Amid drought, conflict and rocketing prices, a global food crisis could be approaching, top expert warns

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Global food prices are soaring. Fertilizer costs are sky-high. In Afghanistan, nearly 23 million people — more than half the population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter. Madagascar is confronting its worst drought in 40 years, with more than a million people there in need in urgent food aid.

Is a new global food crisis coming?

In an interview this week, Maximo Torero Cullen — chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization — told me the answer is: Not yet, but we could be on the brink. Global food crisis are increasing, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. But across the globe, the food price surges of recent months are still not as bad as the two critical spikes sparked by weather, biofuel production and surging Asian demand in 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.

As vaccination rollouts lag in the developing world, Cullen told Today’s WorldView that he fears the slower economic recoveries in low- and medium-income nations could worsen the food insecurity picture further in 2022.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the pandemic change the nature of global food insecurity, and how is the problem evolving?

The major drivers before covid-19 were conflict, and climate and economic downturns. Lockdowns and covid-19 have exacerbated those problems.

But what is new are two things: One is the significant recovery plans and inflation we are seeing as the U.S., China and other countries create excess demand, which has affected, of course, prices because of their demand for commodities. Transportation costs are higher because of the increased competition in containers.

The other element is fertilizer prices and scarcities. For example, countries like Bolivia, which used to export to Peru once a year, now export much less. This is a shocking decrease. Russia has placed export restrictions on fertilizers. China now imports one quarter of all fertilizers. The pressure in this sector is different from what we have seen before.

When is the last time that we saw the threat of famine or world hunger on a scale that we’re seeing today?

This is worse than 2007-2008 for sure, in terms of what we call levels of acute food insecurity driven by conflict. Globally, however, things are still much better than they were in previous years. We still have access to food but we don’t have enough. It is moving into a position that I would call an orange light and possibly a red light if it’s not carefully managed. There is no current food crisis. Food access and recession are two of the problems we face. We have enough food. If the problem of fertilizers continues to be ignored, this could all change in next year.

Where do you see the biggest threats of famine or food insecurity?

It’s sub-Saharan Africa. This is the place where many countries are losing control, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Central African Republic. Next, you will find Yemen. You also have Afghanistan. We must not rush to aid Afghanistan. Otherwise, the harvest will suffer and it will become a disaster. Haiti is another possibility. You also have Venezuela which may be affected.

In Afghanistan, the West appears to be facing a moral dilemma. While the United States and Europe do not want to be perceived as supporting a brutal Taliban regime, U.S. sanctions and European frozen funds continue to put more Afghans at greater risk of starvation and hunger. Are you able to see the way out?

We are a technical agency. Our agency is currently working in Afghanistan to provide seeds and fertilizers as part of the humanitarian operation we are coordinating with the World Food Program. It is important to ensure that the necessary imputes are available for next season’s production. The problem could get worse if it doesn’t.

The World Bank said over the weekend that international donors have agreed to transfer 280 million from a frozen trust to WFP and UNICEF to support nutrition and health in Afghanistan. What amount will this help in preventing famine?

It will depend on how the money will be used. We expect that money will be used not just for emergencies but also for inputs such as fertilizers and seeds. The situation is dire. Over half of the population are at risk of becoming a humanitarian emergency. La Nina will also continue to create extreme weather conditions in different parts of Afghanistan. The main problem is lack of food and inputs.

By assuring the next season so that farmers can do their planting so that the next harvest is assured.

How will they be able to access what they need?

At this point, it has to come from aid, from agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization that are trying to help in the most critical zones.

It’s been said that Madagascar may be on the brink of the world’s first climate change induced famine. However, a recent international study suggested it may be due to natural weather variation and structural poverty more than climate change. What do you think?

We need to be careful because it could not just be climate, but a convolution of several drivers that come together. You have the longest drought in Madagascar combined with covid-19 problems and an economic recession. The country now faces the most severe storm.

Countries that for years haven’t been high on the priority list for monitoring world hunger, like your native Peru, became trouble spots during the pandemic. What will be the impact on these countries over time?

We believe that the recovery in these countries, like my home country Peru and many Latin American countries, is not happening at the velocity that we were expecting. The delay in vaccinations is slowing down the recovery process in these countries. As a result, the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on hunger, in a context where prolonged lockdowns have severely affected the informal economy, could last for a couple of years or more if the recovery doesn’t accelerate. They are on the road to recovery. They are still far away from their potential, which will lead to significant rises in extreme poverty, hunger, and poverty.

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