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27 May, 2022updated 01 Jun 2022 09:20

What are the real reasons behind the world’s food insecurity?

Food shortages tend to flood the news, but is there really a lack of goods or is it just plain inequality that is driving food insecurity?

By Marina Leiva

The world’s population is projected to increase from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, food insecurity is continuing to rise across the globe, with the Covid-19 pandemic having exacerbated the situation further.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is a humanitarian organisation that aims to end hunger worldwide, in part by delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience. Its 2022 Global Report on Food Crises was the sixth version of this report, and it produced the starkest findings to date. According to the report, in 2021 “close to 193 million people were acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance across 53 countries/territories”. This is an increase of nearly 40 million people compared with the previous high reached in 2020.

Now, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, food insecurity has taken centre stage. In a debate at the UN Security Council on 19 May, WFP executive director David Beasley urged world leaders to take immediate action to help the 276 million people around the world at serious risk of starvation.

“Truly, failure to open those ports in the Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security, and it will result in famine and destabilisation and mass migration around the world,” said Beasley.

“When a mother has to choose between freezing her child to death or starving her child to death, something’s wrong. Especially when there is so much wealth on the planet today – more than $430trn worth.”

The number of people that WFP supports is expected to increase by 20 million in 2022 as fuel and transport prices rise. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, WFP’s operational costs have risen by $70m a month, resulting in cuts in critical nutrition.

Inequality and lack of wealth distribution are the two main factors that many experts, Beasley being among them, point out as the true reason behind food insecurity, rather than there not being enough food. The belief that there are too many people in the world and not enough food has been around – and continuously refuted – since the 18th century, when economist Thomas Robert Malthus argued that the human population will eventually outpace food production. 

The problem is inequality, not lack of food

“The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fragilities of our food system; the war on Ukraine now demonstrates the interconnectedness of it,” says Chloe MacKean, business engagement manager at the Food Foundation, a UK charity working towards a sustainable food system.

A shortage of wheat and barley from Ukraine has meant rising costs of animal feed worldwide and therefore increasing costs of meat,” she adds. “The impact of the increased price of oil from Russia has further exacerbated food costs for countries all over the world.”

Although people in developing countries that are the most reliant on imports are the worst affected, according to MacKean, “we are also seeing interesting divergences as developed countries such as the UK are also being badly hit”, she adds.

When it comes to the UK, MacKean is seeing unprecedented levels of food insecurity. “Shocking levels of people in the UK are cutting back on food or missing meals altogether,” she says. “In April, 7.3 million adults said they had gone without food or could not physically get it in the past month. This figure is up by 57% from when we did the last survey only three months before.”

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Gisèle Yasmeen, a senior fellow at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs of The University of British Columbia, reiterates that the problem is not lack of food, but of equality.

“We live in a world of plenty but a minority controls the wealth of the planet and the current global industrial food system accentuates this inequality,” she says, adding that the way in which the big players in the food industry operate is also contributing to major environmental destruction.

“The current system is also contributing to climate change and environmental degradation destroying our collective food production assets such as soil, water and pollinators, which is affecting all of us and is slated to worsen if the situation doesn’t change drastically,” says Yasmeen.

Can any policies fix this problem?

In the particular case of the UK, “there are some very tangible steps the UK government can take to help with the current cost of living crisis”, says MacKean.

“We need the government to help everyone pay essential bills, increase working-age benefits in line with inflation, and ensure that employers are paying at least the living wage,” she adds.

“We also need the government to expand safety nets to protect children. This means expanding free school meals and other schemes to all children living in poverty.”

Making healthy food more affordable is another must for MacKean, which the government can achieve “through taxes and subsidies to rebalance prices of unhealthy and healthy food, something that should be addressed in the Health Disparities White Paper”.

“The government needs to put in place a long-term plan to build the resilience of our food system by committing to a Good Food Bill in the National Food Strategy White Paper,” concludes MacKean.

More globally, Yasmeen explains that “alleviating inequality is fundamentally about livelihoods and associated access to land and income”. 

Putting policies in place that “promote a more equitable distribution of land and income” are the “key to addressing systemic inequalities and, therefore, food insecurity”, she adds.

“Land title and reform is therefore a fundamental issue,” says Yasmeen pointing at the examples of Mexico and Madagascar as countries where such reforms have been introduced.

Achieving food security across the world demands not only the introduction of reforms to the most obvious sectors linked to food production, explains Yasmeen, but other policies being enacted that provide good social security and adequate social protection “floors”, which are fundamental when it comes to alleviating inequality and, by extension, food insecurity.

“This includes affordable housing, publicly funded quality healthcare and education, healthy and nutritious school feeding programmes and promoting healthy and ecological food systems controlled by local communities rather than global elites, which is the current situation,” concludes Yasmeen.

In the coming months – if not years – the compounded effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine are likely to continue to affect communities all over the world. Many will assume that there is simply not enough food, but the truth will be that the world does not necessarily lack wheat or other essential crops, it just needs more social equality to deliver better food security.

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