Managing Global Food Insecurity

Carmel Cahill talks to Gitika Bhardwaj about how conflict, economic crisis, climate change and trade disputes have the potential to disrupt the global food system.

4 minute READ

Carmel Cahill

Deputy Director, Trade and Agriculture Directorate, OECD

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Global hunger is on the rise, with 821 million undernourished people in the world in 2017, which is up from 784 million in 2015. With ongoing violence in Yemen, where 12 million people are at risk of starvation, and economic crisis fuelling food shortages in Venezuela, how is conflict and economic instability around the world contributing to global food insecurity?

Conflict is increasingly driving hunger rather than generic problems around disruptions in food production or rising poverty. At any given moment, of the 821 million chronically food insecure people in the world, close to half of them are suffering from hunger because of conflict. That figure will move around from year to year but it is continuously a significant aspect of the problem of global food insecurity.

We see this terrible tragedy unfolding in Yemen, and in other parts of the world such as in South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, and we realise how conflict is a significant part of the problem in these cases. What the international community has to realize is that the solutions for solving conflict-related hunger are completely different to when food insecurity is a result of a crop failure or a lack of food access because of poverty.

Economic stability is also very important to food security. A very large proportion of the food insecure people in the world are food insecure because they are caught up in severe political crises as in Venezuela. These kinds of issues have, strictly speaking, little to do with the availability of food. There would be plenty to go around in many of the affected areas if conflicts and political tensions did not disrupt food supplies.

How is the changing climate also affecting the global food system and how could this worsen as global temperatures rise? 

It’s difficult to say with any precision to what extent climate change is affecting the global food system at the moment – and I say that without having any doubt in my mind that it is affecting the global food system – but, until you get a long period of data, it’s hard to see the trends.

Climate change is starting to kick in and we’re seeing its effects. But how is it going to contribute to global food insecurity? It depends on how the world reacts and what policymakers and decision-makers do.

On the one hand, if nothing were to change, and if the research that is needed is not done to help adaptation and mitigation efforts, then we will see hot, dry and arid regions – which are already causing difficult conditions for agriculture – causing even more difficult conditions.

On the other hand, a wider range of crops will be able to be grown in temperate regions, but in these regions as well, some crops that have been traditionally grown, will no longer be able to be grown. Therefore, farmers will have to move to growing other crops which means there will need to be a lot of adaptation on their part.

The implications of climate change for food security will depend, at least in part, on what happens with trade. If you keep the trade channels open, and food is able to move from surplus areas to deficit areas, then the world could probably cope. But if we begin retrenching behind our borders, and refusing to trade with each other, then the problems will be exacerbated. The poorest areas in the world could suffer the most as people there are already dealing with a number of difficult circumstances.

The other impact of climate change will be the increased frequency of extreme weather-related events such as droughts, floods and problems caused indirectly by extreme weather like contamination. Here, we really need to develop mechanisms built upon international cooperation in order to deal with the catastrophic consequences of climate change, which are likely to be worse in particular regions.

The world needs to be ready to come to the rescue of those in need, as it were, even more so then it has in the past.

How far are ongoing trade disputes and increasingly protectionist trade policies also affecting the global food system, in particular, what are the implications of these tensions for international food prices? 

These protectionist trade policies are a recent phenomenon. We, at the OECD, do a lot of tracking and we are seeing trade becoming more open rather than more closed. However, we are now in a situation of very severe trade tensions. We’ve seen countries taking unilateral measures against other countries and then these countries retaliating. Should this escalate further, it will be extremely serious for global growth in general, not just trade in agricultural goods. There is, therefore, a risk facing countries that are not currently integrated into the world trade system.

For the global food apparatus, trade disputes are really worrying because food is so vital to everyone. If your supplies are cut off, it’s extremely difficult to find replacement supplies, so the impacts are felt immediately. We saw this in 2007–08, when because of high global food prices, civil unrest erupted in a number of countries around the world.

We live in a highly integrated world. People talk about food value chains, and they are chains, because when you break a link in the chain, the whole thing falls apart, and that could be very disruptive for food supplies. Rich countries are able to cope because consumers are able to cope with higher prices but not so in poorer countries.

What, in your opinion, are the implications for the UK’s agricultural sector, as well as other food-related industries, post-Brexit?

The work the OECD has been doing suggests that Brexit will be damaging to the UK economy, but also to all of the economies that trade with the UK, so everybody is going to share in that damage.

It’s not at all clear what the UK trade policy will be post-Brexit and it’s certainly not clear what the UK policy would be with respect to food. We’ve heard conflicting things about what people think it should be. But, what is clear, is that the UK is involved in a period of deep reflection about what to do with its agricultural policy domestically.

Currently, a lot of the debate in the UK and on the international level is focused on innovation, risk management, climate change and stewardship of the countryside and its resources. This seems to me to be a positive development. However, the actual outcomes will depend a lot on what decisions are made about trade policy.

How do you think the agricultural sector should ultimately balance competition from other industries for land, water and energy?

We are already in a situation where tensions around competing demands are happening.

In terms of land, there is no more land in the world. There is some more land that could be brought into production in parts of Africa and South America, but, in general, there is very little land left available for agriculture. And, if we allow all land to be converted from forest areas into agriculture, we will exacerbate all sorts of problems in relation to climate change. Countries will have to regulate their agricultural sectors carefully.

However, the Paris Agreement may force them to think about it more wisely. When they’re thinking about how their different sectors will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, they will have to think about the trade-offs between different land-use sectors such as agriculture, forestry and more.

In terms of water, agriculture is by far the largest user of water globally in terms of extraction. And in many countries, water is not priced, but free. The infrastructure for delivering it to farmers for irrigation is subsidized and sometimes you see that the power to pump it from aquifers is also subsidized. So, again, governments will need to be careful to avoid incentivizing unsustainable water use. 

The political economy makes it difficult to bring about change but there are instruments available – like governance arrangements around water – which can dramatically improve these issues. These things need to happen otherwise it is possible that we will face a devastating crisis in parts of the world where there is important global agricultural production and where water is severely depleted. This could be in India, China or in California in the US. These are some of the hotspots where this scenario could happen but there are other parts of the world with looming water issues too.

We have to get it right. We have to price the water right, educate farmers and all those working in the agricultural sector and put governance mechanisms in place that focus on sharing our supplies.