The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) recently released a special report on the war against Ukraine. It finds that the war has resulted in a third global food price spike in 15 years. The report outlines the crisis’ structural causes and recommends solutions that will make the food system more resilient in the future.
Using modeling by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), authors of the IPES-Food report believe it is increasingly likely that an additional 13.1 million people around the world will face undernourishment. This includes 6.4 million in the Asia-Pacific region and 5.1 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In recent weeks, global food prices have reached historic highs since the FAO first began recording them. And the FAO reports that prices are 34 percent higher than this time last year.
The IPES-Food report argues that “a number of underlying rigidities, weaknesses, and flaws in global food systems are amplifying the effects of the Ukraine conflict on food security.”
“Although the war in Ukraine has created major supply disruptions, and the situation is still deteriorating, there is not a global food shortage at the present time,” Nick Jacobs, Director of IPES-Food and a co-author on the report, tells Food Tank. “The real problem is that most of the world’s grain reserves are in the hands of big corporations, and they have little interest in disclosing those stocks or releasing them while prices are still rising.”
Jacobs goes on to say that “uncertainty allows financial speculators to bet on food commodities, driving up real-world prices even further, and leaving low-income countries unable to afford to import the staple foods on which their populations depend.”
In response to rising import costs, countries are calling on their farmers to shift production patterns to focus on products that can be consumed locally. But systemic obstacles make this shift challenging for many farmers.
The preferences of commodity buyers and investors often determine production patterns. Reliance on synthetic fertilizers also restricts farmers to their current production systems.
Following the 2007-2008 global food price crisis when wheat and rice prices nearly doubled, Jacobs explains that countries have taken some steps to build resilience to shocks, including rebuilding grain reserves. But, he argues, nothing has gone far enough. “As a result, we’ve sleepwalked into a repeat of the last food price crisis.”
The report provides several recommendations to prevent the worst of the current crisis and build resilience. Jacobs tells Food Tank that “our key message here is that we don’t need to trade off short-term needs and long-term imperatives.”
The authors call for supporting net food importing countries, including through debt relief programs, diversifying food production, restructuring trade flows, cracking down on commodity speculation and forcing grain traders to disclose stocks. They also recommend accelerating the development of regional grain reserves and reducing farmers’ reliance on fertilizers. These actions, the authors argue, will make the global food system more resilient and able to avoid future food price crises.
“It’s becoming clear that this isn’t a one-off shock,” Jacobs tells Food Tank. With progress on addressing global hunger grinding to a halt over the last six to seven years and the going into reverse due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacobs warns that “What we’re seeing now is an acceleration of that trend. Even when this conflict ends, the same underlying fragilities will be there, including vulnerability to climate shocks.”
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