The significance of the McDonald’s decision to sell all of its businesses in Russia may capture media attention, but it is trivial when compared with the wider global food security situation.
The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) reveals that in 2021, prior to the war in Ukraine, 193m people were “acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance.”
This is an increase of 40m people compared with 2020 and an 80% increase on the 108m people identified in the IPC’s first report on the situation in 2016.
The report identifies conflict as the cause of food insecurity for 139.1m people across 24 countries in 2021, with “economic shocks” responsible for 30.2m people in 21 countries. Extreme weather events were responsible for 23.5m people across eight countries.
The IPC measure food insecurity on a five-point scale, ranging from level 1, where there is no issue, through to level 5, which is a famine. The points in between are level 2, stresses, level 3, crisis and level 4, an emergency, with anything at level 3 or higher considered “acutely food insecure.”
In four countries – Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen and Madagascar – 570,000 people in total, were considered to be at level 5 in a famine situation, with Ethiopia having 400,000 of this group.
Level 4, the emergency level, accounted for 39m people across 36 countries, 82% of which came from Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan.
Impact of Ukraine
The direct impact of war in Ukraine will be immediately felt by DRC, which imported over 60% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Yemen imported just under 50%, while 40% of Ethiopia’s wheat imports came from Ukraine and Russia.
Finding new suppliers in the current global environment will be difficult, as well as the affordability issue for these countries.
In his presentation to the G7 agriculture ministers last week, Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Qu Dongyu highlighted the risks for Ukraine and the global food economy from the war.
In a food and agriculture context, he identified inputs such as seed, fertiliser, pesticides and disruption to production as issues that would have consequences for crop yields.
Even if these are managed successfully, there remain the logistics and infrastructure issues from war damage having a negative impact on trade. These risks are alongside wider risks of energy and debt increases, plus the entire humanitarian and refugee crisis.
G7 agriculture ministers meeting
While this meeting may have been less high profile than the March meeting in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, it was still forceful in its summary of the effect on global food supply.
They acknowledged that disruption to crop planting, maintenance, harvesting and transport in Ukraine would add to the already difficult global situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, other conflicts and climate change.
These have added to already high prices and in turn increased the vulnerability of populations least able to afford the increased costs.
They also reaffirmed their commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 through sustainable management of forests and climate-smart agriculture, on which the now widely advocated Food Systems approach is built.
Efficient and sustainable management of nutrients is also highlighted, also economically important with the current cost of fertiliser.
The fight against antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is also referenced, with the objective of keeping humans, animals and plants healthy.
These wider ambitions will seem somewhat removed from the pending food supply crisis, which has to take precedence over other worthy and necessary objectives.
Food supply and security hasn’t attracted media attention in the way that energy has, because it hasn’t really been felt by high-income consumers in Europe and elsewhere in the high income areas of the world.
The impact on energy prices has been both immediate and substantial, whereas food price inflation so far is increasing at a much more modest rate.
Similarly, the impact of food supply hasn’t fully filtered through yet and won’t until later this year. Even then, it will be the food- and cash-poor communities that will be most affected, rather than the affluent consumers.
We won’t know the extent of the crisis until it happens, but it has potential to be at least as serious as the energy crisis, and more so for the most vulnerable people.