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U.N. Warns Pandemic, Climate & Ukraine War Have Dramatically Increased World Hunger

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The United Nations this week released its annual report on nutrition, finding that the pandemic, extreme weather shocks and the war in Ukraine have all contributed to food insecurity around the world — now higher than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials estimate that the world saw an increase of more than 100 million people facing hunger in 2022 compared to 2019. For more, speak with Million Belay, general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, as well as Raj Patel, research professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Nermeen Shaikh.

We end today’s show looking at how chronic hunger is still much higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic began. This week, the United Nations released its annual report on “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” and found key drivers of food insecurity since 2019 were the pandemic, as well extreme weather shocks and the war in Ukraine.

This is World Food Programme’s Gian Carlo Cirri and Marco Sánchez Cantillo with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

MARCO SÁNCHEZ CANTILLO: It is estimated that between 691 and 783 million people in the world faced hunger in 2022. If we consider the midrange, which is about 735 million people, it’s still 122 million people more faced hunger in 2022 compared to 2019, before the pandemic.

GIAN CARLO CIRRI: Three hundred forty-five million people are facing acute food insecurity. This is a major increase when compared to 2020. It’s a 200 million increase. It’s staggering.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The United Nations report found Africa remains the worst-affected region, with one in five people facing hunger on the continent. Officials say they’re currently far off track to end global hunger by 2030.

For more, we’re joined by two guests who serve on the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. In Austin, Texas, is Raj Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. And in Kampala, Uganda, we’re joined by Million Belay, the general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Million Belay, I’d like to begin with you. If you could respond to the findings of this report and, in particular, why hunger has been rising in Africa for the last 10 years?

MILLION BELAY: Thank you very much. It’s staggering, as you say, and this is very concerning. For the last 10 years, hunger has been on increase in Africa. This is buffeted by the three Cs: you know, the COVID, conflict and the climate crisis. All of these three are not from Africa. They haven’t originated in Africa, the climate, the COVID and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But we are suffering. And also there is an increase even the availability of — I mean, there is a percentage increase in the shortage of good food, you know? But, you know, when we are talking about these statistics, most of the time we don’t put people’s face to them. I heard a lot of people from, you know, representative countries, also leaders of the five U.N. bodies talking about these numbers. But I’m not sure how much they are realizing that behind all these numbers, there are people, people who are going to bed without food.

And the second thing for me is urbanization. Urbanization is important, but unplanned urbanization is disastrous. And I see it all over Africa, and it’s also mentioned in the report. The quality of food in urban areas in Africa is decreasing. And also, the crisis, the food crisis, the price crisis, affects rural people, too. Rural peopler are very much affected.

But what surprised me is, you know, the solution given by many of the speakers — the technology, digitization, increasing food production. Nobody’s addressing the structural cause of this hunger. And I must ask myself, you know, always, “Why Africa? Why?” You know? The report says that it is tapering off in Latin America and Asia, even though it is increasing in the Caribbean and western Asia. But all of the countries in Africa are affected. So, the question is: Why?

I think some of the reasons can be, one, it is historical. Starting from the slave trade and colonization and post-colonization, Africa is forced slowly but surely to commodify food and produce food for market, for outside market mostly, and through the narrative of the Green Revolution, which says that, you know, you cannot produce food without using agrochemicals, with producing for the market, without using GMOs or hybridized seeds. I know this kind of narratives, these powerful narratives, and the debt crisis that we have — we are under in now, debt, is really, really crippling the whole continent. And governments don’t have money to allocate for the production of food or to improve the agricultural system. And on top of this is the elite capture of our countries and our system, that there’s [inaudible] in the product of the Green Revolution, and, you know, really not thinking about the country, but themselves. The continent is captured by African elites. So, all of these structural problems are compounding the problem in Africa.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Raj Patel, could you also respond to the findings of this report and, in particular, speak of where they say food security has increased? They say, for instance, that food insecurity is less prevalent now in Latin America and also in parts of Asia. But then, in Africa, it’s been in decline; hunger has been increasing for the last 10 years.

