The return of hunger, a tragedy announced

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By RICARDO ABRAMOVAY*

70% of the calories in the top ten global agricultural products go to uses other than feeding people

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in explaining the recent rise of world hunger. Ukraine and Russia account for 10% of world trade in calories, 30% of world exports of wheat and 60% of sunflower oil. Between 20% and 30% of the cultivated area in Ukraine cannot be harvested and the blockade of the country's ports by Russian troops prevents the available products from reaching the markets. There are 26 countries in which more than half of the grains are imported from the two warring nations. And, according to the World Bank, each percentage point of increase in agricultural prices translates into hunger for ten million people, as shown by Megan Green, in the Financial Times.

But these numbers cannot hide important information from the report by Assis Moreira, in the newspaper Economic value (17/05/2022), on the action of the G7 against the “global hunger crisis”. In it, Gary McGuigan, world president of Archer Daniels Midlands Company, one of the four giants of the global food trade, declares: “There is enough grain in the world. The biggest problem is distribution, even more so with the difficulties of outflow in the port of Odessa”.

In other words, if restrictions on the global free movement of agricultural products were lifted, the current price explosion (with a historically record high of the FAO index in April 2022) could have been avoided or mitigated. By this reasoning, there is no better remedy against hunger than free trade and the reduction in food prices to which it can lead.

It's possible. But it is also important to face three other problems linked to the structure of the global agrifood system, not only to understand what is happening, but to elaborate consistent proposals that will allow achieving the second of the Sustainable Development Goals, Zero Hunger by 2030.

The first problem is that although there is enough grain in the world, it is not because of trade restrictions that they do not reach the tables of those who need them. There are enough grains, but the proportion of these grains that are destined directly for human consumption is decreasing. In 2030, only 29% of the global harvest of the ten most cultivated agricultural products globally will be consumed as food in the countries where they are produced. In 1960 this total was 51%. It is true that hunger in the world, since 1960, has dropped sharply and there is no doubt that the increase in soil yields through which products destined for industrial processing and exports (the ones that have grown the most since then) have been fundamental to this achievement.

But it is still odd to blame war and the trade barriers it brings for the explosion of hunger, in a world where 70% of the calories in the top ten global agricultural products are destined for uses other than feeding people, as shown in the article by Deepak Ray and collaborators, published in nature food of May. The authors estimated (before the Russian invasion of Ukraine) that Sustainable Development Goal number two would not be achieved until 2030, as the title of their article clearly shows (Crop harvests for direct food use insufficient to meet the UN's food security goal). Not because of a shortage of production, but because of the growing distance that separates agricultural production from the plate of those most in need of food.

The situation is all the more worrisome as the yields from crops grown directly for human consumption have grown much less than those destined for export, industrialization or animal feed. Expanding production and liberalizing trade do not, therefore, seem to be the most appropriate measures to face hunger.

The second problem linked to the structure of the agrifood system was pointed out in a paper that McKinsey published in 2020.[1] The techniques that favored the advance of agricultural yields provoked, at the same time, a double concentration. On the one hand, few products (rice, wheat, corn and soy) account for more than 50% of the global supply of calories. The world's food basket comprises, for most people, of few products.

Furthermore, 60% of production is concentrated in a few countries. And, in these countries, the offer is in turn concentrated regionally. Crop losses in any of these regions end up having a high-risk global impact on world food security. The gains in agricultural productivity resulting from the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which contributed so much to the reduction of food prices and the reduction of hunger in the world, ended up increasing, a few decades after its emergence, the risks of food insecurity.

And, third problem, in these regions where agricultural production is concentrated, the impacts of climate change are being felt in an increasingly drastic way. The droughts that are currently affecting India, France, the Colorado River in the USA and that will cause agricultural losses, in 2022 alone, of R$ 70 billion in Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande countries are a global phenomenon with increasing frequency. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in February, shows that 75% of the global harvested area has suffered recent yield losses due to drought. A recent document from the Convention to Combat Desertification of the United Nations estimates that no less than 1,9 billion people have been affected by droughts in the last twenty years.

It is not, of course, a matter of advocating closure and autarchy as solutions to the problem of hunger. But the risks linked to the productive models consecrated by the Green Revolution, which are at the base of the extensive productive chains originally intended to feed the world and which today have entered, not in crisis, but in collapse, are increasingly threatening.

The expansion of trade is welcome, but for it to be constructive, it must be supported by productive diversification, the deconcentration of activities and circuits that allow the appreciation of food culture from different regions of the world and its proximity to consumers.

*Ricardo Abramovay is senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).

 

Note


[1] Will the world's breadbasket become less reliable?

 

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