Why is Food Insecurity Rising?

This essay by Edgar Brown won the Lower Boy Geography Prize.

Using national scale examples, describe and explain the main drivers of recent global rising food insecurity.

In 1798, the English economist Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he made a strikingly simple yet deeply unsettling observation; if the human population continued to rise at an exponential rate, whilst food production continued to increase linearly, a point in the near future would come when the human race outgrew the supply of food necessary for it to subsist. Once this limit was surpassed, large portions of the human race would die of starvation, restoring the balance between population and food supply, and starting the grim process over.[1]

Although a disturbing thought, such a horrific mass-starvation event never came to pass. A rapid increase in agricultural productivity in the 18th and 19th centuries, coupled with the introduction of modern fertilisers, pesticides and genetically-modified crops in the 20th, ensured that the human population never exceeded the supply of food it required to feed itself. Indeed, global food production today is more than 1.5 times greater than is required to feed the global population[2]; and yet, on regional and national scales millions still die of hunger every year. Far from a ‘tipping-point’ envisaged by Malthus, people around the world are suffering from food insecurity despite there being a steady and plentiful surplus – a situation which is, perhaps, only more tragic. What’s worse, in recent years global food insecurity has only been increasing at an alarming rate.[3]

Unsustainable and wasteful farming practices have played a major role in fuelling this global trend. Biologically diverse and resilient ecosystems are being converted into cash-crop monocultures at an ever-increasing rate, such as in Indonesia, where millions of acres of rainforest have been replaced by palm oil plantations.[4] These monocultures are far less resilient to outbreaks of pests and disease[5], as the loss of a single species of plant can destroy the entire ecosystem. Moreover, monocultures are also associated with overly intensive farming practices that deplete the soil of vital nutrients and necessitate the excessive use of chemical fertilisers. This is highly problematic as the prices of such fertilisers are constantly fluctuating, so their availability is often in doubt; for example, since the start of 2022 alone they have increased by as much as 30%, in large part due to exports of Russian fertilisers being disrupted by the war in Ukraine.[6]

Another factor fuelling the rise in food insecurity is climate change. Over the past few decades, steadily rising average temperatures have resulted in a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events[7]; agriculture, particularly reliant on favourable atmospheric conditions, has been significantly affected. For example, the small central African nation of Burundi has the worst food insecurity score in the world – just 23.9 – in large part due to the ever longer and hotter dry seasons it has been experiencing in recent years.[8]

On the other end of the spectrum, countries such as the Philippines (ranked as the 4th most climate-affected country in the period of 2000-2019[9]) have been witnessing a massive increase in the frequency and severity of tropical storms. Hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones pose major threats to the agricultural sector; for example, during the 2020 Typhoon Goni an estimated 16,900 hectares of farmland in the Philippines was destroyed, and around 66,600 metric tons of rice, corn and other high-value crops were lost.[10]

Moreover, the rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere which are fuelling the climate emergency in the first place are also directly harming the Earth’s marine ecosystems. Carbon dioxide, when dissolved in water, forms carbonic acid, steadily lowering the pH levels in the seas and oceans over the past few decades.[11] Many species of fish, especially in the egg and larval stages, can be harmed or even killed by these more acidic conditions, contributing to the depletion fish stocks around the world. This is especially problematic for the millions globally who rely on the fishing industry as a source of food and income.

Furthermore, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is another significant factor driving the rise in global food insecurity. During the height of the pandemic there was significant disruption to supply chains around the world as millions of workers involved in the production, transportation and sale of food contracted the virus. This, paired with instances of panic buying and the constraints of government-mandated lockdowns, significantly increased the price and reduced the availability of food.[12] While these disruptions may have been temporary, the economic fallout from the virus may be more long lasting. In high income countries, the negative economic effects of the lockdown were largely mitigated by vast government spending.[13] However, in LICs and NEEs, such economic aid was not as easily available or widespread.

The effect of the pandemic is clearly illustrated by the estimated 82% rise in the incidence of food insecurity that was seen over its course; it remains to be seen how permanent this change will be. As lockdowns lift across the world and economic recovery begins, it is quite possible that this rapid rise is followed by an equally rapid decline.

