Global food crisis: will we learn from our mistakes?

An ongoing food crisis in Somalia. EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

Fear. This is the feeling that we, as humanitarian actors, have when faced with the unprecedented global food crisis that is shaking the planet. The situation is clear and the projections are each more frightening than the last.

The number of people in need of food aid is increasing everywhere, even in high-income countries. In 2021, global hunger levels surpassed all previous records, with 828 million people suffering from hunger, 150 million more than in 2019*. The year 2022 is already shaping up to be a new record: it is estimated that just over half a million people will be facing starvation and death by the end of the year**, the equivalent of the entire population of the city of Lyon facing starvation… And it will get worse in the coming years if we don’t act.

Let’s be clear, humanitarian organisations are struggling to meet these growing needs, especially as assistance is becoming increasingly expensive to implement, whether because of the increase in the price of food or the price of oil to transport it. Faced with this situation, our NGO, like other organisations, tries to adapt by, for example, composing the food baskets distributed with less expensive foodstuffs. But sometimes no alternative is possible. Humanitarian actors are then unfortunately obliged to reduce the number of people benefiting from their actions. Richard Ragan, the director of the World Food Programme in Yemen, described the situation in the country in an interview with Reuters: “We are taking food from the poor to feed the hungry”.

So what can we do to get out of the vicious circle in which we have been stuck for so many years? 

We have come to this point through a combination of crises: intense droughts, endemic poverty, armed conflict, and flash floods have slowly combined to endanger entire populations. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted food systems around the world, leading to widespread increases in food prices. The war in Ukraine has only exacerbated this situation. Disruptions in the supply chains of grain, fertilisers and oil have led to speculation and price hikes. In practice, people are losing purchasing power for food, while farmers are struggling to produce the food they need.


EU humanitarian funds are helping to provide food aid to families still suffering the effects of Cyclone Idai, one year after it made landfall in Beira. 2020 European Union

It is therefore a question of rethinking agriculture and food practices.

Julie Mayans, Head of Food Security and Livelihoods at SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, explains: “For a long time now, many economists and environmental specialists have agreed, for different but complementary reasons, that the way the world grows, markets and consumes food is not sustainable in the long term. We need to reappropriate local food, not consume too much meat or dairy products, fight against food waste, diversify agricultural production and develop these sectors locally, use organic fertilisers, set up less energy-consuming irrigation systems, etc. These sustainable solutions exist and are known. It is frustrating to see that they are rarely implemented, even though they prevent food insecurity and famine!

At SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, we train farmers in the production and use of biopesticides and compost in the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Myanmar and Venezuela. We also help fishermen to better process, preserve and market their fish locally in Bangladesh and South Sudan. In addition to enabling more sustainable agriculture, these solutions help combat climate change, which is a major factor in the current crisis.

But these projects often require a certain financial investment and, above all, a real desire to change our fundamentals. They are therefore preferred to the perpetuation of current systems, which are disastrous in the long term. Governments must rethink their agricultural policies and must aim to achieve food sovereignty***. We can see it clearly today, food is globally available but prices are going crazy and it is the weakest who are still paying the price.

We are playing with fire. The world has shown its fragility and people are paying with their lives for the consequences of this crisis. After an unprecedented peak in grain prices in May, the trend is downwards. However, this lull is misleading because it does not change the underlying problem. It should not be used as an excuse for inaction, as it risks perpetuating a dangerous global food system.

It is time to act, together. Food is a right for everyone.


Antoine Peigney, President de SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL


*State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 Report (SOFI) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 | FAO | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

**According to the projections of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) in its IPC (Integrated Food Security Classification Framework), which allows for the development of scenarios of the number of food insecure people in the world.

***Food Sovereignty is “the right of people and countries to determine their own food and agricultural policies, which must be ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate” (World Food Summit in Rome, 2002).

Full article published on Solidarités International. 

Registration for the Talk Humanitaire 1st edition (6 December 2022): “Global food crisis: will we learn from our mistakes ? ” 

Antoine Peigney


President of Solidarités International, Antoine Peigney has also been director of the health department of Expertise France since early July 2017. He was previously the Director of International Relations and Operations at the French Red Cross from 2002 to 2016. He is a graduate of the Bioforce-Développement school in Lyon (where he was a member of the Board of Directors for 14 years, until the end of the year). A for 14 years, until 2016), Antoine Peigney carried out several humanitarian missions between 1989 and 1994: in Romania, Lebanon, Bosnia (SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL), South Sudan (Action Contre la Faim), Ethiopia (Médecins du Monde), Somalia (ACF), Mauritania (MDM), Serbia and Kosovo (Secours populaire français), Angola (Terre des Hommes) and Haiti (France 2 programme “les ailes de l’espoir”).

“Avoiding a hurricane of famine”!

Wheat field in Ukraine.

Already in mid-March, Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, declared: “We must do everything possible to avoid a hurricane of famines and a collapse of the world food system”.

On Friday, June 3, 2022 in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea, after 100 days of war in Ukraine, the Senegalese head of state and current president of the African Union, Macky Sall, declared to Vladimir Putin: “I came to see you, to ask you to be aware that our (African) countries (…) are victims of this crisis, economically speaking. Senegal is well placed to know this, as it imports more than 50% of its wheat from Russia.

