We must act together to prevent an apocalyptic famine

We must act together to prevent an apocalyptic famine

We must act together to prevent an apocalyptic famine
Food and other items are distributed to people, many of whom are recent refugees from Ukraine, in New York City. (AFP)
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First the plague, then the famine. Both disease and starvation threaten on a truly global scale. More than 275 million people on this planet are on the brink of starvation. Does that sound apocalyptic? That was the word deployed by the governor of the Bank of England about the global food price rise. Wheat prices have gone up 40 percent so far this year. The World Food Programme says it needs urgent assistance across 53 countries and territories. The figures for 2022 and possibly 2023 could be off the scale.
The global food supply was battered by the pandemic. The plague, in this case the COVID-19 pandemic, is far from over, especially for developing countries that cannot afford to roll out vaccines. It has been one of the drivers of global food shortages.
Climate change is having its impact too. Extreme weather events have reduced areas for cultivation and denied farmers the predictability of increased harvests. India, the world’s second largest producer of wheat, has this month halted wheat exports due to the extreme heat. More than half the US is experiencing drought. As a result of the extreme floods last autumn, China could be facing its worst crop in history this year, according to its agriculture minister. The level of water in the Euphrates is at critically low levels, affecting an already devastated Syrian population. In the Sahel, according to the UN, 7.7 million children under age five are expected to suffer from malnutrition.
And on top of this is the Ukraine-Russia crisis. Let us remember that the situation before the invasion was already severe but had fallen under the shortsighted media and political radars. Even in 2021, nearly 193 million people, a record, were acutely food insecure.
The figures are scary. Together, Russia and Ukraine supply 28 percent of globally traded wheat, 29 percent of barley, 15 percent of maize and 75 percent of sunflower oil. This incredible level of production of core foodstuffs is under threat and the WFP says exports are down to a “trickle.” At present 25 million tons of corn and wheat are just sitting there in Ukraine in overladen silos. This is equivalent to the annual consumption of all the world’s least developed economies. Ukrainian farmers have nowhere to store their next harvest due in June. They also complain of a lack of laborers to harvest the crops, as many Ukrainians have fled or are fighting. Considerable amounts of agricultural land are off limits due to fighting or mines and unexploded ordnance. At the same time, the world’s breadbasket has bread queues, with Ukrainians struggling to get food on their tables.
Russia too may be suffering due to sanctions. It is probably being hit by shortages of seed and pesticides which it typically imports.
Many of the worst affected countries are to be found in the Middle East, notably Syria, Sudan and Yemen. The WFP has had to reduce food rations to 8 million people this month. Egypt is the world’s top importer of wheat. Libya imports half of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. In Syria, the UN Security Council will have to decide on cross border-humanitarian aid again soon — it will be vital that Russia does not veto the extension of the cross-border mandate. Few will need a reminder that high food prices were a contributing factor to the 2010-2011 protests across the region. Protests must be on the cards once again.

With threats to food supply from the pandemic, war and climate change, it will take a truly global effort to combat world starvation.

Chris Doyle

Rising energy prices are critical. WFP’s operational costs have gone up by $70 million a month largely due to increased transport and fuel costs. Farmers rely on fuel but also fertilizer and pesticides, supplies of which are also affected by the crisis. At present 20 percent of all fertilizer exports are restricted.
What are the possible solutions? What needs to happen? An end to the conflict in Ukraine would be wonderful but highly unlikely.
In Ukraine, the road and rail transport options could help in exporting the wheat but it would not be able to replace the port capacity at Odessa. Transporting the cereals to neighboring states is slower and more costly. Nevertheless, what choice is there?
The big question is whether Ukraine’s seven Black Sea ports, especially Odessa, can be used. “Truly, failure to open those ports in the Odessa region will be a declaration of war on global food security. And it will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world,” said David Beasley, the WFP chief.
Yet the Ukrainians have had to mine the ports to prevent any Russian amphibious landing. Somehow a grand bargain needs to be made to get the Black Sea ports operational, with ships exporting foodstuffs. Russia will need to agree to end its blockade, and Turkey will need to consent to naval escorts through the Bosporus — at the moment it has banned all warships from such transit.
The trouble is that Russian military efforts right now are aimed at seizing the Black Sea littoral, a conflict zone of even greater import to it than the Donbas region. It would render Ukraine a landlocked country. No doubt this is why NATO states have increasingly been providing anti-ship weapons.
Energetic diplomacy is of the essence though it is hard to see the Russian leadership shifting its position. It stands accused as it is of having targeted Ukrainian silos and fertilizer stores, and of therefore trying to push Ukraine into famine.
Elsewhere, major powers will have to dig deeper to fund humanitarian programs. Existing sanctions regimes, for example on Syria, could be redesigned to ensure they do not hinder vital agricultural activity, as well as ensuring that ordinary Syrians, as opposed to regime cronies, are also not so harshly affected.
These are some possible short-term measures. Yet long-term global food insecurity is not going to disappear. It should focus the minds still further on ending conflicts, the biggest driver of hunger, with 60 percent of the world’s hungry living in war zones. Tackling climate change now, not later, is vital too.
As with the pandemic, it should be a global effort where every state has a role. Sadly, that has yet to happen. One can only hope that the international system reacts more effectively to global famine.

• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London.
Twitter: @Doylech

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view