Pandemic and higher food prices fuel sharp rise in global hunger

The economic fallout from the pandemic and rapidly rising food prices have fuelled a sharp increase in the number of people going hungry around the world, according to the UN.

The number who did not have access to adequate nutrition last year rose 320m to 2.4bn — nearly a third of the world’s population — the UN said in a report published on Monday. The increase is equivalent to that of the previous five years combined.

The number of people facing acute food insecurity is at record levels, raising concerns about social unrest and increased migration, the UN said. Almost 1bn people were severely food insecure, up by a fifth from 2019.

Arif Husain, chief economist at the UN World Food Programme, said the situation had been caused by rising food prices and sharp falls in household incomes. “What we see today is a price shock and at the same time incomes have been decimated, and that impact is devastating,” he said.

This is in contrast to previous food crises in 2008 and 2011, which were caused by just one of the two factors and not both at the same time, he added.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index has risen 34 per cent over the past year, driven by droughts in key exporting countries as well as stockpiling by some governments and companies. Developing countries, which rely on agricultural imports and food that is less processed, have acutely felt the rise in prices.

Line chart of Food price index (2014-2016=100) showing World food prices have soared

Countries already facing economic hardships and conflict have been particularly hard hit. The average price of wheat flour in Lebanon, where economic turmoil has accelerated over the past year, has soared 219 per cent while in Syria the price of cooking oil has jumped 440 per cent.

The IMF recently cited weather disruptions and strong demand for staple foods for humans and animals, along with a surge in shipping costs, as drivers of the trend. The effects would be “felt most by consumers in emerging markets and developing economies still wrestling with the effects of the pandemic”, it said.

The UN’s Husain warned of the geopolitical consequences; rising food insecurity could fuel migration as people from poorer countries try to flee to richer ones.

Bar chart of Increase in cost of food basket* (%) showing Poorer countries hit hardest by food price rises

“We have to realise that hunger causes conflict, and conflict causes destabilisation, which opens the door to things like terrorism and feeds into forced displacement not only within countries but across borders,” he said.

Joe Glauber, senior research fellow at think-tank the International Food Policy Research Institute and former chief economist at the US Department of Agriculture, said food insecurity was often the trigger for unrest.

“It’s the spark that lights the fire,” he said, citing events in northern Africa in 2007-08 as well as 2011, when wheat prices were at record highs. High prices for yellow corn in 2007 forced livestock producers in Mexico to feed their animals white corn, which contributed to the so-called Tortilla Riots that year, he added.

Although the rising cost of food has predominantly affected developing countries since the start of the pandemic, the trend is likely to hit developed economies later this year, the IMF recently warned.

“The recent sharp increase in international food prices has already slowly started to feed into domestic consumer prices in some regions as retailers, unable to absorb the rising costs, are passing on the increases to consumers,” it said.

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