Briefing note on the importance of Ukraine and the Russian Federation to global agricultural markets and the risks associated with the current conflict. Rome 2022 @FAO

The figures are indeed indisputable. Russia and Ukraine accounted for 30% of the world’s grain exports before the war. And according to experts, between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported half of its wheat consumption from Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian minister, Taras Kachka said in Davos (Le Monde, 29 and 30.5.2022) “In 2021, we exported 20 million tons of wheat and 24.6 million tons of corn, almost all by sea.

Odessa harbour, Ukraine Photo: Patrik Rastenberger/NEFCO (CC BY-NC 2.0)

But the Russian Black Sea fleet is blocking Ukrainian ports, especially Odessa. And mines have been laid at sea by the defenders to prevent a possible landing. As a result, 20 to 25 million tons of grain are blocked in Ukraine. The thousands of wagons, trucks and barges mobilized to transport the grain to the ports of Constanta in Romania and to the Baltic ports will not empty the stocks.

On the Russian side, the sanctions are blocking export logistics and the Swift bank settlement system, which the Russians can no longer use, is limiting or even preventing all payments, particularly for African and Middle Eastern buyers, and therefore all supplies.

Shortage and price increase.

As a result, the price of wheat has increased by about 40 to 45% since the beginning of the year. In Paris, the price has risen from 280 euros per ton to 400 euros. The Senegalese president also expressed alarm that the soaring price of fertilizers, mainly produced in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, “could cause a collapse of “20 to 50%” of grain yields in Africa this year.

If no solution is found soon, the paralysis will extend to 2023. Taras Kachka, Ukrainian minister, says that “80% of the arable land is planted and we will have a wheat production comparable to that of 2021”. But if stocks remain full, due to a lack of exports, where will the harvests, which will now begin in July for wheat and in August for corn, be put?

He concludes, “If we do not solve this disposal problem, 2023 will be worse. It will be worse for Ukraine and its farmers because of the lack of money to buy fuel and to harvest. As well as for the countries and populations that will lack wheat, barley, corn, sunflower, fertilizers and seeds!

During Macky Sall’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president said “We are ready to offer safe passage to ships using these ports, including Ukrainian ships”. Of course, this would imply that certain sanctions be lifted and that these ports be “demined”. It is clear that there is still a long way to go, and time is running out. How can we deliver arms and strengthen sanctions while at the same time easing some of them for the export of grain from the two belligerents engaged in intense fighting!

In the Horn of Africa. ©EU/ECHO/Mo Dahir (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the absence of negotiations and concessions, Amin Awad, the UN crisis coordinator for Ukraine warns “Failure to open these ports will lead to famine, destabilization and mass migration in the world. According to him, 1.4 billion people could be affected.

Not only must the humanitarian community engage in an exceptional and sustainable effort in Ukraine, but they must also prepare for the risks of hurricanes, especially in Africa and the Middle East, in the most fragile countries weakened by the Covid 19 pandemic and, for some, victims of a terrible drought as in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

War, pandemic, climate change, drought and lack of cereals, fertilizers and seeds, the emergency equation is there and we must mobilize as never before. Already, on June 2, Chad declared a “food emergency”.

The huge challenge we face is that humanitarian organizations, and even the WFP (United Nations World Food Program) and the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), are dependent on sanctions. So what can they do?

“We take food from the hungry to give to the starving,” says David Beasley, the head of the WFP.

The humanitarian response is necessary. Do the maximum and beyond when it is a question of survival, even life and death. We have to get out of the habit, ask ourselves the same questions as the populations and find and anticipate the best answers to each particular situation. Because if humanitarian organizations do not have the global answer, they are the best placed on the ground, with the populations and the authorities, to react, case by case.

Food aid distribution in South Sudan. Photo ONU/Tim McKulka. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Let’s stock up on food as soon as possible and in quantity, especially to fight malnutrition. Let’s look for alternative solutions with the distribution of food vouchers and cash transfer programs.  Let’s develop certain crops (cassava, millet, sweet potatoes, cowpeas), let’s coordinate better with local actors, let’s prioritize relief efforts and reduce agricultural losses.

We can also contribute where we have added value and leverage with the Global Alliance for Food Security (GAFS) and the French initiative FARM (Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission) by acting against speculation, adapting and strengthening solidarity mechanisms and local production capacities. Can rice, whose prices are still stable, be an alternative?

To prevent the “hurricane of famines” that could claim more victims than the conflict in Ukraine, the solutions for a “secure maritime corridor” on the scale of the quantities to be transported are not numerous. The option of going by force entails a major risk, that of a naval battle in the Black Sea and its complete closure. There is the proposal of President Macky Sall to put the food sector “out of sanctions” and to allow the export of Ukrainian and Russian wheat. This is what is at stake in the ongoing negotiations between Ukraine, Turkey and Russia. Another option is for the main wheat exporters, excluding Ukraine and Russia, Europe (36 million tons), the United States (21 million tons) and Australia (25 million tons), according to estimates for 2022-2023, to organize a real emergency sea bridge to avoid famine and hunger riots.  The countdown has already begun.

Alain Boinet.

President of Défis Humanitaires.

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