Is “zero hunger” in the world attainable? This week’s U.N. Food Systems Summit hopes to make progress on the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” The virtual summit, held on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, will address urgent and perennial food security issues with participants from public, multilateral, private and nonprofit groups working on these challenges.
The last time the international community gathered for a summit of this magnitude was the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, which pledged to “reduce by half the number of chronically undernourished people on Earth by the year 2015.”
Our research for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy's new report, “Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger-Instability Nexus,” identified four urgent reasons to redouble efforts to address the rise in global hunger, both through meetings like this and targeted efforts at the local level. Here are some of the report’s key findings:
All countries have people at risk of hunger
Perhaps a billion people or more worldwide are malnourished or suffer the pains of hunger — while the world wastes a third of the food produced. Analysts have long attributed the lack of access to food and food insecurity as drivers of political instability and conflict. Political and economic disruptions during the covid-19 pandemic — including fractured governments and the collapse of supply chains, have added nearly 120 million people to the ranks of the world’s food insecure and malnourished.
Scholars and practitioners who participated in the institute’s working groups on this report note that global food production and distribution systems have not kept pace with significant threats presented by disease outbreaks, conflict and climate change. In May 2021, global food prices rose at their fastest monthly level in more than a decade, and the food price index hit its highest levels since September 2011. Higher prices leave an increasing number of poor farmers, women and people in marginalized groups, in particular, with limited access to nutrition.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan demonstrates how the coronavirus, conflict and climate change exacerbate a hunger crisis. The World Food Program’s executive director, David Beasley, likened the situation in Afghanistan to a “perfect storm” brewing. After “several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by covid,” 1 in 3 Afghans are going hungry, and 2 million malnourished children may need urgent treatment.
Climate change has deepened food insecurity
The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report links the rise in global temperatures over the past century, the increase in the number and severity of storms, and worsening droughts and floods to decreased food security. The effects of ongoing climate change are likely to lead to decreased production of rice, corn, wheat and soy — the four essential crops upon which the world depends.
Unusually heavy rains in recent years produced recent swarms of locusts across East Africa and Southwest Asia, destroying crops and disrupting food supplies. At the same time, food production is responsible for almost one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation, transport and storage and livestock emissions, among other factors.
The pandemic has worsened existing food system challenges
Supply chain breakdowns and covid restrictions caused consumer prices to increase and producer prices to fall at the same time, worsening food security for the urban and rural poor. Pandemic curfews in many African countries inadvertently led to food losses, as drivers who normally transported fresh produce during the cooler nighttime hours were no longer able to do so.
But the pandemic also revealed that high-income countries are similarly vulnerable to price increases and shortages. Early on in the pandemic, Americans faced grocery store shortages, including empty meat aisles in late spring 2020. According to the latest U.S. government reports, prices of meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 5.9 percent over last year, and were up 15.7 percent from August 2019 levels. Many Americans felt these price increases acutely, and 60 million Americans relied on federal and private food assistance.
A lack of access to food can spur conflict
The role of food as a driver of conflict probably will increase in coming decades. Research shows that as competition over scarce resources grows, conflict is more likely to occur along ethnic and religious lines. Whether out of desperation or as a way for unemployed people to gain sustenance, hungry individuals are more likely to participate in armed conflict.
The situation in Ethiopia highlights the cyclical and interconnected nature of the hunger-instability nexus: Food insecurity can be both a driver of conflict as well as a consequence. The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has left at least 400,000 people in acute food insecurity, while in the broader context, over 5 million Ethiopians are in need of humanitarian assistance. The food crisis probably will continue, as the fighting has reduced harvests by at least half of average levels — and the country’s crops, pastures and rangelands are struggling to recover from the desert locust infestation.
With the effects of climate change expected to worsen in coming decades and the pandemic continuing to create restrictions in countries around the world for the foreseeable future, the growing food crisis is likely to continue. This awareness adds a new urgency to the need for greater global and local coordination — at all levels — on efforts to tackle the food crisis — efforts that include international summits like the U.N. Food Systems Summit.
Kelly M. McFarland is the director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @mcfarlandkellym.
Kit Evans is a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a second-year student in the M.S. in Foreign Service and M.A. in Global, International, and Comparative History programs at Georgetown University.