March 27, 2022
Besides crude oil, the most visible inflationary impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been on food prices, which have shot up dramatically over the past month because both Russia and Ukraine are major grain producers and exporters. Together, they account for almost a third of global wheat exports and about a fifth of corn, both of which are part of staple diets across the world. Most of these exports used to pass through ports on the Black Sea, which have been closed since the war began.
As a result, wheat prices have jumped more than 50 percent since the war began and are now at record levels. Also up in price are other foods, notably meat. And, as Russia and Ukraine are large exporters of fertilizers, the war has not only hit the price of crops already harvested, but also put a question mark over the fate of future crops, driving prices even higher.
Rises in the price of food this year are bad on their own, but they have also come on the back of increases that go back to the early pandemic and even pre-pandemic eras. And the rate of inflation seems to be accelerating year on year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, food commodity prices rose 23.1 percent in 2021 — the fastest pace in more than a decade. Global food prices were about 40 percent higher at the end of 2021 than they were in 2019. And, as a direct result of the war in Ukraine, the rate is set to accelerate this year, as the FAO’s tracker of the prices of meat, dairy, cereals, oils and sugar has hit its highest level in more than 50 years.
The scenario for the rest of the year is indeed scary as, after more than two years of disruption to farming and trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, world food stocks have been declining. In fact, they declined last year for the fifth straight year and, thanks to climate change, higher input costs have made farming even less productive than before, clouding the picture for outputs and prices in the medium term as well.
Though every part of the world has been hit by the rise in prices, the worst impact is being felt by low-income nations, where food was already by far the largest household expenditure even before the pandemic began. For instance, in the developed world, food makes up about 17 percent of overall consumer spending, while in sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the world, it was already at 40 percent.
The World Food Programme, another UN agency, says that food insecurity around the world has doubled over the past two years and that about 45 million people are on the brink of famine.
Though every part of the world has been hit by the rise in prices, the worst impact is being felt by low-income nations.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Though India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — unlike sub-Saharan Africa — are large producers of food and the first two are also large exporters, food insecurity has risen and rather sharply in India, the largest producer of food in the region. Even though India has millions of tons of grain, notably wheat, in its government-controlled granaries, food insecurity has worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic and a balanced, nutritional diet, which was already out of reach for a significant chunk of the population, has become even more unattainable since 2020.
Being the second-most populous country in the world and with the largest number of poor people, the situation in India is rather traumatic and, on certain parameters, among the lowest in the world. For instance, according to the 2021 Global Nutrition Report, as many as 53 percent of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) are anemic, while there was no data on whether India had progressed at all in tackling low birth weight among children. Another worrying figure is that 34.7 percent of children under five are stunted and 17.3 percent of infants are afflicted by wasting, another lifelong impact of prolonged malnutrition. Nearly 60 percent of deaths of young children in India are directly linked to poor nutrition.
What is worrying about India is that, even before the pandemic, the situation in terms of malnutrition and child health had been worsening. Nutrition experts have long called on the government to deal with anemia among women to help deal with the malnutrition of children and low birth weights. However, the limited and declining government spending on nutrition, as well as healthcare, over the past two years has exacerbated the situation.
But dramatic falls in nutrition are not limited to India. Most experts believe that Africa, notably sub-Saharan Africa, is definitely in the same boat, along with some other countries in Asia.
If the situation was so grim before the war in Europe began, one can only imagine what its impact will be on the most vulnerable communities in the world. As it is, almost all of these nations were set to miss the deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goal of addressing hunger and providing balanced nutrition to all by 2030. With less than eight years to go, even the limited progress made toward these goals by African and South Asian nations is certain to have been erased and the countries pushed back by years, if not decades.
Once again, India is a good indicator. The UN estimated in 2019 that India lifted the largest number of people out of poverty in the history of the world, as it managed to move 271 million above the poverty line between 2006 and 2016. However, the UN estimated that 46 million Indians had fallen into extreme poverty in 2020 — about half the total number in the world — and, overall, between 88 and 115 million Indians had become poorer due to the government’s response to COVID-19.
Though nongovernmental organizations and some governments have reinforced their efforts to tackle the issue of hunger, much more can be and needs to be done by national governments and, above all, rich nations and extremely wealthy people around the world, most of whom have seen their fortunes soar since the outbreak of the pandemic, just as the poor across the street have been struggling to find even one square meal a day. Without a generous injection of cash and the provision of nutritious food in the areas that most need them, the world is on course to see one of the biggest tragedies in living memory unfold.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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