According to UN Secretary General António Guterres, 88 million people were hungry worldwide by the end of 2020. The number of hungry people has increased by 20% in one year and the trend continues in 2021. “Extreme climate events and the Covid-19 pandemic are only ‘adding fuel to the fire’. If we do not act immediately, millions of people will find themselves on the brink of starvation and death. Hunger is projected to increase in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan,” stressed the Secretary General.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its associated quarantine measures and lockdowns have undermined food security in many countries, disrupting the entire agricultural production, transportation and consumption chain that has evolved over the past decades. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) estimate that some 34 million people worldwide are currently classified as being in level 4 of the so-called Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale – that is, “one step away from starvation” for various reasons. Among the reasons cited by UN experts are armed conflict, dramatic climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, primary factors in some regions are further aggravated by locust infestations. Most food security hotspots are in Africa, including Nigeria, Yemen and South Sudan, but other regions – for example Asia (Afghanistan), the Middle East (Syria and Lebanon) and Latin America and the Caribbean (Haiti) – are also threatened by hunger.
As the coronavirus pandemic has derailed economic growth, there is growing concern worldwide about hunger and malnutrition. In almost all countries, food prices are rising and, where prices are still the same, there are already shortages. Food inflation is always a negative factor, and the new wave of inflation will be particularly severe, Bloomberg stresses. Serious concerns about hunger and malnutrition have emerged, even in the world’s richest countries.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the Trussell Trust distributed a record 2,600 food packs a day to children during the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, the number of people experiencing nutritional problems has risen by 13.2 million, an increase of 35% since 2018, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization.
According to NielsenIQ, prices in the United States have risen by almost 3% in 2020, about twice the rate of inflation. However, even this small increase is sensitive for those families who have already experienced big problems. The poorest Americans now spend 36% of their income on food, according to the Department of Agriculture, and massive layoffs in low-wage sectors such as retail and transport have put even more pressure on household budgets.
Meanwhile, the prices of staples such as cereals, soybeans and sugar have risen significantly, bringing global food prices in January to their highest level in six years. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that in addition to objective factors causing widespread price rises, including food prices, there is clear collusion by some Western companies and elites to artificially raise the global frenzy for their additional enrichment.
Thus, according to Bloomberg, global wheat prices jumped after the US shocked the markets at the beginning of August by forecasting a supposedly huge harvest decline in Russia, although other major producers are also experiencing worsening crop prospects and quality problems. In particular, the US Department of Agriculture sharply reduced its wheat harvest estimate for the agricultural year 2021-2022 in August by 12.5 million tons compared to the previous month. However, according to Ibragim Ramazanov, professor in the basic department of trade policy at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, the US Department of Agriculture’s sharp decline in wheat crop and export forecasts from Russia may be manipulative. Russia is likely to retain global leadership in wheat exports. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture has taken old data, although the current planting campaign figures are very good, and it is already clear to the market that climate problems will not affect the final results of the gross grain and wheat harvest in Russia. The Russian Ministry of Agriculture, on the other hand, still expects a wheat harvest of 81 million tons. It is unlikely that the US Department of Agriculture makes such a mistake by accident. “Any negative information on grain yields boosts prices on the world market, which in turn leads to an increase in demand for more expensive US wheat, demand for which is falling due to increased production and exports of wheat from Russia and Ukraine,” Ibrahim Ramazanov explains. “The US Department of Agriculture is a stakeholder in the global grain market, so it is highly likely that the US Department of Agriculture is trying to manipulate market reaction to their forecasts in order to raise grain prices,” concludes the Russian expert.
To disguise their attempts to manipulate and raise the price of certain foodstuffs, a number of unscrupulous Western companies have increasingly used the so-called shrinkflation method, where prices may remain the same but the quantity of the product itself is reduced. Such tactics have long been popular in the United Kingdom, where a decade-long price war between supermarkets keeps prices low.
Ahead of the UN summit on food systems in New York due to take place in September, the Russian Foreign Ministry said unilateral sanctions cannot be used by states to pressure other countries. Russia supports UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call to suspend such unilateral sanctions. In particular, Moscow recalled the idea, put forward by Russian President Vladimir Putin, of “green corridors” that should be free of trade wars and sanctions, primarily on food and medical supplies.
The Summit on Food Systems, proposed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, aims to raise awareness, agree on broad commitments and concrete actions to transform food systems in order to eradicate hunger, reduce nutrition-related diseases and heal the planet. The call to join forces and fundamentally change the way we produce, process and consume food must therefore be heard by all. The world community must also realize that in order to avoid mass starvation with millions of victims, three things must be achieved: an end to hostilities, better access for the most vulnerable communities and increased donations. FAO and WFP have already called on countries around the world to commit $5.5 billion to hunger prevention through humanitarian food aid, direct financial injections and other emergency measures.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.