Global food crisis demands urgent Western response

By and
Wheat field is seen in the village of Zhurivka, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine July 23, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

NEW YORK, July 25 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the world, forced Western countries to respond, and is driving up the cost of energy and food across the globe. High prices in the United States may spell electoral disaster for President Joe Biden’s administration in November’s congressional elections. However, the most urgent economic, social, and human crises are unfolding in poorer countries where populations face war, spillover-driven inflation, and more expensive foreign-currency debt.

Together these dynamics put populations in Asia, Africa, and some parts of Latin America and the Caribbean at risk of shortages, riots, unrest, and famine. The conflict in Ukraine is directly affecting supplies of food. News of a deal between Russia and Ukraine to allow grain exports is welcome. However, many minefields must be cleared and the deal be made to work in a time of war. We cannot yet assume trade routes will fully reopen. Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies, so any stoppage or constriction in trade affects access to basic foodstuffs for many.

Wheat prices are up while sunflower oil, meat, poultry, and a raft of other staples have also jumped in price, driven by higher fuel and fertilizer costs. The United Nations' Food Price Index, which captures the effects of war and supply disruptions, recently reached an all-time high of 156, up from 103 in 2020.

The alarming economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka shows what may occur elsewhere. Long-standing poor governance and corruption in the South Asian country has combined with economic crises, price hikes, and fuel and food shortages to snap the threads of economic and societal stability. The result is unrest, riots, and a collapse of the government.

Sri Lanka is unlikely to be the last country to face economic and governmental strife. Other poorly run, indebted, and stressed states - and their populations - could be weeks or months from similar turmoil. As Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, points out, food crises “can unleash social unrest, (yet) … hunger is the world’s greatest solvable problem”.

As the rich in the West grumble, governments in poorer states are reacting by placing restrictions on food exports, according to World Bank President David Malpass. He rightly notes that while inflation is bad for all, the poorest were already spending at least half of their income on food. They have extraordinarily little room to absorb price increases before they go hungry and their children face malnutrition.

Oxfam estimates as many as 323 million people are on the brink of starvation; the United Nations reckons 869 million are facing hunger. Unfortunately, the leaders of the world’s wealthy states are so far doing too little to avert the developing food emergency. In June the G7 group of nations, led by the United States, pledged $4.5 billion to help address the looming food shortage. But this is not enough to avoid disaster.

It’s not the first time insufficient pledges by the world’s richest economies have delivered worse outcomes for the planet. Two years ago epidemiologists estimated that vaccinating the populations of lower-income countries against Covid-19 would cost just $2 billion. The costs of a failure to equitably distribute the vaccine are conversely massive. Rand estimates the negative impact for lower-income countries was $156 billion in 2021–2022 and $216 billion the following year. Yet rich nation donors came up with only $700 million, while providing economic support worth $15 trillion for their own populations.

The food crisis requires rapid action and resources of at least $22 billion, according to the U.N. World Food Programme. Delay will only increase the human, economic, and societal costs.

The invasion of Ukraine has hobbled the G20, whose members include Russia. The group’s recent meeting in Indonesia ended in discord. Yet the pandemic also demonstrated that when crisis strikes only state actors, acting collectively, can marshal the necessary resources, spur private and public policy action, and get fast results.

So, what must be done? The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and regional multilateral development banks in Asia, Latin America and Africa should be charged with managing the food and fuel crisis and equipped to step in urgently. These bodies, although consensual in nature, can direct resources and relief without a veto from Russia or its allies. This institutional room to act must be used swiftly.

We believe the response cannot wait until the World Bank and IMF hold their annual meetings in October. The leadership of these and other pillars of the global financial system must be empowered and act now.

First, they should monitor the fiscal and economic stability of countries facing increased distress from debt and rising food prices. Second, they should redirect existing and additional multilateral and bilateral resources. Current promises, such as the $2.3 billion committed by the World Bank, are insufficient. Third, leaders whose countries are in or nearing a crisis should receive multilateral support, with no shaming of that necessary step from public or private creditors and credit ratings agencies. Finally, public and private creditors should exercise restraint and be willing to take haircuts on their debt to secure stability. No one should profit from malnutrition and misery. Lenders must be part of the solution, not the problem.

In sum, national political and financial leaders still must work to ensure we avoid a food price crisis, famine, and human catastrophe. Recent history suggests politicians often lack the will to act, even though they know what is needed and that the upfront financial costs are manageable. We hope we are wrong in this case. We fear we are not.

(The authors are Reuters Breakingviews guest columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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William R. Rhodes is president and chief executive of William R. Rhodes Global Advisors, and author of “Banker to the World”. Stuart P. M. Mackintosh is executive director of the Group of Thirty.

Editing by Peter Thal Larsen and Streisand Neto

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