Global Food Crisis: The spectre of starvation deaths
While 222 million people in 53 countries face acute food insecurity, 45 million in 37 countries are projected to have so little to eat that they will be severely malnourished, and at risk of death
The warnings may have fallen on deaf years. In May 2022, the annual Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2022), prepared by UN agencies and other expert groups, issued a ringing alert on the acutely aggravated hunger situation in the world, including its most extreme forms of mass starvation and related deaths. It’s been a few months since and the somnolent world reaction to this humanitarian crisis has already worsened it, as indicated by the September review of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program, which had a lead role in preparing the first report. Its projection for the months of October 2022 to January 2023 indicated 19 critical hunger hotspots (for the lowdown, look up ‘FAO Hunger Hotspots’ online).
We are well into this time zone and the call to action couldn’t be more stark: while 222 million people in 53 countries face acute food insecurity and are in urgent need of assistance, 45 million people in 37 countries are projected to have so little to eat that they will be severely malnourished, and at risk of death (Stage 4 on the crisis scale). As many as 970,000 people are seen by the FAO report in Stage 5 (the Catastrophe of starvation and death). For perspective, on both the severity of the crisis as well as the inadequacy of intervention, this represents a ten times increase in Stage 5 numbers compared with the situation just six years ago.
While the reports admit it may not be possible to reach some of the worst-affected people who are trapped in conflict zones—numbering in millions—it is still possible to mitigate the crisis in other areas if humanitarian food aid is stepped up significantly. Dishearteningly, though, when the need for humanitarian aid is greater than ever before, it has slipped from earlier levels. To be clear: the reports do underline the crisis in areas and situations understood to be beyond local capacity and resources to tackle it. The situation has been deteriorating and the numbers just keep going up: the first GRFC of 2016 estimated 108 million in stage 3, which has more than doubled in the six years since to 222 million.
In 2021, nearly 40 million people in 36 countries faced an ‘Emergency’ hunger situation; that number is now up to 45 million in 37 countries. Neighbouring Afghanistan alone has 6 million people affected by a food insecurity emergency
Between the 2021 estimate (193 million) and now, nearly 29 million have been added to stage 3 or worse categories. In 2021, nearly 40 million people in 36 countries faced an ‘Emergency’ (stage 4 and above) hunger situation; that number is now up to 45 million in 37 countries.
Neighbouring Afghanistan alone has 6 million affected by a food insecurity emergency (stage 4 and above). Thirty-nine countries/ territories are common to all lists of stage 3 and above hunger prepared since 2016; the number of people so affected in these 39 countries increased from 94 million in 2016 to 180 million in 2021.
The 19 hunger hotspots are mostly concentrated in Africa—Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and Sudan, among others—and include Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and parts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka (in Asia) and Haiti, Honduras and Guatemala (from the Americas). Apart from these worst affected hotspots, even traditionally food-surplus countries like Ukraine and Myanmar have been listed among areas that may be hit by serious food shortages due to a fast-deteriorating situation.
Can anything be done, even at this late stage, to mitigate the crisis, to possibly limit the starvation and the possibility of starvation deaths? Some relief is available in most areas, courtesy the UN and its agencies like the World Food Program, the International Red Cross, and some more from some national governments or local agencies. To ramp up food availability in crisis areas, all food-surplus countries must prioritise supply of free or concessional food to these areas. However, even extreme food shortages should not be used as a pretext to dump GM and other hazardous foods on these countries, as likely seen—and flagged by activists— recently in Kenya.
As climate change is an important causal factor in these tragedies—as reflected in unprecedented droughts in several countries, the exceptionally destructive floods in some others, and sundry other disasters—the newly instituted Loss and Damage Fund can be activated to direct $2-5 billion for immediate relief measures on an emergency basis.
While it’s probably not realistic to expect permanent or lasting solutions to the conflicts that exacerbate the food crises, even temporary ceasefires and cessation of hostilities will open up the possibility of interventions to avoid starvation disasters. The United Nations should consider a special call to this effect.
While this will help countries and regions of various conflict-hit hunger hotspots to concentrate efforts and resources on assisting people, the people themselves will become more accessible to various relief agencies, so that both food and medical help can reach them in time.
Bharat Dogra is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now