The cascading global events of the 2020s seems to have no end in sight. The once-in-a-century pandemic (COVID-19) has been followed by the destructive Russian invasion in Ukraine, strong inflationary pressures around the world linked, ominously, to a surge in global food and energy prices.
As the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared recently, we are living the perfect storm caused by the tangled web of food, energy, and financial crises.
This is not the first time the world has faced the threat of massive hunger and starvation following a spike in food prices. In 2007-2008 and in 2010-2011 food prices suddenly increased following a three-decade hiatus when food prices were stable and low.
However, the current shock is of a different magnitude: as the graph below shows, the surge in food prices, reflected in the Food and Agriculture Organization´s Food Price Index, is the highest recorded since 1961 – even higher than the surge in the first half of the 1970s, during the infamous 1973 Oil Crisis.
The cost of food is 42% higher now than 2014-2016.
To make matters worse, the food price shock comes at a time when food security was already under stress.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, world hunger increased substantially – estimates from the State of Food Security and Nutrition around the World (SOFI) reveal that as many as 161 million people fell into hunger between 2019 and 2020, bringing the world´s total to 811 million people facing food insufficiency. In other words, about one in 10 people in the world went to bed without enough nutrition in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Africa badly hit
Africa has been particularly vulnerable: about 21% of people on the continent suffered from hunger in 2020, a total of 282 million people. Between 2019 and 2020, in the aftermath of the pandemic, 46 million people became hungry in Africa. No other region on the world presents a higher share of its population suffering from food insecurity.
Also, African households spend a large share of their income on food. According to a recent note in the Financial Times, citing estimates from the IMF, food represents 17% of expenditure in advanced economies, in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 40%.
“Hunger is a many-headed monster,” wrote Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen in their influential 1989 monograph Hunger and Public Action. Drèze and Sen were describing the multiple deprivations (biological, social, and economic) associated with hunger and malnutrition.
The multiplying effects of joint bouts of illness, unemployment, and absence of social protection can push people into long-term poverty and destitution. The causes are equally multifaceted: the current pressures on food systems in Africa derive from multiyear droughts in the Horn and East Africa; a locust swarm; the internal conflict in Ethiopia; flood, drought, conflict and the economic effects of COVID-19 in West Africa; and obviously the international shocks associated with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The stress signals are present, but the challenge of growing hunger in Africa does not need to become a worse tragedy: the world has learned from past experiences, and the sooner national governments and the international community act, the better the results.
Some actions have already been taken – others not taken. For example, food trade has not been severely halted as it was during the 2007-2008 food price spike. This is a good start. However, a complex problem with multiple causes and consequences needs a battery of policies and interventions, many of which have proven effective in the past.
The initial policy response requires the recognition of some principles, famously identified by Amartya Sen: hunger and famine do not only occur when there is less food but when certain groups of society cannot access food, even if food is available.
The ability to access food via trade, production, work, or transfers change in time of crisis, especially for some vulnerable groups. Mr. Sen´s insight is so powerful because it recognizes that issues of hunger, starvation and malnutrition go well beyond food systems and depend on social arrangements (including the markets for food and labour, for instance), the economy, and the functioning of the state and governments.
To avoid a significant disaster, national governments and the international community must focus on employment and income protection for those groups whose food claims have been negatively affected, via temporary jobs programmes, unemployment insurance or cash transfers. In addition, there needs to be readiness to protect the health and education of members of household under food stress to avoid long-term consequences of the food shock.
Moreover, stabilization of food prices through support of the local food systems could also be an option – making sure to avoid price controls that would make the matters worse. In the longer term, policies and investments to make local food systems more resistant to climate change and external shocks is key.
The third decade of this millennium has already presented enormous challenges to humanity – pandemics and wars remind us of the biblical horsemen. We do not need the horseman of famine and starvation. We have the policy tools and knowledge to avoid it: the ability of people in Africa (and the world) to access food in times of global food price spikes and local stresses requires decisive action from governments and international organizations.