RAJ PATEL: So, food insecurity, we’re hearing so many numbers and so many different kinds of understandings of what hunger means. You know, there’s the sort of really chronic high-risk food insecurity when you’re in a conflict area, undernutrition when you’re in a conflict area. But food insecurity is the uncertainty about whether you will be able to eat over the next few days, weeks or months. And 2.4 billion people are food insecure.

But that security can be ameliorated not by, you know, producing more food, as Million says, but actually by government interventions, by having a functioning social safety net. And there are places where governments have been able to divert funds during the pandemic to provide some sort of cushion for their citizens. But, I mean, the capacity to do that has a lot to do with, as Million mentioned, debt. And sub-Saharan Africa is particularly indebted and is part of a group of countries that is going to see its debt costs rising over the next couple of years, while other parts of the world see those debt ratios going down a little bit. So that’s partly a way of explaining why it is that some countries are able to provide good functioning safety nets, other things being equal, because they don’t have creditors breathing down their necks.

And sub-Saharan Africa, and, in fact, all of Africa, is particularly under the thumb not just of lenders like the World Bank or bilateral, you know, individual country donors, but also the private sector. You know, things have changed rather dramatically over the past couple of decades, where 20 years ago, really, the big lenders to countries in the Global South were agencies like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, these multilateral donors, but, increasingly, private sector lenders are lending to governments, and their interest rates are higher, and they demand to be paid. And that’s a problem when we’re experiencing food price inflation and when we’re experiencing surges in the levels of interest rates. So, if you’re a government in Africa, you’re having to make some very difficult choices about whether to divert what funds you are able to muster to make sure that your citizens are fed, or you pay back your private sector creditors.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And who are these —

RAJ PATEL: So, that’s certainly one of the — sorry. Go ahead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry to interrupt you, Raj. But who are these private sector creditors, and what are the terms of the loans that they give to countries?

RAJ PATEL: Well, certainly, private sector loans are a few points higher in terms of interest rates than the concessional loans that are given by the World Bank. So, the terms are not as generous. They’re able to sort of be a bit more agile in terms of their lending, which is why governments tend to go to them. But there is this sort of shift towards borrowing from either lenders who are interested in infrastructure, lenders who are interested in buying up land, and those lenders can either be local private capital markets or they can be international pension funds, for example, endowments for universities. We’ve seen a lot of very interesting and important action, for instance, against the Harvard endowment from activists in Brazil who have observed that the endowment is involved in certain kinds of lending activity that involve land grabbing. So, the private sector lenders themselves vary, but what’s always true is that their loans are more expensive and onerous when it comes to this financing.

And I think one thing that gets forgotten in all this is that: Well, how is it that governments are repaying the loans? They’re growing food not for local consumption, but for export. And this is the vast irony here, is that food is being grown, but it’s not being grown for local consumption. It’s being grown for us in the Global North to eat or, worst case, to be fed to animals that then richer consumers get to eat. And so, here’s this deep irony that we’re talking about structurally higher rates of hunger around the world, and the way that governments are trying to pay off the debts that they’re incurring trying to feed people is by growing food not for consumption by the local populations, but for export.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Million Belay, I want to ask you about kind of the structural conditions under which these loans are being given. What kinds of food systems are in place and are being promoted? You recently co-authored an open letter to USAID that called on it to fund sustainable food systems in Africa, not another industrial “Green Revolution.” It began, quote, “We are dismayed to learn that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently solidified its relationship with AGRA ([that is,] formerly the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) and committed to working with AGRA to transform African food and agriculture systems.” Could you explain your concerns?

MILLION BELAY: I think AGRA, as its name implies, is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. And research were done, you know, after AGRA has implemented what it planned to implement. By the way, it’s mainly supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The USAID and other aid agencies and also private philanthropies, their contribution is not as much as the Bill and Melinda Gates aid. So, they operated for about 15 years. And we evaluated their outcomes. And they failed.

One area that they have succeeded and that they are still pushing is changing policies and also regulations, regulations related to seeds, regulations related to biosafety, biosafety regulations, and also fertilizer regulations. So, on the things that they say that they would succeed, meaning increased food productivity, halving the malnutrition, whatever, but what they have resulted in is a decrease in the diversity and amount of production of indigenous food. You know?

