How Bad Is the Global Food Crisis Going to Get?

They were calling it a crisis even before the war began: more than 800 million people in a state of chronic hunger. But, as you may have heard, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia — two countries that were estimated to produce enough food to feed 400 million, and to account for as much as 12 percent of all globally traded calories — has made the hardship considerably harder and the hunger considerably more acute.

The Times first covered the effect of the war on global hunger in early March, barely a week after the conflict began; in May, the U.N. Secretary-General was warning of “the specter of a global food shortage,” and The Economist put “the coming food catastrophe” on its cover.

A lot of that coverage looks almost comfortingly cold: charts of the prices of various staple commodities, all rising up and to the right, as in this overview from Reuters or this one, in The Times, by the Rockefeller Foundation president Rajiv Shah and Sara Menker, the founder of Gro Intelligence. A casual look at those charts suggests the crisis is just a form of inflation, though it is illuminating given the American debate about the rise of domestic prices that these spikes are so global. A closer look at the scale — the cost of cereals is up 69.5 percent, per Reuters , and oils, up 137.5 percent, with the overall food price index up 58.5 percent — suggests the effect might well be more significant, particularly if you know about the violence that has accompanied smaller recent food price spikes (such as when more than 40 countries went through riots, political destabilization and outright war in 2008).

But one thing charts like these do not obviously signal is mass starvation. And yet, according to David Beasley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina who now leads the U.N. World Food Program, that is what they imply: the possibility that, as a result of an ongoing food crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, climate change and the continuing effects of the coronavirus pandemic, 323 million people are “marching toward starvation” as we speak, with 49 million “literally at famine’s door.”

The W.F.P., like much of the U.N., is in part an advocacy group, engaged in near-constant fund-raising — in this case, a breakneck form designed to rally money to avert the most acute hunger. As an organization, it is essentially built to err on the side of hair-raising estimates and alarm: In October, it warned that more than half of Afghanistan could face life-threatening hunger this past winter alone.

But the job of an organization like the W.F.P. is not to predict what will happen but to warn about what is possible — and then try to avert it. (Like the media, perhaps, advocacy groups can exhibit what looks to some like a bad-news bias.) This is the inherent reputational dilemma: Do what you can to alleviate the crisis, and the initial alarm seems foolish. Half of Afghanistan didn’t die this winter, but approximately one in 10 babies born there did, and the local food problems are still ongoing. Hunger is a spectrum, not a binary, and globally, Beasley estimates, the agency already feeds 125 million people a day.

Beasley is hoping to grow that number to 150 million this year. The gap between those two figures is 25 million hungry people.

And it is worth keeping in mind that 49 million is not the number facing “acute food insecurity,” to use the W.F.P.’s technical category distinction. That number is the much higher one: at least 323 million, which is up, Beasley says, from 276 million before the war, 135 million before the pandemic and 80 million when he joined the W.F.P. in 2017 — a fourfold increase in a single leadership term. Forty-nine million is just the number of those at most immediate risk of death.

Before the war, “I was already warning the world that 2022 and 2023 could be the worst two years in the humanitarian world since World War II,” Beasley says, speaking with me from Rome on June 3. “I’m trying to tell everybody how bad it is — how bad it’s going to be. And then, the next week, I’m like, you know, wipe that clean — it’s worse than what I was saying.”

That worsening is the result of the war, but the underlying crisis is both larger and more structural — in the W.F.P.’s estimation, at least, the bulk of growth in that “acute food insecurity” category is the result of worsening conditions before the invasion. That’s mostly thanks to Covid-19, climate change and conflict — the “three C’s,” says the Cornell economist Chris Barrett, who specializes in agriculture and development and is the co-editor-in-chief of the journal Food Policy. “It used to be that child stunting — the cumulative impact of poor nutrition and health — was basically every place that was poor,” he points out. “Now it’s basically just those places that are poor and have conflict.”

Climate impacts are now a perennial disruption as well. The Economist summarized the state of global agriculture on the eve of war this way:

The war brought its own compounding effects: embargoes on Russian exports and a blockade closing off those from Ukraine, where farmers were also struggling to harvest and plant in the face of bombing; rising fuel costs adding considerably to the price of food by making it much more expensive to transport and driving dramatic spikes in the cost of fertilizer, much of which is produced from gas; and export bans imposed by more than a dozen countries, worried about their own food security, which further strained the market.

