The harrowing scenes from the Hamid Karzai airport in Afghanistan last summer caught the world’s attention. Yet another tragedy that’s unfolding is going uncaptured by cameras: a hunger crisis that has half of Afghanistan’s population literally starving to death.
In the hierarchy of stories to cover, the Omicron variant or the U.S. pulling out of a two-decade war will always dominate headlines. Sadly, world hunger feels more like background music — something always there that we are either oblivious to or feel unable to control, so we tune out.
Thankfully, my biggest fear last year never materialized: I, along with my UN colleagues, worried that the pandemic and its parallel lockdowns would trigger a global recession, disrupting food supply chains and sending hunger rates soaring. While the pandemic erased two decades of progress made on combating extreme poverty in one fell swoop, agricultural trade has remained stable and generous coronavirus relief packages from governments, especially across the developed world, cushioned the shock.
In the U.S., thanks to vast federal aid, including the biggest rise in food aid benefits and monthly payments of child tax credit ever, a hunger crisis never materialized. The relief programs cut poverty by half in America. It’s a testament to what governments can achieve when they flex their muscle to protect the poor.
Unfortunately, the story looks bleaker across most of the Global South. Most of the world’s population didn’t receive stimulus checks or child tax credits. True, hunger was a global problem before the pandemic, with 690 million people going to bed with little to eat, yet now some 768 million people face chronic hunger due to Covid.
Inflation is only adding to the misery. In November, the UN’s food price index hit its highest level since 2011. Several factors account for this spike, from high energy prices and droughts in some grain-producing regions to mounting demand for commodities like meat and dairy. There’s also a significant increase in transportation costs, as developed countries rebound from the pandemic.
Higher energy prices means higher fertilizer prices, which drives food prices up. The cost of natural gas has been soaring in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, China and Russia, key fertilizer exporters, are restricting exports to curb energy and food inflation at home. Skyrocketing fertilizer prices can jeopardize the next harvest, with devastating consequences.
Inflation has put even the most basic foods beyond the reach of many households. Many families spend more than half of their income on food. The higher prices are forcing them to choose between food and rent and medicine. In November, nearly 20 million Americans went hungry.
Developing countries that rely on food imports are struggling to keep food prices affordable as their national currencies weaken. In Sri Lanka, where food prices rose more than 10 percent in 2021, the prices of key staples like rice and wheat flour were at record high in November. In Peru, wholesale prices of wheat flour in November were 50 percent higher than they were a year earlier.
Before the pandemic, 3 billion people couldn’t afford nutritious foods and depended on starchy foods for calories. With inflation, more people are consuming less food and turning to less balanced diets. In India, home to the largest number of children with stunted growth, which leaves them with diminished physical, mental capacity and immune system, malnourishment is rising.
The current food inflation hasn’t developed into full-blown food crises like in 2008 or 2011, when countries banned food exports in panic, driving up prices and causing riots across continents. But global food stocks are lower than they were before the pandemic. Another energy crisis could set off a worldwide hunger crisis.
The basic structural drivers of hunger — conflict, climate change, economic downturns — will continue to threaten food security. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Yemen, they caused the number of people facing food crisis to jump by 20 percent between 2020 and 2021.
Governments should help vulnerable households with the hikes in food bills. Food aid that has kept families afloat through the pandemic should continue. Strong social safety nets are key to reversing the trend in hunger.
In the long term, countries must work on ending agricultural subsidies that distort food prices and trade. Wealthy countries’ largesse to farmers enables their products to dominate global trade and destabilize food markets. This impedes poor consumers’ access to food and threatens the livelihoods of small producers, who don’t benefit from price rises and lose out when cheaper imported food floods the local market.
Aid to small-scale farmers, who make up the majority of the world’ poor, should be augmented. To earn a sustainable living, they need access to financing and weather insurance to adapt to the changing climate. So countries must invest in rural infrastructure and agricultural research.
Finally, nutritious foods must be made cheaper. Fruits and vegetables are more expensive because they are more difficult to produce and transport. Governments should support farmers to reduce food loss and subsidize healthier foods.
Critics argue that the government’s expansive stimulus checks have contributed to inflation and a spike in prices. A Federal Reserve Bank study did find that the stimulus package gave a temporary boost to inflation. But if inflation is a byproduct of helping families avert hunger, then it’s worth it. Such spending has prevented hardship and instability that would have taken years to address. Imagine what would have happened if there had been zero government aid since the pandemic began.
The alternative nightmarish scenario is playing out across Africa, South Asia and Latin America. No camera lens has captured the scale of the hunger crisis unfolding before our very eyes. Too distracted by variants, domestic politics, and other issues, the world is tuning out.
(Photo by Peter Wendt on Unsplash)