Chronic food insecurity is a global, long-standing problem—we outlined the links between rapid population growth and food insecurity previously (read more here). Conflict and instability, climate shocks such as severe droughts and recently, swarms of locusts, and rapidly rising global food prices all contribute to food insecurity. Covid-19, which was declared a pandemic in March 2020, has exacerbated these pressures, creating an escalating hunger crisis for millions around the globe. The pandemic and its socio-economic effects have hit the world’s most vulnerable people the hardest—according to the most recent Global Network Against Food Crisis report, more than 155 million people faced “acute food insecurity” at the end of 2020.
Conflict drives hunger
According to the United Nations, over 50% of the population in three countries—Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic—faced crisis-level hunger in 2020. This means that over half of the surveyed populations in these three countries are dealing with high levels of acute malnutrition, or are only able to meet minimum food needs by selling assets essential to their livelihoods or other crisis-level coping strategies. It’s no coincidence that all three countries are also dealing with long-running violent conflicts.
Conflicts contribute to food instability in multiple ways: by disrupting harvests and trade production, closing markets, derailing livelihoods, and displacing people internally. Supply chains are disrupted or cut off completely by violence, leaving those living in the region unable to procure adequate food supplies even if they still have the means to purchase it. Others are driven off their land—land they rely upon to raise crops and animals for both income and food.
The effects are devastating. The Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa is facing potential widespread famine due to violence rippling across the region. According to a Telegraph article re-published in the most recent issue of our quarterly magazine, over 7 million people are facing acute hunger throughout the region. Malnutrition wards of local hospitals are full of starving children and their desperate parents. Most worryingly, even if the violence ebbs, another man-made disaster is contributing to hunger in the region: climate change.
Climate change is increasing pressure on regional food supplies
In the Sahel, depleted soils and desertification have made farming increasingly difficult as crop outputs grow smaller. However, drought and intermittent rains aren’t the only climate-induced challenges straining food production throughout the world. In recent years, intense rains and flooding have hit parts of the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa, providing a fertile breeding ground for desert locusts. Locusts swarms can travel across continents and eat their own weight in plants each day, meaning that very large swarms can consume food that would otherwise feed tens of thousands of people for one year.
Meager harvests also push up the price of food across the globe, often putting the price of even basic foodstuffs out of reach for those living on the edge. Those living in wealthy countries such as the U.S. spend as little as 6% of their total expenditures on food, while those living in developing countries typically spend over 50%. Because such a large proportion of their income goes towards food, people in developing countries are especially vulnerable to price shocks that have a much smaller effect in high-income countries.
Covid-19 as the tipping point
Conflict and climate shocks have long contributed to food insecurity around the globe—the global Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these existing pressures to make a terrible situation worse for millions of people. Shutdowns intended to slow the spread of the virus disrupted supply chains and robbed households of employment and income. Supply chain disruptions drove up the cost of food—which, as we just outlined, affects the most vulnerable most severely. While wealthy countries generally provided economic assistance for their citizens to keep them from falling into poverty, this wasn’t the case in poorer parts of the world.
According to the World Food Programme, 272 million people in the countries in which it operates are already or are at-risk of becoming acutely food insecure. Many of these people are living in countries and regions already stressed by conflict and climate change. The social and economic disruptions of the pandemic have served to escalate these pressures, making chronic hunger a threat for an ever-increasing number of people.
Long term resilience and mitigation strategies are key
There are, of course, no “simple” solutions to a problem as deep-seated as chronic food insecurity. Because the causes are multi-layered, so are the solutions. Easing regional conflicts and investing in more sustainable agricultural practices will go a long way towards easing hunger around the world. We also can’t ignore the links between rapid population growth and the spread of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19, desertification, and violent conflict. Slowing population growth is a key component of building climate resiliency in developing countries. It also helps reduce the incidence of civil unrest and helps build more stable communities—communities better able to withstand the many causes of food insecurity.