s shocking as it may seem, as many as 828 million people in the world go to bed hungry every night and the number of those facing acute food insecurity, meaning one step away from starvation, has gone up from 135 million to 345 million since 2019, according to reports. Worse still, a total number of 50 million people in 45 countries are hovering on the edge of famine. These are hard statistics released by the United Nations. The World Food Programme (WFP) under the UN needs $24 billion to reach 153 million hungry people during the current year, but there is hardly any guarantee that WFP would get such funds at a time when the global economy is reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, one may recall the time the WFP Chief David Beasley opened a war of words with Tesla CEO Elon Musk by suggesting billionaires like him should donate a miniscule portion of their wealth to the tune of $6 billion to end world hunger. Musk had responded by saying he was willing to do the same if WFP could disclose exact plans on how $6 billion can end world hunger and demanded open book accounts to be made public. It is obvious that a finite amount of money might not be able to put an end to a complex problem like hunger and a single institution like WFP might not have all the answers or be able to deliver concrete results. The WFP must have received funding in billions over the years but the hunger problem has only compounded over time.
World leaders had pledged to end hunger by 2030 seven years back. The way things are moving, the goal appears to be a pipedream. Arif Husain, WFP Chief Economist, has warned that famine is ‘at the door’ in Somalia, while across the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa, 22 million are on the verge of starvation.
Almost a third of Pakistan is under water, and four-fifths of its livestock have died. Even China is facing an agricultural crisis as its southern region is hit by drought and a heatwave so strong that crops there are at severe risk. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the already grim situation. Food supplies from the two major exporters have been stopped, while energy and fertilizer prices are soaring. The UN has noted that several factors, apart from Russia’s war against Ukraine, are responsible for the situation. Conflicts in different regions of the world and climate shocks are among the main culprits.
Globally, prices have risen by about 20 per cent year-on-year. Food inflation stands at 33 per cent in Iran and a staggering 122 per cent in Lebanon. What is of great concern is production hard hit by fertilizer prices which have soared by 300 per cent in some countries in Africa.
Seeking to find answers to the question why global hunger has increased so alarmingly now, the UN has identified four factors. The biggest cause of world hunger is conflict. This is borne out by the fact that 60 per cent of the world’s hungry live in areas affected by war and violence. The current situation in Ukraine is one more confirmation, if confirmation is needed, of how conflict feeds hunger, driving people out of their homes and wiping out their sources of income.
The second reason is the climate shocks that undermine people’s ability to feed themselves. The economic fallout of COVID-19 pandemic is pushing hunger to unprecedented levels. The impact of COVID-19 pushed more people into poverty. Lockdowns devastated family livelihoods, economies and disrupted supply chains. The result left one in eight people severely food insecure. Two years later, these families are still struggling to put food on the table.
The rising cost of living has also reached an all-time high. The crisis is bringing to the fore an ugly aspect of the food supply chain. While consumers and often producers struggle to survive, grain traders make huge profits. The trade is concentrated in the hands of a few companies. The resumption of grain exports from Ukraine cannot help the world tide over the crisis. Good harvest, if weather becomes favourable and a windfall tax on companies that have hugely profited from the pandemic could be used to help feed people and also create a sustainable food system. This is the prescription of Oxfam that appears most sensible.
However, to achieve Zero Hunger, what is needed is political will more than money. That alone can end conflict in most places. Added to this, the political leaders of different countries need to forget their love for company profits and start thinking of their people and governments must encourage more people back to agriculture with an environment friendly twist.