Reporters at The New York Times and the President of the World Bank Group last week pointed to climate change, inflation and the war in Ukraine as reasons for increasing food prices.
“These combine to create two effects that are related,” said David Malpass, the President of the World Bank Group. “One is the price rise in many countries … and then the actual lack of food, directly phasing into malnutrition first, and then starvation.”
Other speakers included Mujib Mashal, The New York Times Bureau Chief for South Asia, and Abdi Latif Dahir, the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times. The speakers held a discussion in a Twitter Space hosted by The New York Times, reaching over 80,000 listeners.
Dahir explained that significant rises in wheat and corn prices have been caused by droughts in the horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan.
“You’ve sort of had four consecutive failed rainy seasons,” said Dahir. “It has dried rivers and wells and led to the death of millions of livestock, whether it’s cows, goat, sheep.”
In addition to drought, a locust infestation in 2019 also devastated crops in Kenya.
Decimated food supplies affected the livestock supply and direct food for humans, as up to 45 million people across 43 countries suffer from famine, according to the World Food Programme.
Agriculture was hit hard in countries like Sri Lanka that experienced a fertilizer ban last year, said Mashal. Because of this, food security will be affected in future years if governments do not receive necessary foreign reserves to grow enough crops.
“Some say it was for pushing towards organic farming,” said Mashal. “Some say they were already facing this foreign exchange crunch, and they wanted to save some dollars by reducing import of fertilizers. But whatever the reason was, it had a devastating impact on agriculture and affected harvest.”
Climate change and the global food crisis are “interrelated,” said Malpass, such as the need for natural gas when producing fertilizer and reopening coal-fired power plants without Russia’s supply.
“I would almost draw the parallel a little differently and say ‘How much does the Russia[n] invasion of Ukraine cause a setback in both climate and food?” said Malpass. “The answer is: huge setback.”
The “backsliding” — reverting to dirty, carbon-intensive fuel — around the world is because of unreliable power grids and lack of Russian oil, without augmented renewable energy production.
Both Russia and Ukraine were among the top three global exporters of cereals and cooking oils last year. Russia was also the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Governments cannot predict supply and need accurately with climate change, said Mashal. In India, heat waves caused up to 15% falls in wheat harvests, said Mashal.
“That unpredictability that has come in with these climate patterns has made the job of governance difficult as well,” said Mashal.
As the war continues and more extreme weather events occur, appropriately tracked loans can help countries that have no foreign reserves or are in debt to produce enough food for their citizens.
“There is a big effort within the [World] Bank to try to track the use of the money to the appropriate use,” said Malpass. “We have expanded the use of direct social safety nets where the money goes directly to people within a country.”
A direct social safety net project was successful in Sudan prior to the coup last year, but Kenya has been having issues with corruption in its government agencies. There is no magic solution or a 100% success rate, said Malpass.
Overall, countries with more advanced economies have more capability to support poorer countries and should take on the burden of production.
Major producers should keep their markets open, said Malpass. Advanced economies should also leave enough supply for countries in need instead of stockpiling for the future, similar to how COVID-19 vaccines were hoarded.
“This is a really difficult global situation because of Russia’s invasion, because of the droughts that are occurring,” said Malpass. “It should not be finger pointing, but more, “How can people look for solutions through it?’”