BEIJING, Jan. 11 (Xinhua) -- As the world's population hit a new milestone of 8 billion people in 2022, the task of ensuring global food security has become even more critical.
However, due to climate change, geopolitical crises and a global economic slowdown, the international food market is expected to remain uncertain in 2023, and some low-income countries may remain trapped in the food shortage dilemma.
If history is any guide, a global crisis necessitates global cooperation. Only by strengthening coordination, facilitating supply chains, and focusing on eliminating long-term and structurally persistent problems that undermine the resilience of the global food system will the international community be able to better meet global food security challenges.
A farmer harvests wheat in Bamyan province, Afghanistan, July 21, 2022. (Photo by Ziaodin Azad/Xinhua)
LINGERING FOOD SECURITY THREATS
2022 saw a rapid increase in food prices and shortages of food supplies around the world. "The world is facing a food crisis of unprecedented proportions, the largest in modern history," the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said in a report last year.
In its joint research with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the WFP found that as many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night.
The compounding food security crisis in various parts of the world was caused by a combination of geopolitical and economic crises, as well as global warming. Unfortunately, the factors that contributed to the crisis last year are still in place.
Both Russia and Ukraine are important grain exporters, and Russia is also a major fertilizer exporter. According to figures by the WFP, Russia and Ukraine together account for 30 percent of global wheat exports.
In February 2022, international food prices rose in response to the escalation of the Ukraine crisis, exacerbating the food crisis. In March 2022, the FAO Food Price Index reached its highest level on record since 1990, at 159.7 points.
Though grain exports from Russia are not officially subject to sanctions against Russia, the West has erected "invisible barriers" to Russian agricultural exports, Eduard Zernin, head of the Russian Union of Grain Exporters, told Interfax.
What's worse, the United States has coerced its allies into tightening sanctions against Russia, affecting international energy and fertilizer supplies and driving up agricultural input costs, which could affect global agricultural production in the coming growing season and further drive up food prices.
Multiple heat and drought events in the Northern Hemisphere in 2022 also hampered winter wheat production in several major producing regions, and global corn production is also expected to be lower than the previous year's level. Due to limited international supply, wheat and corn prices will remain volatile in 2023 and highly sensitive to changes in weather conditions and related policies.
Meanwhile, some major economies are currently in recession or experiencing significant slowing, and the global economic downturn poses risks to food security.
A man weighs his malnourished child at the malnutrition treating ward in a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, March 13, 2022. (Photo by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua)
EQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF FOOD URGENTLY NEEDED
Last December, the FAO projected that global cereal production would be 2.756 billion tons in 2022, based on separate cereal supply and demand estimates. Observers believe that despite the fact that the global population has reached 8 billion, there should no longer be a food security crisis given the total global food production.
The unequal distribution of food between and within countries has caused hunger for many millions of people worldwide.
In the past decades, the core exporting countries have been stable and concentrated, while the core importing countries have been relatively dispersed. Food self-sufficiency is particularly low in developing countries as a whole. In Africa, for example, more than 30 countries are net food importers.
Because of this supply and demand pattern, the international food market is highly vulnerable to epidemics, regional conflicts and other factors.
In recent years, many food exporting countries have implemented protectionist policies, citing concerns over food supply and rising food prices.
As of July 2022, 21 countries had implemented food export bans and six countries had implemented export restrictions, according to data from the International Food Policy Research Institute. If major food exporting countries tighten trade restrictions, international food prices will undoubtedly rise.
The continued aggressive interest rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the appreciation of the U.S. dollar have also resulted in a significant increase in the financial burden on some low-income countries, which are highly dependent on food imports, further threatening the food security of vulnerable groups.
Meanwhile, Western companies at the heart of the global grain trade have enjoyed a record bonanza as global food prices soar, raising concerns of profiteering and speculation in global food markets.
In an interview with The Guardian, Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said that the fact that global commodity giants, mainly the Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, are making record profits at a time when hunger is rising "is clearly unjust, and is a terrible indictment of our food systems."
"Global grain markets are even more concentrated than energy markets and even less transparent, so there is a huge risk of profiteering," said De Schutter, noting that the food price surge in 2022 happened despite what were thought to be abundant global grain reserves.
There was insufficient transparency from the companies to show how much grain they hold and no way to force them to release stocks in a timely way, he said.
People deal with harvested wheat at a farm in Chegutu, west of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, Oct. 31, 2022. (Photo by Shaun Jusa/Xinhua)
MULTILATERAL COOPERATION AS COMMON CHALLENGE
Despite the recent drop in global food prices, the issue of food supply and security stays unaddressed. How to eliminate the threat of food security remains a common challenge for the international community in the new year.
In the face of this common threat, food security has emerged as a major concern at major international multilateral conferences in recent years.
During the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in June 2022, the Ministerial Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Insecurity was issued, the first multilateral declaration addressing the issue of food insecurity in WTO history. It stresses members' concerns about trade disruptions, record-high prices and excessive price volatility for food and agricultural products as threats to world food security.
During the 17th Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Indonesia's resort island of Bali in November 2022, leaders pledged to take urgent actions to address the vulnerabilities of developing countries, and called for an accelerated transformation towards sustainable and resilient agriculture and food systems and supply chains.
"We will take further coordinated actions to address food security challenges including price surges and shortage of food commodities and fertilizers globally," said the G20 Bali Leaders' Declaration.
On how international trade can help achieve more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems, Dominique Fernand Burgeon, director of the FAO liaison office with the United Nations in Geneva, said that to reduce disruptions to global agricultural trade, the first step should be to improve market transparency and promote policy dialogue.
Countries should consider the potential damage to international markets from trade restrictive measures, and vigorously implement trade facilitation measures and carry out international cooperation, he said at an international conference on agricultural trade policy last November.
To feed the world's 8 billion people, the international community should promote free trade and keep food trade flowing smoothly, with a particular focus on resolving the disruptions in the food supply chain caused by the Ukraine crisis as soon as possible, said Tang Jian, a vice professor from the Institute for International Strategic Studies of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
The major countries should also collaborate on how to provide global public goods, with the United Nations taking the lead, Tang said, adding that an early warning system for the food market should be established in order to predict which regions may face food crises and take precautions accordingly. ■