There seems to be no end in sight to the 2020s’ cascading world events. The devastating Russian incursion in Ukraine, intense worldwide inflationary pressures connected unfavorably to an increase in food and fuel prices, and the once-in-a-century COVID-19 epidemic were all followed by one another.
We are experiencing the “perfect storm” brought on by the intertwined food, energy, and financial crises, as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently stated.
The possibility of extreme hunger and starvation after an increase in food prices has not only existed in the past. Food costs had been consistent and modest for three decades before they abruptly rose in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011.
The prevailing shock, nevertheless, is of a different order of magnitude: as shown in the graph below, the rise in food costs, as demonstrated in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Index on Food Price, is the greatest ever seen since 1961 – even greater than the rise during the first half of the 1970s, even during the infamous 1973 Oil Crisis.
Food prices are up 42% from 2014 to 2016 now.
Adding insult to injury, food security had already been in jeopardy when the price shock occurred
The Food Production, Food Security and Nutrition status around the World (SOFI) predicts that as many as 161 million people went hungry between 2019 and 2020, bringing the global total of those going hungry to 811 million, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase in hunger is a direct result of the pandemic. That is to say, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, around one in ten individuals worldwide slept without adequate sustenance.
In 2020, 282 million individuals on the severely ravaged continent of Africa were hungry. This is a staggering 21 percent of the continent’s population. After the outbreak, 46 million people in Africa went hungry in 2019 and 2020. There is no other part in the globe where a greater percentage of the population experiences food insecurity.
Additionally, a sizable portion of African households’ income is spent on food. Food expenses make up 17 percent of spending in rich nations, but 40 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, as per the latest Financial Times article that cited estimates from the IMF.
Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen stated this in their seminal 1989 book Hunger and Public Action, “Hunger is a many-headed monster.” Drèze and Sen were discussing the several (biological, social, and economic) privations connected to hunger and malnutrition.
Protracted poverty and homelessness can be brought on by the compounding effects of several health problems, unemployment, and a lack of social protection. The reasons are equally complex: the current stresses on Africa’s food systems result from protracted droughts in East Africa and the horn, a locust swarming, Ethiopia’s internal strife, floods, droughts, conflicts, and the economic effects of COVID-19 in West Africa, and, evidently, the global shocks brought on by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The world has learned from past mistakes, and the faster national governments and the global community act, the higher the results. Despite the fact that stress signs are there, the problem of growing starvation in Africa does not have to turn into a greater tragedy.
Some steps have been taken already, while others have not. For instance, unlike when food prices spiked in 2007–2008, commerce in food has not been completely prohibited. The beginning is good. But a multitude of policies and treatments, many of which have already been proven successful, are required to address a complicated issue with various causes and effects.
The first step in developing a policy response is to acknowledge some principles, which Amartya Sen is renowned for having identified. These principles state that hunger and famine don’t just happen when there is less food available; they also happen when some segments of society are unable to have access to food, even when it is available.
For some disadvantaged groups, in particular, access to food through trade, production, labor, or transfers can vary during a crisis. The reason Mr. Sen’s discovery is so potent is that it acknowledges that problems with hunger, starvation, and malnutrition extend far beyond food production systems and depend on social structures (such as the marketplaces for food and labor, for example), the business, and how well the state and authorities run.
Nation-states and the global community must concentrate on securing work and income security for people whose food security has been adversely impacted, whether through temporary employment initiatives, unemployment insurance, or cash transfers. To prevent the long-term effects of the food shock, it is also necessary to be prepared to safeguard the education and health of household members under food stress.
In addition, supporting local food production and supply systems could help stabilize food costs. Just be careful not to implement price controls, though, as this would just make the situation worse. Long-term solutions must prioritize investments and regulations that strengthen local food systems’ resilience to external crises and climate change.
With pandemics and conflicts that resemble the four horsemen of the Bible, the third decade of this millennium has already brought about great challenges for humanity. Famine and starvation’s horseman is not something we need. We have the knowledge and policy instruments to prevent it: governments in developed countries must take prompt action to ensure that people in Africa (and the rest of the globe) have access to food during periods of rising global food prices and local hardship.