Catastrophic Hunger: The Sources of the Coming Food Crisis

By Alex Colás

War, global heating and the Covid-19 pandemic are driving what sources ranging from The Economist to the UN’s World Food Programme are labelling a global food “catastrophe”. The former predictably focuses on profit margins and price volatility, while the latter underlines the doubling since 2019 of those facing acute food insecurity to 276 million people across the world, with close to 50 million experiencing emergency levels of hunger – the prelude to outright famine.

Yet, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen noted decades ago, it is not the lack of food itself, but the lack of people’s access to food that generates starvation. It is inequality in global food distribution coupled with the concentration in the types and ownership of food produced that threatens millions with chronic hunger.

More than 40% of the world’s daily calorie intake comes from just three crops – wheat, corn and rice. Three major firms – Cargill’s, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge – control 90% of world grain trade, while a handful of global retailers like Walmart, Costco, Aldi or Carrefour capture the bulk of supermarket food share. Agricultural inputs – seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides – are also dominated by a handful of firms such as Monsanto, Bayer or Dupont.

These oligopolies produce an ‘hour-glass model’ of a global food system where millions of primary producers cultivate, farm and process foodstuffs which are then marketed by a very small number of vertically-integrated corporations to billions of consumers worldwide. Long supply chains channelled through a narrow number of mega-companies explain why supply-side shocks like the Ukraine war, pandemic lockdowns or extreme weather events have such a powerful effect on world food prices.

These factors are compounded by demand-side pressures which are locked into the structural dependencies of global food trade. Subsidised bread, for instance, makes up 30% of calories consumed daily in Egypt, while, since the last global food price hikes of 2008, 88 countries making up 31% of the world’s population have become more dependent on international food imports.

Low-income households everywhere spend a greater proportion of their meagre earnings on food – sometimes over half – than other income brackets, making price hikes especially punishing for those already experiencing food poverty. All of this reflects the paradoxes of a capitalist food regime characterised by both abundance and sharp inequalities; systemic food waste and chronic hunger.

In the short term, allowing Russian and Ukrainian grain, rapeseed and sunflower harvests to proceed without significant disruption, added to a resumption of international commodity flows should ease the immediate inflationary pressure on food prices. But longer-term protection against the next market or socio-environmental shocks will require decentralising, decarbonising and democratising the food system.

Agroecological food sovereignty is one important model for augmenting food security whilst waging war on hunger, food waste and climate change. Even mainstream think-tanks recognise that agroecology can provide for a more environmentally sustainable, socially equitable and resilient food system than the dominant productivist, extensive monoculture paradigm.

Yet meaningful agroecological food sovereignty requires radical land reform and a significant transfer of institutional power to subaltern classes in both town and country. This is a tall order in an international political climate that is still hostile to such experiments, and will therefore continue to demand political organisation and a significant transformation in the balance of class forces transnationally.

A reduction in global meat consumption will undoubtedly also free up land and other agricultural resources, while at the same time having a significant positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions. But veganism alone won’t save our planet. The carbon footprint is present across the whole global food chain – including horticulture – in fertilisers, transport and packaging.

The fact that 10% of all grain production goes into biofuels and 18% of vegetable oils toward biodiesel which then power the same land-hungry monocultures, reveals the shortcomings of technical fixes to a broken food system. Alternatives to meat and dairy-based protein in the shape of ‘lab foods’ tend to be highly processed and capital intensive, thus reinforcing the power of financialised venture capital in such markets.

To fully democratise the capitalist global food system – treating its pathologies of waste, social inequality and environmental destruction – therefore involves a long-term, multi-pronged strategy for reducing quantity, increasing quality and extending the range of foods eaten across the world every day. International trade reform and global environmental governance can certainly play a part – although, tellingly, food and agriculture were largely absent from the COP26 negotiations.

Closer to home, the growing Right to Food movement is making the necessary connections across the food chain between the way we produce food and the way we consume it here in the UK. Organising food workers from field to fork, securing pay and working conditions that allow for good quality, nutritious food to be bought and prepared at an affordable price, and changing our working patterns and built environment so that we collectively consume less, better and more locally can all contribute toward dismantling the power of big food corporations and the market concentrations that amplify global food shocks.

Alex Colás teaches on an MSc in Food, Politics and Society at Birkbeck, University of London.

Image:, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

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