August 11, 2022

We're in a food crisis. What does this mean for development?

A number of our authors a few weeks back flagged the food crisis when looking at how the war in Ukraine will impact international development. On top of the war, there’s the fallout from COVID-19, supply chain disruptions, and a worsening climate – a convergence of crises that’s forcing record-high food prices, resource scarcity, and a reversal of development gains.

So this week, we’re taking a closer look at the food crisis and asking the experts what this will mean for international development.

Dr Robyn Alders AO
Honorary Professor, Development Policy Centre & Senior Consulting Fellow, Global Health Programme at Chatham House

Affordable, safe, nutritious food underpins human civilisation and is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Following the devastation of the Second World War, the United Nations and other multilateral agencies focused on reducing absolute hunger, largely by increasing the production of easily stored staple crops such as maize, rice and wheat and the use of food aid in support of economic and social development. From the 1990s onwards, food aid has taken a back seat to emergency operations while agricultural organisations struggled to maintain awareness of the role of food security in maintaining stable and equitable societies. But today, as we are on the precipice of declaring famine in multiple parts of the world, advocates are forcing food insecurity back into the international spotlight.

The 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report indicates that the number of people suffering from an absolute lack of calories and micronutrients continues to grow in low-,medium- and high-income countries. Currently 350 million are facing acute food insecurity and 50 million actual starvation. The current disaster unfolding in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated this situation. Furthermore, the impact of climate change, topsoil loss and ecosystem breakdown on agricultural production, both in terms of quantity and quality, are placing added pressure on our food systems.

What does all of this mean for development and preventing the collapse of governments? It means that guaranteeing reliable access to food must move well up the priority list. An enhanced focus on local, culturally appropriate, regenerative food production that reduces the risk of supply chain shocks and improves nutrient content is essential to delivering healthy people and healthy societies.

Robyn has worked with farmers in development for over 30 years, now having associations with organisations including ANU, Chatham House, the Kyema Foundation, Tufts University and the NSW Farmers Federation. She’s a go-to for deep knowledge on sustainable food production and has been sounding the alarm on food security for years. At the Lab, we value Robyn for her deep understanding of intersecting development challenges and her sharp perspective on global systems.

Rosie Wheen
Chief Executive, WaterAid Australia

Let's start with the basics: water is key to development and essential to addressing the food crisis. 

Food production consumes the most freshwater globally. But water supplies are under pressure from population growth and climate change. Around 75% of global agriculture is rain-fed and as climate change causes rainfall to become more unpredictable, food insecurity will increase. People’s rights to food and water are being challenged as water is increasingly unavailable to sustain competing domestic and agricultural demands. For example, the production of one kilogram of rice requires 2,500 litres of water, whilst wheat production requires 1,827 litres per kilogram. On the other hand, approximately 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water adding additional pressure on water allocation.

Water insecurity has far reaching consequences on food security, including nutritional challenges, water-borne diseases and insufficient agricultural yields. These issues are amplified in countries who have least contributed to climate change and do not have extensive financial and governance tools to adapt to water stress. 

The water resource management and agricultural sectors are largely siloed, hindering the development of sustainable, climate resilient food and water systems. It is critical for these two sectors (and specifically governments, industry especially agriculture and large water users, the water sector and communities) to implement integrated approaches to:

  • Manage competing water demands through inclusive planning and water allocation strategies;
  • Diversify water resources to increase community resilience during water scarcity;
  • Utilise nature-based solutions for conservation and livelihood opportunities; and
  • Engage with farmers on water efficiency practices.

Everyone, everywhere needs access to water when and where they need it. In a future of population growth and climate change, we all need to work together to ensure people’s rights to food and water are safeguarded. 

With two decades of experience in international development, Rosie is a fierce advocate of human rights and gender equality. She leads WaterAid Australia, promoting universal access to water. At the Lab, we enjoy Rosie for the energy she brings into every room, and her ability to lead with abundance of integrity and kindness. She’s a long-time friend who we love to collaborate with.

Emmy Simmons
Non-Resident Senior Advisor, CSIS Global Food Security Program

Some regions of the world have experienced food crises for over a decade. This trend is worsening. And the prospects for resolving these crises through current approaches and levels of development assistance are not bright.

After responding to the global food price shocks of 2008/09, chiefly by putting agricultural development back on the international agenda, many donors went on autopilot at the new cruising altitude. Funding for agricultural research, agricultural extension efforts, and promotion of small- and medium-agribusinesses grew for a few years, but then stalled. Outbreaks of conflict – in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine – and repeated bouts of extreme weather were treated as short-term crises of food security, best addressed with humanitarian assistance. The pandemic elicited similar responses; vaccines topped the list of immediate support. This reactive mentality isn’t going to cut it anymore.

It has become evident that humanitarian interventions must be integrated with development investments. Support for economic growth, social/human development, and peacebuilding – essential for the development work of strengthening local capacities and resilience – must be combined with short-term food assistance for populations’ survival. For bilateral donors and international organisations (from the World Food Programme to the International Monetary Fund), this integration will require new approaches, greater teamwork, and a focus on countries and populations most exposed to climate change and conflict.

The United States government has announced increased funding and attention to food crises ongoing today. While this will mean more immediate relief, the challenge is structural and will require sustained public policy leadership. COP 27 offers a near-term opportunity to strengthen commitments. But the key to success will be more deliberate efforts to reduce marked imbalances in power and access to resources within and between countries, and effective public-private collaboration to modify food systems in ways that will ensure sustainable, healthy diets for all. 

Emmy is an independent consultant on food and agriculture and an advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Her experience speaks for itself having been a member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition and the steering committee for the CGIAR research program Agriculture for Nutrition. She’s a new, and highly recommended, connection for the Lab and we value her depth of knowledge and willingness to share her expertise.

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