As it has with the related energy crisis, the Kremlin appears eager to weaponize the emergency. (Yesterday, in his newsletter, Slow Boring, Matt Yglesias called it “Russia’s war on the world’s food supply.”) And while global leaders at Davos and elsewhere have pushed to alleviate the problem in part by circumnavigating the Russian blockade, the U.S. State Department is also warning “drought-stricken countries in Africa, some facing possible famine” not to buy “stolen wheat,” according to my colleagues Declan Walsh and Valerie Hopkins, lest the Kremlin “profit from that plunder.” All told, Barrett says, it’s a “perfect storm.”

For his part, Beasley believes that 2023 could take a still darker turn. This year’s price crisis could be succeeded by a genuine supply crisis, in which food is pushed out of reach for many millions not just by price but by ongoing structural conditions (including the failure to plant next year’s harvest in Ukraine and the dramatic surge in the price of fertilizer, which can be one-third or more of farmers’ total annual cost), and the world could experience the once-unthinkable: a true shortfall of food.

On this point, mercifully, most agricultural economists are somewhat more sanguine. They point out that most food is consumed domestically, not traded on international markets, which means that figures like “12 percent of globally traded calories” can be misleading. Economists are careful to draw distinctions between “food insecurity,” “hunger” and “starvation,” which describe quite a wide range of human experience. In many places, they say, substitution is possible, even in the 36 countries that routinely import 50 percent or more of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. In those places where substitution isn’t possible, there is the last resort of food aid — and Congress did just appropriate $5 billion to that end.

But above all agricultural economists point out that, at baseline, there is no true global food shortage, only that unassuming-sounding “price crisis.” The Ukraine conflict has brought about a genuine and widespread humanitarian catastrophe, they say, but it hasn’t meant a return to Malthus.

“Hunger problems are not really food systems problems any longer, in my view,” Barrett says. “At an obvious level, people aren’t getting enough food to eat, but that’s not because the food system isn’t functioning. Go to the most remote villages in the world and food is supplied there, commercially. Unilever, Coca-Cola: They can reach any village anywhere, pretty cost effectively. The problem is that people can’t afford it.”

“There are fixable problems, but there may be big bumps along the way,” says Catherine Bertini, the former head of the W.F.P. and the 2003 World Food Prize laureate. “So, yes,” she goes on, “you should be worried,” adding, “We all should be.”

If the W.F.P. gets the money it needs, “we can avert famine and we can avert destabilization of nations and mass migration,” says Beasley. “Now, if we don’t get the monies we need, you will have famine. You will have destabilization of nations and you will have mass migration, by necessity.”

Beasley cites the success stories of the last few years, “when donor nations stepped up and we were able to deliver,” but worries that in some places the tipping points may already have passed. “Look at the riots and protests already taking place: Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Peru, Pakistan,” he says. “You already had destabilization in Chad, Mali. That’s only a sign of what is going to be coming at us at an unprecedented speed soon.”

The ultimate scale of the catastrophe — and its death toll — remains uncertain, of course. “Whether 20 million is going to be an accurate estimate or not, none of us really know,” Barrett says. “It’s certainly within the range that’s possible, though probably in the upper range of what’s possible. But I applaud erring on the side of being a little alarmist about the near-term problems.”

“This is not cyclical, it is seismic,” says Menker, the Ethiopian founder of Gro Intelligence, who recently briefed the U.N. Security Council on the worsening crisis. “It’s not a moment in time that’s going to pass.” she says.

She cites a longer list of causes, including not just the demand shocks caused by the pandemic and related supply-chain issues but “a record number of supply shocks” that are “all climate related,” such as the rebound of China’s pig population from swine flu and the resulting increase in demand for feed, the problem of public debt in poor countries, the spillover effect of the price of one commodity driving up another and that driving up a third, and so on.

“Any one of those issues on their own would be considered a big market event. But when you have five of them happening at the same time, that’s what makes it seismic,” she says. Russia and Ukraine’s transformation into “bread baskets of the world” was “the agricultural miracle of the last sort of 30 years,” she says, invalidating cataclysmic predictions made by people like Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. To take that supply off the market — “it’s not an inconsequential fuel to the fire,” she says. As for the ultimate scale of the impact? “I think it’s gonna be as big as we make it.”

According to her firm’s data, it is historically big already. In December, Gro Intelligence has calculated, there were 39 million people on the “edge of famine” — that’s “extreme emergency,” Menker says, in which “literally, you’re about to die of starvation”; 780 million were in “extreme poverty,” and 1.2 billion were experiencing “food insecurity.”

