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Amid drought, conflict and rocketing prices, a global food crisis could be approaching, top expert warns

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Global food prices are soaring. Fertilizer costs are sky-high. In Afghanistan, nearly 23 million people — more than half the population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter. Madagascar is confronting its worst drought in 40 years, with more than a million people there in need in urgent food aid.

Is a new global food crisis coming?

In an interview this week, Maximo Torero Cullen — chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization — told me the answer is: Not yet, but we could be on the brink. The world is witnessing an increase in localized and conflict-driven food crises, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. But across the globe, the food price surges of recent months are still not as bad as the two critical spikes sparked by weather, biofuel production and surging Asian demand in 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.

That doesn’t mean we won’t get there. Because of the pandemic, global hunger shot up by an estimated 118 million people worldwide in 2020, jumping to 768 million people, the most since as far back as 2006. The number of people living with food insecurity — or those forced to compromise on food quantity or quality — surged by 318 million, to 2.38 billion.

As vaccination rollouts lag in the developing world, Cullen told Today’s WorldView that he fears the slower economic recoveries in low- and medium-income nations could worsen the food insecurity picture further in 2022.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the pandemic change the nature of global food insecurity, and how is the problem evolving?

The major drivers before covid-19 were conflict, and climate and economic downturns. Lockdowns and covid-19 have exacerbated those problems.

But what is new are two things: One is the significant recovery plans and inflation we are seeing as the U.S., China and other countries create excess demand, which has affected, of course, prices because of their demand for commodities. The competition for containers has exacerbated the situation, making transportation costs higher.

The other element is fertilizer prices and scarcities. Countries like Bolivia that used to export to Peru, for instance, are exporting much, much less. An incredible shrinkage. Russia has put some export limits on fertilizers. China produces one-quarter of the fertilizers in the world, but now they are also importing. So the pressure on that sector is a different than we’ve faced before.

When is the last time that we saw the threat of famine or world hunger on a scale that we’re seeing today?

This is worse than 2007-2008 for sure, in terms of what we call levels of acute food insecurity driven by conflict. But globally, the overall situation is still better than in those years — in the sense that we still have food availability but the problem today is of food access. But it is entering a situation that I call an orange light, and potentially a red light if we’re not careful. … We don’t have a food crisis today. We have a problem of recession and food access. But we have food available. This could change next year if the issue of fertilizers is not resolved.

Both his children were dying. Yemen’s crisis forced him to choose only one to save.

Where do you see the biggest threats of famine or food insecurity?

It’s sub-Saharan Africa. That is where the situation is getting out of control in many countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan and Central African Republic. Then you have Yemen. And of course you have Afghanistan. If we don’t rush aid into Afghanistan, we will lose the harvest, and the situation there will be dramatic. And you also have Haiti. And then of course, you have Venezuela, which could also be significantly affected.

In Afghanistan, the West appears to be facing a moral dilemma. The United States and Europe don’t want to be seen as backing a harsh Taliban regime, yet U.S. and European sanctions and frozen funds are putting more and more Afghans at risk of hunger and famine. Do you see a way out?

We are a technical agency. We are working in Afghanistan, trying to supply seeds and fertilizers under the humanitarian emergency operation that we have in place together with the World Food Program (WFP). We need to assure that there is a supply of needed imputes for the production next season. If not, the problem will be even worse.

The World Bank said over the weekend that international donors have agreed to transfer 280 million from a frozen trust to WFP and UNICEF to support nutrition and health in Afghanistan. How much will that help to forestall the threat of famine?

It will depend on how the money will be used. It is our expectations that the money is not only going to be used for emergency meals, but it’s also going to be used for inputs like fertilizers and seeds. Look, the situation is not good at all. More than half the country’s population is at high risk of moving into a humanitarian emergency. At the same time, La Niña will continue to cause extreme weather patterns across different regions of Afghanistan. But the major problem right now is the lack of access to inputs and to food.

How do you fix that?

By assuring the next season so that farmers can do their planting so that the next harvest is assured.

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How will they be able to access what they need?

At this point, it has to come from aid, from agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization that are trying to help in the most critical zones.

It’s been said that Madagascar may be on the brink of the world’s first climate change induced famine. However, a recent international study suggested it may be due to natural weather variation and structural poverty more than climate change. How do you see it?

We need to be careful because it could not just be climate, but a convolution of several drivers that come together. You have the longest drought in Madagascar combined with covid-19 problems and an economic recession. As a result, the country is facing the worst storm possible.

Countries that for years haven’t been high on the priority list for monitoring world hunger, like your native Peru, became trouble spots during the pandemic. How lasting will the damage be in those countries?

We believe that the recovery in these countries, like my home country Peru and many Latin American countries, is not happening at the velocity that we were expecting. And the recovery is slowed down because of the delay of vaccinations in many of these countries. As a result, the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on hunger, in a context where prolonged lockdowns have severely affected the informal economy, could last for a couple of years or more if the recovery doesn’t accelerate. They will recover and they are recovering. But they still are far from where they could be, and exacerbation of inequalities will be reflected in significant increases in poverty, extreme poverty and hunger.

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