FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 19

World food crisis looms large

The world is faced with a serious food crisis. First, there was the coronavirus pandemic and then soon after followed the Ukraine-Russia war. The two warring countries are among the top wheat growers in the world and are considered to be the bread basket of Europe. Supplies from the two sources are set to dwindle in the coming months.

Already, worldwide wheat prices are soaring, raising the spectre of severe food shortages and hunger in some regions of the globe. Much of the western US has been hit by drought, which has been made worse by climate change. Some regions have been particularly hard hit. In Washington state, last year’s heat wave and drought caused wheat production to plummet to about half of its total the year before. Amidst the raging war, the Ukrainian government has banned the export of wheat and other food staples in order to protect essential supplies for its own population.

It is relevant to add here that combined together Ukraine and Russia make up about 30 percent of global wheat exports. In recent years growing hunger has afflicted a large number of people around the world. From 720 million to 811 million people faced hunger in 2020, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

A recent UN report said that world food prices, already surging because of the pandemic, reached an all-time high in February this year, when they increased by about 2.1 percent. Wheat is a global commodity and war-related shortages are making prices more volatile. The United States exports about half of its wheat supply but is now limiting the supplies.

According to experts, in the coming days, the situation threatens to become more severe for countries that rely heavily on grain imports. They include countries in the Middle East, Northern Africa and Asia. About one-third of Ukraine’s total wheat exports go to three countries: Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

On the other hand, sanctions against Russia have driven up oil and gas prices, which increases the cost of using tractors in the field and transporting wheat to major markets by truck. Fertilizer costs are also rising, driven by high demand and high gas prices. As the price of crops, like wheat and corn, rise, farmers try to capitalize and apply more nitrogen fertilizer. Many fertilizers are produced through a chemical process involving natural gas. About 75 percent of producing these fertilizers is actually the cost of natural gas. Herbicides and pesticides, which are tangled up in production and supply chain slowdowns, remain in short supply and are now priced higher. In times of peace, Ukrainian farmers would now be preparing to plant their spring wheat crop. By late summer, they’d look to harvest the winter wheat that’s already been planted and is lying dormant now.

Recently, while meeting with allies in Brussels, US President Biden warned that global food shortages are a real danger as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and said that along with the European governments they would step up their hunger-relief programs and encourage farmers to grow more food.

Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s largest exporters of wheat and corn. Warfare and economic sanctions are expected to sharply reduce grain exports in the near-term and suppress crop production this year. An additional 13 million people around the world could be pushed into hunger because of high food prices and supply disruptions caused by the war. The global hunger rate of 9.9% was already the highest in 13 years, due to the pandemic.

During a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized countries recently, G7 leaders said they are monitoring the situation closely and would do what is necessary to prevent the evolving global food security crisis. In a statement, they said that they would redouble their efforts to provide direct food aid and other forms of assistance to continue the necessary support for agricultural innovation and sustainable productivity growth to ensure global food security.

The US has also announced an additional $1 billion in humanitarian assistance for those affected by the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact around the world, including a marked rise in food insecurity. America provided $4.6 billion in food aid and nutrition assistance in 2021. The European Commission has also now decided to allow farmers to plant crops on fallowed land to grow more food to meet the global grain shortage.

In the given circumstances, Pakistan also needs to increase its food security by ramping up agricultural production and for this purpose lower the prices of various farm inputs like seeds and fertilizers. At the same time, the government should take immediate steps to build up its grain reserves to deal with any emergency food needs in the coming months.