The politics of food in a time of war and disease 

The world’s food system is failing the most vulnerable due to its inability to withstand disruptions such as  the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. 

Conflicts are key drivers of hunger, and climate change locks in that vulnerability. Africa has the world’s highest share of food insecurity, caused in part because of the continent’s reliance on the functioning of the global market and a lack of a coordinated regional approach to food markets and sustainable production. 

According to the United Nations, about 21% of people in Africa (282 million people) suffered from hunger in 2020 . And February’s reading on the gauge that tracks prices for meat, dairy, cereals, oils, and sugar was the highest since 1961 – dwarfing the 2008 financial crisis. The latest model from the Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that in a “severe shock” scenario, the global number of undernourished people will increase by 13.1 million in the short term (2022/23) – including 5.1 million in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Data by the Centre of Competition, Regulation, and Economic Development shows that this year: 

  • Maize prices increased across Africa in June. 
  • In Kenya, prices have risen sharply, reaching US$770/ton in the first week of July – attributed to scarcity, with poor harvests due to the ongoing drought. 
  • Uganda has also shifted to supply maize to South Sudan. Kenya has not been a reliable trading partner, with various restrictions undermining regional markets. The country has now started talks with Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda. 
  • Maize prices in Tanzania have increased substantially, with Dar es Salaam prices rising to US$435 in June. 
  • Rice prices in the region have remained far above the international export prices from Bangkok in 2022. Prices in Tanzania, the major producer and exporter, have increased and are now 76% above the global benchmark.
  • There are huge margins in soybean prices between the exporting countries of Zambia and Malawi and locations of demand in East Africa. As prices have declined in Zambia and Malawi, these margins have even increased. 
  • In Sudan, wheat prices have nearly doubled, according to IPES. In Eastern Africa, as much as a third of average cereal consumption is from wheat/wheat products, 84% of which is imported, mainly from Ukraine and Russia. The cost of importing wheat has increased by 33% in Kenya and Egypt, with Cairo – the world’s largest wheat importer – now requesting International Monetary Fund assistance

Other countries, in the Horn of Africa especially, with fewer resources are much harder hit. Regional markets appear to be broken, undermining the competitiveness of value chains relying on these crops, such as poultry.

War in Europe, but the real battle is in Africa 

There are at least 40 active conflicts globally, but none have rippled across oceans and borders like the one between the world’s largest wheat and fertiliser producers: Russia and Ukraine. This resulted in price shocks on basics like sunflower oil, wheat and other foods due to fertiliser shortages from Russia, the world’s major producer. 

Africa has depended on imports at a time when global solidarity is declining against the backdrop of grain hoarding and commodity speculation. This is a key factor in a full-blown food price crisis, exacerbated by climate events such as the drought in Kenya and the Horn of Africa, says the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems’ (Ipes – Food) latest report on the Russia-Ukraine war. A third of average cereal consumption is from wheat or wheat products, 84% of which is imported mainly from Ukraine and Russia. 

“This makes it all the more critical to act now to rebuild food security on a new and lasting basis. Failure to do so means sleepwalking into the catastrophic and systematic food crises of the future,” the authors said. 

Dismantling Africa’s food production and locking in dependency in a speculative market 

Africa’s food production system has been structurally dismantled since the 80s, when countries prioritised cash crop exports and cheap grain imports. As a result, food imports have tripled. Despite having enormous agriculture potential and 60% of the planet’s arable land, five staple commodities such as wheat, sugar, rice, beef, and soybeans make up the bulk of imports. By 2025 Africa’s net food import bill is set to reach $110 billion, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).  

The Ipes report refers to the latest G7 Agriculture Ministers communiqué on the invasion of Ukraine, which called out “artificially inflated prices” and “speculative behaviour”, and committed to “closely monitoring markets affecting the food system”. 

“Incomplete information on global grain markets leaves food systems vulnerable to grain hoarding and financial speculation, while low-income countries appear to have limited scope at present to buffer against price shocks and supply shortages,” the Ipes-Food authors stressed.  

The World Bank’s Adaptation and Resilience Action Plan prioritises better understanding and acting on the potential impact of climate change in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Attention to these issues is central to the international community’s efforts to eliminate extreme poverty. The World Bank’s $2.3-billion programme to address South and Eastern food insecurity recognises that food shocks (such as pest and disease outbreaks, and political and market instability) are becoming more frequent and severe.

“The impacts of climate change are felt most intensely by the poorest and most vulnerable communities, especially those living in fragile and conflict-affected settings. If not addressed, they could push an additional 132 million people into poverty by 2030,” the bank said. 

The Ipes Special Report calls for urgent action to: 

  • Support food-importing countries (including debt relief)
  • Tackle commodity speculation and enhance market transparency 
  • Reduce reliance on fertilisers and fossil energy in food production
  • Accelerate the development of regional grain reserves and food security response systems fit for the protracted crises 
  • Diversify food production and restructure trade flows
  • Rebuild resilience and cut harmful dependencies through diversity and agroecology

By renewing Africa’s focus on diversifying its food crops, the continent can balance its trade objectives with that of its own food security. 

Coupled with the known severity of climate change risks, the run-up to COP27 in Egypt later this year must be characterised by robust efforts to create lasting change for the continent’s food systems. Future-proofing domestic food production for domestic consumption is a critical step towards adapting to climate change and building resilience to global volatility that arises from major disruptive conflicts. 

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