer term?
Reliance on a few exporting countries and commercial monopolism in trade for food, energy and fertilizer, poses exceptional and unacceptable risks and is tantamount to holding world food security to ransom. We must decouple our energy-hungry food systems from fossil-fuels (over seven units of fossil fuels to produce just one unit of food in equivalent energy terms, and what is more, the global fossil fuel sector is perversely subsidised to the tune of almost US$ 7 trillion). Repurposing a fraction of these subsidies to decarbonise our food systems, is a critical step towards enabling the much-needed transformation of our food systems. Incentivizing inexpensive, readily available, and proven technologies to boost soil health, improves the availability of nutritious food and strengthens climate resilience. In this regard, investment in renewables and bio-fertilizers is an imperative, and integral to the circular economy, as well as being increasingly important for planetary health.
Finally, we need to reassess our food systems, by evaluating their total impact – or true costs – on the environment and human health.
Revealing true costs would bring much needed progress: concerted action to reduce food waste, a far more productive, nutritionally diverse, and sustainable food sector that respects our natural capital, and a sense of realism towards climate mitigation.
The full study can be found here on the TMG Think Tank website.