Today, nearly six months later, the figures are 49 million, 1.1 billion and over 1.6 billion. Ten million more have moved to the edge of famine, according to Menker, and “400 million people have become more food insecure around the world because of price increases just in the last five months,” she says. “That’s literally more people than the number of people that China has taken out of food insecurity over the last two decades.”

It is an astonishing calculation — two decades of improved food security by China often described as among the most miraculous humanitarian developments in human history, undone globally just since Christmas.

“It’s human nature that we notice headwinds, and we commonly forget about the tailwinds,” Barrett tells me, trying to offer some level-setting perspective even as he foregrounds the present catastrophe. “We need to recognize that the numbers of people facing severe acute malnutrition are up really sharply these last couple of years because of those three C’s. But they’re still below levels from within my own professional career. I mean, just in a regular run-of-play year 10 or 15 years ago, these numbers were pretty normal,” he adds.

“That’s not to say ignore the problem,” he continues. “But let’s not lose sight of the longer sweep. Over the last quarter-century, we’ve been reducing the number of people who are undernourished by around six million people a year. That turned the other way in 2014, when we started to see a steady increase. But what we forget is there’s been population growth at the same time. So the numbers of people who are getting adequate caloric intake every day — a really low bar to clear, it’s not a healthy diet, but it’s at least in enough dietary energy supply to keep people going — that number has been increasing by roughly 90 million people a year, year in and year out, for 40 years.”

Though he keeps returning to the more hopeful longer-term story, Barrett is not overly Pollyannaish about how easy it will be to extend those trends. He worries over climate impacts, as all agricultural economists do, and mentions Willard Cochrane and his “technology treadmill” principle — that food systems must constantly evolve to fend off constantly evolving threats from pests and fungus to heat. “You’ve got to be exerting yourself to move forward to not just go backwards,” which in this case, Barrett says, means much more robust agricultural R. & D. spending from governments, as was common a half-century ago; decoupling food production from land use through the use of innovations like precision fermentation, vertical farming and the like; structural legal and incentive changes to redirect such innovation at the developing world, which needs it most; and possibly the end, or at least the reduction, of the use of agriculture to produce biofuels, which Menker estimates eats up enough food to feed 1.9 billion people annually.

“That is what is going to enable us to solve tomorrow’s problems. It’s not going to do anything for today’s problems,” Barrett says. “Today’s problems can only be addressed by stepping up with a checkbook and getting food to people who desperately need it right now.” Barrett says doing so “is a matter of political will. And unfortunately we fail at that pretty frequently.”

Barrett isn’t just parroting liberal cant here. He points to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which tracks how much of needed support is actually flowing into vulnerable countries. Across Central Africa, all but two countries have received less than 20 percent of the support calculated as necessary. In Chad, it’s 16 percent; in Burundi, it’s 3 percent. “The humanitarian appeal for Ukraine was oversubscribed by donors around the world while places like Yemen and South Sudan and Madagascar struggled to get to 15 or 20 percent of their appeals rate,” he says. “Politically, we’re just indifferent to human suffering in lots of the world.”

“​​We’ve been doing this for decades and — unless it’s white people who are displaced in geostrategically important places like the former Yugoslavia or Ukraine, both of which were places with major humanitarian crises and rapid, generous response by the rest of the world — in the D.R.C.s of the world and the Sudans of the world, people don’t step up and support it. So why do we keep expecting that’s going to change?”

If it doesn’t? “Between now and let’s say the next 12 months, we’re going to see a lot of excess mortality in the places that the I.P.C. is flagging as in crisis or famine condition,” Barrett says, referring to the classification system for food security crises. “A lot of excess mortality in Southern Madagascar and South Sudan and Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan. I mean, these all have political origins, both in terms of humanitarian response but also in the conflict and infrastructure problems.” Barring a “surprisingly robust humanitarian response by the world’s wealthy — by the governments and the philanthropists,” he says, “there’s going to be a lot of human suffering.”

If you’ve found it hard to follow the multiple voices in this story, this one belongs to the guy who’s probably most optimistic.

“One remarkable fact in the terrible history of famine is that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press,” Amartya Sen famously declared in 1998, an observation that, over the decades, has been transfigured into a more vernacular near-cliché: All famines are man-made.

As an aphorism, this can sound comforting, almost like a declaration of victory over the fickle forces of nature — or at least over the regular recurrence of mass starvation. And over the decades, as rates of global hunger have steadily declined, that reading has grown increasingly plausible, with the mass famines of the 1940s and 1870s or even the 1960s looking more and more like relics of an earlier era. (That includes “Population Bomb” and “Limits to Growth”-style warnings, too.)