So, we have looked at this research. And I think they have done also their own assessment, which incorporated what we have said. In light of this, we wrote to all of their funders and have asked them to defund AGRA. AGRA can be a very good force if it converts itself into an agroecology, you know, an organization which produces agroecology. But looking at the funders, looking at the people who are interested in its work, looking at its purpose, looking at the board membership of AGRA, we don’t think that that would happen. It’s mostly outside control, you know, that it’s raised and in the U.S. also. It’s not African. So, that’s why. That’s why we have asked an entity in the U.S., which is using public money to fund AGRA, to stop funding AGRA.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Raj Patel, could you also talk about that? What are the food aid systems in place which critics say, in fact, may be exacerbating hunger conditions, and if not exacerbating them, certainly not improving them?

RAJ PATEL: Well, I mean, historically, the United States was tethered to a way of providing food aid that really was about shipping U.S. food in U.S. carriers to different parts of the world as a way of providing a prop for local food, you know, local farmers and industrial food producers. But what we’re seeing more, particularly, as Million is saying, with things like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA, as it’s now called because it doesn’t want to be known by the “Green Revolution” name — they think it’s bad branding — but what you’re seeing there is funding for the transformation of agricultural systems toward providing more processed food for cities.

And as Million was saying, I mean, this new state of the world’s food security report has another very interesting figure, one that I hadn’t seen before, which is the figure of the number of people on Earth who are able to afford a healthy meal. And it turns out that 3.4 billion people cannot afford to eat healthily. Now, this is striking when set alongside something like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which is very interested in processing and growing food for cities in ways that are not necessarily consonant with healthy diets but are much more around supporting industrialized food systems and, in particular, moving us towards ultra-processed food. And that’s a grave source of concern, not least because it tends to be more expensive. You know, the health effects are increasingly being questioned by the nutrition community.

But, in general, the question of how it is that we’re going to feed cities sustainably, not just in Africa, but around the world, is one that is gradually coming to the fore. And unfortunately, our economic policy, our agricultural policy, our food systems policy, not just in the Global South, but around the world, is not fit for purpose. It was set up to really support large industrial food producers, you know, providing packaged and ultra-processed food cheaply for workers in cities. But as it becomes clearer that, first of all, that food is expensive, unaffordable, has vast environmental impact, and now, increasingly, it’s clear, is unhealthy, all of that suggests that we need a real turnaround in our agriculture, food and aid policy. And the agencies tasked with overseeing that are doing very little to address it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Raj, if you could address what is now an immediate possible threat to food access, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to abandon the Black Sea grain deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey, which grants Ukraine safe passage to export food and fertilizer? Unless Russia agrees to an extension, the agreement will expire as soon as Monday. If you could talk about the significance of this and what impact it will have if the agreement expires?

RAJ PATEL: Well, these agreements have often been grounds for a certain amount of speculation on international commodity markets, not just, as you say, for food, but also for fertilizer. Fertilizer costs have dropped since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, where there was a frenzy of buying up and speculation, but it’s still at levels far higher than before the conflict started, but also far higher since before the pandemic.

And this is an ongoing problem in two ways. First of all, there’s the risk of a commodity price spike for producers. That’s going to raise prices. For consumers, prices have continued to increase, and this will merely add to that misery. But by increasing the price of fertilizer, you kind of lock in these price increases for grain producers that farm industrially, and that augurs very badly not just for the short-term food price spikes, but for the medium to long term, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, and very briefly, Million Belay, if you could talk about some of the community-based organizations that are working for food justice across Africa?

MILLION BELAY: AFSA, as you know, is a network of networks. We work with 50 networks all over Africa, in 50 of the 55 African countries. We have a number of members. And quite recently, we published a book, which is called Stories of Change: Agroecology as Climate Adaptation Approach. This is written by local people themselves, you know, people who are actually practicing agroecology, while increasing productivity, planting diverse foods, reclaiming areas which are degraded, and experimenting with biological seeds, you know, for resilience production system, food forests, and a lot of cases, 12 cases, and the number of cases are increasing. And we have been also accumulating a lot of cases. So, local community [inaudible] —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there, Million Belay. Thank you so much for joining us, general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Raj Patel, research professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.

Happy birthday, Carl Marxer! I’m Nermeen Shaikh. Thank you so much for joining us.

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