Food security an urgent priority

Food security an urgent priority

While an earlier meeting of G-20 delegates in Yogyakarta focused on strengthening the global health system, it is no surprise that the Russia-Ukraine war dominated talks at the summit of the Group of Seven rich nations last week.

As US President Joe Biden met with his western allies, the leaders also detailed a US$600-billion infrastructure plan to counter China, whose Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has left many countries with too much debt.

Another highlight from the G-7 summit in Germany was a $4.5-billion pledge to address the increasing challenge of global food security. In their joint statement, the leaders said the money would be used to ease a "multidimensional crisis" that has left as many as 323 million people acutely food insecure or at high risk of food shortages.

The figure is a record high, according to the UN Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance.

"In our pursuit to ensure that all people can realise their right to adequate food, we reaffirm our goal to lift 500 million people out of hunger and malnutrition by 2030," the G-7 leaders' statement declared.

The fact is, global food systems were fragile even before Russia invaded Ukraine, with food prices and global hunger on the rise as a result of extreme weather and the lingering impacts of Covid-19 pandemic. The war has now accelerated the crisis, as Russia's blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports and destruction of key transport infrastructure impedes Ukraine's agriculture and fertiliser exports.

Food prices have soared since the invasion, which has also reduced shipments of wheat and oil from sanctions-hit Russia. Together, the two countries typically export about 30% of the world's wheat and 75% of its sunflower oil. The shortages have caused alarm around the globe, with estimates that they could push as many as 40 million people into poverty.

According to the World Bank, food price inflation exceeds overall inflation in most countries. The price of wheat has increased by 37% compared to January. The World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have warned that acute food insecurity could worsen in 20 countries or areas from June to September.

Worse still, as of early June, 34 countries have imposed export restrictions on food and fertilisers. This has further reduced global supply, driving food prices even higher.

A week earlier, the World Bank approved a $2.3-billion programme to help countries in East and Southern Africa increase the resilience of food systems and ability to tackle food insecurity. It is part of up to $30 billion in existing and new projects worldwide in areas such as agriculture, nutrition, social protection, water and irrigation.

Together with this year's G-7 chair Germany, the bank has co-convened the Global Alliance for Food Security to support existing initiatives and catalyse an immediate and concerted response. This can be done by channelling information, including the latest analysis on food security; tracking funding gaps and making efforts to raise additional resources to support effective efforts.

The WFP applauded the G-7 announcement, indicating that the world is facing a global hunger crisis of unprecedented proportions. In just two years, the number of severely food insecure people has increased by more than 200 million, from 135 million pre-pandemic.

The latest pledge by the G-7, which takes its joint commitment this year to over $14 billion for global food security, is an important step towards meeting this challenge, said the UN agency.

Obviously, the world is at a critical crossroads if it wants to avoid the stark ripple effects of a severe food shortage which could lead to social unrest, conflicts, political instability and mass migration. It is a race against time to ameliorate the absolute worst consequences of a looming crisis.

Countries should take steps to mitigate impacts of higher food prices and make sure that the most vulnerable continue to have food through well-targeted cash transfer and social safety nets. As well, agricultural production for the next season should be enhanced by ensuring farmers have access to essential inputs such as fertilisers.

Most importantly, long-term resilience of the food system should be strengthened, partly through crop diversification and facilitating the increase of trade. Export restrictions should be avoided but if deemed necessary, they should be targeted, temporary and in compliance with World Trade Organization rules. These are crucial to avoid the next crisis that could be even bigger down the road.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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