On the other hand, unlike the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine is still ongoing. This is highly problematic as both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of food and fertilisers; Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat and the second largest exporter of sunflower oil, whilst Ukraine is the fourth largest exporter of maize and the fifth largest exporter of wheat. Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of fertilisers.[14] International sanctions, severe damage to Ukrainian infrastructure as well as the mass conscription of Ukrainian agricultural workers has resulted in the prices of these commodities being sent sky high. This is likely to affect LICs and NEEs in Africa particularly acutely; before the conflict, Somalia imported 100% of its wheat from the two nations, and Egypt 80%.[15] With the outbreak of war, these nations now have to scramble to find new suppliers. This is not to mention the millions of people in Ukraine itself who are now faced with the prospect of food insecurity due to the Russian invasion.[16]

In conclusion, the factors driving the recent rise in global food insecurity are varied and diverse. Some, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine, will hopefully be more temporary. However, factors such as climate change and unsustainable farming practices may have a more long-lasting effect. Thus, the rise in global food insecurity is only likely to continue into the future, unless immediate and urgent action is taken on a global scale to counter the factors which are driving it.

[1] Malthus, T. R., An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society. With remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and other writers, London, (1798), p.14

[2] Holt-Giménez, E., Shattuck, A., Altieri, M., et al., 2012. ‘We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can’t End Hunger’, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 36(6), p.595.

[3] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations., 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 https://www.fao.org/state-of-food-security-nutrition [Accessed 2 June 2022]

[4] The Borgen Project., 2020. PALM OIL PRODUCTION IN INDONESIA https://borgenproject.org/palm-oil-production-in-indonesia/ [Accessed 3 June]

[5]  Sunderland, T. et al., Sustainable Development Goals: Their Impact on Forests and People., Cambridge, (2020), p.57

[6] CNBC., 2022. Fertilizer prices are at record highs. Here’s what that means for the global economy https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/22/fertilizer-prices-are-at-record-highs-heres-what-that-means.html [Accessed 2 June 2022]

[7] The Borgen Project., 2020. PALM OIL PRODUCTION IN INDONESIA https://borgenproject.org/palm-oil-production-in-indonesia/ [Accessed 3 June]

[8] World Economic Forum., 2022. Relation between high Food Insecurity and Climate Change https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/climate-change-food-insecurity-hunger-poorest-countries/ [Accessed 2 June 2022]

[9] Germanwatch., 2021. GLOBAL CLIMATE RISK INDEX 2021. Who Suffers Most from Extreme Weather Events? Weather-Related Loss Events in 2019 and 2000-2019 https://germanwatch.org/sites/default/files/Global%20Climate%20Risk%20Index%202021_1.pdf#:~:text=The%20Global%20Climate%20Risk%20Index%202021%20analyses%20and,from%202000%20to%202019%20was%20taken%20into%20account. [Accessed 3 June 2022]

[10]United Nations News., 2020. ‘Super typhoon’ Goni: Towns cut off as COVID-19 impacts response https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1076742 [Accessed 3 June 2022]    

[11] Stiasny, M.H., Mittermayer, F.H., Sswat, M., et al., 2016. Ocean acidification effects on Atlantic cod larval survival and recruitment to the fished population. PloS one, 11(8) p.2

[12] Smith, M.D. and Wesselbaum, D., 2020. COVID-19, food insecurity, and migration. The Journal of nutrition, 150(11), p.2856

[13] Jackson, J.K., 2021. Global economic effects of COVID-19. Congressional Research Service, p.1

[14] Benton, T.G., Froggatt, A., Wellesley, L., et al., 2022. The Ukraine war and threats to food and energy security, p.5

[15] Benton, T.G., Froggatt, A., Wellesley, L., et al., 2022. The Ukraine war and threats to food and energy security, p.9

[16] United Nations News., 2022. Ukraine war could create widespread food insecurity, warns FAO https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1114962 [Accessed 4 June 2022]