World Feast, Famine, And Conflict

International agents forecast world cereal supply will remain near record levels over the next year following consecutive harvests of record wheat and corn in major grain producing countries. Ample supplies to satisfy projected world consumption levels, relative to the rate of population growth, mean the capacity to attain the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of Zero Hunger by 2030 is an achievable target. Yet within the current world of plenty, there are an estimated 33-45 million people facing acute food insecurity and potential famine, which if realised will be the most severe experienced in the current century. Alongside this growing crisis are estimates that around 795 million people suffer chronic undernourishment. Evaluating these opposites raises questions regarding how record cereal supplies can be accurately quantified when millions of people are at risk of death from famine and starvation.

According to the International Grains Council (IGC), world grain supply in 2017/2018 “is forecast to exceed 2.5 Billion Tonnes for the first time…boosted by the largest ever opening stocks and record production.” Successive years of record cereal harvests across crop growing nations have allowed grain stocks to accumulate above the level of world consumption to unprecedented supplies. This reflects positive growth in agricultural production capacity through improved methodologies and management (including crop varieties and yields), historically supportive price environments that encourage larger crop plantings, and, most obviously, opportunistic weather.

The dynamics of well-supplied markets have allowed world cereal prices in 2017 (as measured by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Cereal Food Price Index) to trade approximately 22.5% below the five-year trade price average (2012-2016), and around 38% below 2011’s historic peak prices.

Record, or near record, availabilities of wheat, corn, rice and soybeans in all major exporting countries are expected to support supply flows to world trade markets, which in turn will keep staple cereal prices stable and accessible for import dependant countries.

Collectively, these conditions point to a world of plenty in which demand can be easily satiated, according to market dynamics. More importantly, it also suggests a world that is well prepared in production and supply capacity to meet the Universal Declaration of Human Right’s pledge on the Right to Food, as well as commitments toward the UN’s Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, that includes the goal of Zero Hunger.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on Food and Shelter for All, states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food….” Interpretations of the Right to Food vary; however, most agree it requires a mixture of state and individual responsibility to be secured.

According to the FAO, the Right to Food is “…about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself, which requires not only that food is available—that the ratio of production is sufficient – but also that it is accessible.”

Despite this consciousness, the UN estimates close to 800 million people, more than 10% of the world’s population (or one in nine people), experience food shortages or food insecurity on a daily basis. The cost of closing extreme food and poverty gaps between now and 2030 are forecast by the FAO at $265 Billion US Dollars per year. Presuming this goal is achieved through collective determination, it will yield more than just improved access to food for millions, as it will also build the human capacity to fulfil economic and social development potential.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has outlined supportive measures to pursue the target of Zero Hunger, which include promoting governments to focus on building equitable social policy, targeting investments to ensure sustainable agricultural production, and minimising food waste by facilitating stable environments in which market access and food supply chains are as efficient as possible.

While much collective and conscious work needs to be done by governments, non-government agents, and civil society to achieve world Zero Hunger over the next 13 years, immediate action must be taken to avoid looming famine across countries in the Horn of Africa. Failure to actively prevent a catastrophe of the projected scale in an age in which there are plentiful world cereal supply and well-established trade markets would be both perverse and illogical.

Yet the march towards famine in Africa’s eastern region and Yemen has been steady, steered over the course of months or even years by companion pilots of grief, conflict and drought.

The UNHCR recently declared a critical warning to the world that an “avoidable humanitarian crisis” is unfolding in the region due to drought and violence that have placed millions of people at risk of dying from famine. Severe food production and supply shortages have also increased the number of estimated displaced people attempting to flee.

The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS) has projected the number of people in “Phase 4” Emergency (suffering acute malnutrition and “excess mortality” as a result of limited food availability) is between 33-45 million people across five countries in the region.

Yemen and Nigeria are estimated to have more than 10 million people in each country experiencing severe food insecurity. As well, over 60% of the populations in both Yemen and South Sudan are facing food emergencies. The FAO notes, “Persistent political instability and other forms of violence [are] the main triggers of food insecurity” in both Yemen and South Sudan. The conflict has led to spiralling ontological insecurity for its people, a loss of livelihood and economic collapse, alongside a growing inability to access stable food supplies and the forced movement of people.

Meanwhile, efforts to contain the spread of violence and displacement of people by closing territorial borders have compounded the suffering of those searching for shelter, food or both. Furthermore, this action also results in disrupting trade flow supplies, economic activity and food prices in neighbouring areas, thereby expanding the shock impact and chaos of the violence.

Both the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the World Bank draw clear connections between conflict, hunger and development. According to Alex de Waal from the IFPRI, “When famine or acute hunger occurs today, it is usually the result of armed conflict.”

While conflict is a clear trigger for food insecurity, drought-induced crop failure and resulting uncertainty in the food supply, and soaring food price inflation, are equally powerful agents of havoc. The impact of these forces when combined magnify instability and create such circumstances as those currently experienced in East Africa and Yemen.

Decisive humanitarian action must be taken by the international community to prevent the region from slipping into famine. Leading international representatives, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), various UN agencies, and several states, have pledged their will under the Berlin Humanitarian Call – Standing Together Against Famine to provide collective support to the region, based on the “humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.”

Government representatives of the Berlin Humanitarian Call seek the immediate protection of civilians in conflict areas and for all parties of the conflict to respect and provide safety for humanitarian assistance to reach those in need.

Waal provides further pragmatic perspectives for decoupling conflict and food insecurity by 2030 by proposing that the international community manages food insecurity threats by establishing “stronger mechanisms to prevent and resolve conflicts.” These mechanisms would be based on a shared political vision to allow international relief efforts and food policy to work effectively and systematically to deliver support to where it is most acutely needed.

While the goal of these objectives is echoed in sentiment and communal international good-will commitments, the reality of achieving these goals in the near, mid- or long-term will rely on state actors’ willingness to cooperate in accordance with pledges that recognise the shared humanity of individuals and the assumed equality of rights they inherently embody. Without this willingness, the failure to adequately feed millions, particularly in a time where there is abundance in capacity and supply, will highlight the critical flaws of an international system that does not meet the individual’s Right to Food, as defined by the FAO.

Carolina Morison