And yet the story of even the last 15 years is not at all smooth sailing when it comes to food and hunger. In a provocative new book, “Price Wars,” the anthropologist and filmmaker Rupert Russell traces the story through the commodity markets, noting, among other things, that at no point during those years was there anything like a real calorie shortfall — as Barrett says, in fact, global food production grew, year over year, every single year. And yet there were at several points dramatic food price crises — 2008, 2011 and now over the last several years — each the result, he suggests, of a dramatic rise in financial speculation in the commodity markets. And while those studying the price of food offer competing explanations — an inelastic demand curve, which can turn small disruptions in supply into big price spikes, or the fact that declining global poverty means a demand boom sufficient to keep the system precarious — financial speculation helps explain, Russell says, how natural disruptions to the market (local climate impacts or conflict, say) can be amplified into much larger and more global problems, such as traders racing one another to respond to small changes in the “real” market.

“Price Wars” has had a somewhat predictable mixed reception — reviewed dismissively in The Wall Street Journal by Roger Lowenstein but praised by Tim Sahay in The American Prospect and called “one of the most important books of our time” by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. But it arrives at quite an appropriate moment, culturally speaking, with many people emerging from the depths of the pandemic wondering whether what was long billed as a core strength of globalization, its flexibility, had been revealed through supply-chain shocks and other disruptions to be a bit of a broken promise or even an excuse for market fragility.

This is not the only plausible reading of the last few years, of course: As many with more establishment sympathies have argued, even acknowledging much of its brutality, the pandemic was perhaps less disruptive than it might have been, with supply-chain issues, though significant, considerably more muted than most feared at the outset. And those who trust the power of markets to efficiently allocate resources might look at the same longer set of data that Russell does and say that some price spikes and even the occasional crisis may be the periodic cost of a dynamic system responding to local disruptions.

Russell does not share that trust, and his read is considerably more pointed: that financialization has introduced into a time of “natural” abundance needless volatility that periodically puts many of the world’s most vulnerable on the knife’s edge. “Is it a food crisis in the sense that there isn’t enough food?” he asks. “Or is it a market crisis in the sense that the market isn’t able to price the food correctly?”

And while the price crisis today is not a pure invention of markets — Russell describes it to me as “the return of the real,” since it does reflect the impact of the war, among other factors — it also tells us something about the proverb so often attributed to Sen: that a food crisis punctuated by an autocrat’s arbitrary decision to launch a destructive military adventure after two years of global pandemic disarray, with many of the world’s most important agricultural regions separately quite disrupted by anthropogenic climate change and hundreds of millions already suffering the pain of volatile food prices, is all a reminder that, however preferable it may be to the alternative, the proposition that famine is primarily now a human creation is, well, not quite as reassuring a proposition as it might once have seemed.

There are of course many other lessons to be drawn from the alarming rise in global hunger — first over the last five years, and then over the last five months — including the role of conflict and how destabilizing climate effects can be even well short of anything you could call a true global food shortage. But that is, to me, one of the two most striking ones: To say a catastrophe is not “natural” but “human” is not to say it is easily resolved. Or easily avoided. After all, here we are, dealing with the third such crisis in 15 years, with the number of the world’s hungry having grown fourfold in just the last five years.

The second lesson is that with truly global crises, the disruptions or damages don’t have to reach all-encompassing levels to deliver devastating impacts. In the privileged corners of the global north, we can look at commodity price spikes like these — 10 percent, 20 percent, 50 percent — and think they are unfortunate, imposing real burdens on those with the least, but not see them as so fundamentally disruptive. We can tell ourselves that the prices reflect markets doing their work, which they do. But what work is that? For many, paying half as much for milk again can seem like no big thing. But in that same fluctuation in the sticker price of your groceries we can see global hunger growing by the tens of millions. Possibly hundreds of millions.

That should be alarming enough, even if the worst predictions for famine are averted this year and next. And that is what will qualify as success here: some hundreds of millions pushed into food insecurity in the space of months, and many tens of millions pushed into acute hunger, but relatively few deaths from true starvation. Perhaps even more alarmingly, whether we manage that “success” remains very much to be seen.

Things to Read

In March, Rupert Russell warned in The Guardian that commodity price spikes caused by the war in Ukraine could cause a decade of global turmoil equivalent to that of the 1970s; you can also listen to him on “The Dig” with Daniel Denvir and Isabella Weber, and on The Intercept’s “Deconstructed” podcast.

Read (and watch) Sara Menker’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council here.

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David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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