In a statement on June 24, the UN-Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned,“ There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022.”
He went on to add, “2023 could be even worse.”
In a message to a meeting of representatives of several countries being held at Berlin, Mr. Guterres said that the world faces catastrophe because of the growing shortage of food caused by climate change, the pandemic, growing inequalities and on top of that the Ukraine war.
As farming takes a hit from rising fertilizer and energy prices “this year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage.”
GRAIN, A leading international organization working on food and farming from a pre-people and environment protection perspective, has drawn attention to several longer-term aspects of the accentuating food crisis. In a recent paper GRAIN has pointed out that 60% of the wheat produced in Europe goes to animal feed and 40% of the maize produced in the USA goes to providing fuel for cars. True, this analysis concedes that the Ukraine war has seriously troubled some countries as about 20 of them are dependent on Russia and Ukraine for meeting more than half of their wheat needs and many are dependent on these two countries for a good share of their fertilizer needs as well, but longer terms solutions relate to more self-reliance in meeting food needs, which will also support many more local livelihoods, as well as reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to move towards sustainable and low cost solutions. Learning from past crisis situations, this review has also emphasized the need for protecting the food system from financial speculation. International trade needs important reforms while food sovereignty must be promoted, this review adds.
Analysis of the food situation should be not just in quantitative terms but also in qualitative terms. The situation appears to be even more serious in terms of the deteriorating quality of food in the context of health, safety and nutrition. Too many people are being pushed towards consumption of risky and hazardous food.
While the UN Secretary-General has mentioned some of the most obvious causes of food shortages that have appeared, several other important factors should be added to this from a longer term perspective. Soil , the precious resource of any country which is key to its success in producing adequate and healthy food, has been degraded during the last century as never before in the entire human history, ironically while scientific research has continued to emphasize the importance of protecting soil health and its natural fertility. Instead of nurturing soil it has been increasingly ‘mined’ to extract the maximum yield of the most profitable crops in the shortest term, unmindful of sustainability aspects.
Water is the next most important source for producing food and water sources in some of the most productive lands of the world have also been over-exploited. On the other hand, in several areas which were considered even earlier to be water scarce, the situation has deteriorated by now to the point to the point of emergency conditions.
Pollination plays a very important role in the production of food. But some of the best pollinators including bees, butterflies and birds who have been providing their services free of charge for thousands of years have been harmed like never before in recent decades by a number of factors ranging from sprays of poisonous chemicals to hunting and indiscriminate introduction of exotic species.
A crucial role for ensuring adequate food production is assigned to the great diversity of various food crops most abundantly seen in tropical countries. Both nature and generations of hard-working, care-taking, wise and well-informed farmers, including particularly women farmers, have contributed to this great wealth of biodiversity. A single food like rice in a single country (for example India) can have several thousand varieties and sub-varieties. This great wealth has been lost to a large extent, at least from the fields of farmers and it is only when grown in fields by farmers year after year that such biodiversity is best protected in a dynamic setting, not in the static controlled situation of gene banks which are increasingly managed not for public interest but instead controlled by powerful corporate interests for earning super profits.
On the field biodiversity has been increasingly displaced by ‘green revolution’ monocultures as a part of the ‘agricultural development’ strategy found more conducive by agribusiness interests who would like their costly and preferably patented seeds to be grown by most farmers. Hence one of the greatest strengths for increasing diversity of food production has been lost.
In fact behind all of this loss of capacity for increasing production of healthy food on sustainable basis is the ruthless pursuit of profits by giant agribusiness interests who increasingly seek to control world farming and food systems. With their increasing push for GM crops and foods these powerful interests are now increasingly trying to enter a new stage of domination which goes much beyond the earlier green evolution phase and greater green revolution phase (extension of green revolution type agribusiness dominated approach to animal husbandry, fisheries and forestry). This is a huge threat to sustainable production of adequate, safe and healthy food to feed all people in world.
Even when food situation becomes precarious, the rich are not affected by it while the poor face hunger all too soon. Increasing inequalities contribute in a big way to worsening food situation for most people.
Another big factor which aggravates hunger relates to war and civil strife. In fact in countries troubled now or in the recent past by war and civil strife, these have emerged as a leading cause of hunger, malnutrition and overall food shortage.
If the situation is already serious enough for the UN chief to warn about multiple famines, then what will be the prospects with the likely further aggravation of climate change during the next decade? Hence it is really time to face the wider causes of the decline of the food system and its steadily worsening prospects. We really need to free the food system from the stifling grip of the giant agribusiness companies and opt instead for social agro- ecology–a system of ecologically protective and sustainable food production, based on small farmers and on justice for them, which is devoted to production of safe and healthy food.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.