After Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, the third scourge is coming: famine
After the pandemic, the war in Ukraine. After the war in Ukraine, famine. The world is sliding rapidly towards the new crisis, potentially perhaps the worst also because it really has global but unequal implications, therefore capable of creating frictions and tensions on a large scale., as well as unpredictable consequences from an economic, social, political and geopolitical point of view. Warnings from international organizations on the risk of the food crisis follow one another. Indeed, more than a risk it is a certainty. The food crisis already exists.
According to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), in the past five years, the number of people with access to food so scarce that their lives or livelihoods are at immediate risk has risen from 108 to 193 million. Much of this “acute food insecurity”, which has almost doubled, is due to the Covid 19 pandemic., which reduced incomes and disrupted agricultural work and supply chains; a good part is due to rising energy and transport prices as the effects of the pandemic waned. The situation was made worse by the swine flu in China and a series of poor harvests in exporting countries.
But now conflict-induced side effects are leading to unprecedented inflation that will soon have potentially dramatic consequences. In March, soaring food prices reached their highest level since 1990. One of the causes is that Russia and Ukraine dominate the global grain market. In 2021, Russia and Ukraine were the first and fifth exporters of wheat in the world, with 39 million tons and 17 million tons respectively, or 28% of the world market. The two nations also grow many cereals used for animal feed, such as corn and barley, and are the first (Ukraine) and second (Russia) producer of sunflower seeds, which means that they hold 11.5%. of the vegetable oil market. Collectively, they provide nearly an eighth of the calories traded globally.
Global famine and food crisis: the dramatic figures
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), nearly 50 countries depend on Russia or Ukraine, or both, for over 30% of their grain imports; for 26 of them the figure exceeds 50%. Farmers would normally have an incentive to run out of stock before harvest, when prices usually drop. But this year, according to the Economist, that is unlikely to happen. Futures markets predict that wheat and corn prices will remain at today’s exorbitant levels through mid-2023.
Lenergy and more expensive fertilizers drive prices up in all sectors of agriculture. This is why, according to the British weekly, the inflation of food prices is also manifesting itself in raw materials not directly affected by the war. Price volatility indicators compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington flash red for all major grains, including rice for the past two months, for which there are currently no immediate supply problems.
To date 44 million people in 38 countries are at emergency hunger levels, one step away from famine, and the war in Ukraine is adding a frightening new dimension to this picture, with price increases of up to 30% for staple foods threatening countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Cameroon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Theaters of great uncertainty and instability that can turn into a minefield, leading among other things to an exponential increase in economic migration as well as famine.
From the war in Ukraine a ripple effect that can upset the global order
No country is immune from the effects of this crisis. Since the start of the war, 26 countries, from Kazakhstan to Kuwait, have declared severe restrictions on food exports, which cover 10% of the calories traded globally. India, cited by many as a possible alternative to Russia and Ukraine, has also imposed a ban on grain exports, although it has stated that it will make exceptions for specific countries that need it. The various measures cover 15% of the calories exchanged worldwide. More than a fifth of all fertilizer exports are limited. If the trade is interrupted, it will lead to famine.
But there are those who will pay the consequences more directly than others. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cereals make up a larger part of these budgets than in richer countries. Many of these economies were in poor shape well before the arrival of the food crisis. Across sub-Saharan Africa, production remains substantially below the level it would have reached had the pre-pandemic trends continued. Governments under these conditions are unable to help their citizens overcome a food shock.
The consequences are obvious. Protests and social tensions, with immense risks on the political side. Already in several African countries and not only they have gone into riots for inflation, but also in the Middle East and Latin America. Food instability means social instability, but also political and geopolitical instability, with a possible exacerbation of tensions between citizens and governments but also between governments of different countries, not to mention predictable migratory waves.
After the virus and the weapons, a new dramatic threat risks coming. And vaccines or missiles will not be enough to solve it.
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