Grim hunger games

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Anyone who watches the news on tv will have by now seen all those heartbreaking images of hungry children in different parts of the world. Perhaps this is one of the worst tragedies that mankind has brought upon itself. On one hand, we see famine and children searching the garbage for something to eat. On the other hand, we see societies where there is so much food that plates with still a lot of food are cleaned with food thrown into the garbage. But now, we are witness to an increasingly terrifying scenario where millions of people face the prospects of food shortages and dramatic increases in food prices at the same time. This situation is increasingly becoming so bad that food security has now become a major issue.

Unfortunately, the poor and even the middle class are faced with the double threat of a soaring inflation of food prices together with looming food shortages. Hunger is now one of the world’s most serious burdens for almost all economies. Even in the countries with thriving economies like the United States, there are people who go hungry every day.

In the Philippines, there are different reports on how high this percentage of hungry people there are on a daily basis. There are reports of at least 20 percent of the population going hungry daily.

But this is not the real story. Although I have not seen the figures, I am sure many of us are aware that even those that are claimed by statisticians not to be on the hunger list, should actually be part of this ever growing number. After all, if a family of five or six survive by sharing a couple of plates of rice and maybe one or two pieces of dried fish, is that not sufficient to be on the hunger list?

If your life revolves around the well-to-do enclaves of Makati, BGC, Alabang and Greenhills, this is a sight that may not be too common. But even in these places, we are already beginning to see poor people with their children, eating on the sidewalks with very little to share among themselves. One can imagine how much worse scenes would be like in the poverty-stricken areas or more commonly known as the squatter areas not only in Metro Manila in the Philippines but throughout the world. And yet, the food situation is not getting any better, but getting worse.

How did this happen? It is not overpopulation because even in countries with declining populations, these scenarios also exist. The main causes of this potential famine are wars, climate change and the worsening inequitable distribution of wealth.

In some estimates that I have seen, four-fifths of the world’s population live in countries which are net importers of food. According to the World Food Programme, the number of people with “access to food so poor that their lives or livelihoods were at immediate risk had risen from 108 million to 193 million over the past five years.”

It was believed before that this increase in food insecurity was due to the COVID-19 pandemic which reduced incomes and disrupted farm work and supply chains. However, now that the effects of the pandemic are wearing off, the incidence of hunger worldwide is not just continuing but even rising. And this is now coupled with rising prices. The immediate causes are the disruptions of farm work and supply chains.

It is worse in places like Yemen, the Middle East and parts of Africa that have brought this suffering to their population. But now, this has been exacerbated by the war between Russia and Ukraine, among the five biggest grain exporters in the world. The war has brought their exports to a halt.

For example, Ukraine used to be the fifth biggest exporter of grain in the world. But now thousands of tons of grains have been destroyed or left to rot. 98 percent of the grain exports passes through the port of Odessa, now blockaded by Russian troops. Before the war, Ukraine exported about 500 million tons of grains a month. Today, they are only managing to get 1 million tons of grains out and this is expected to get worse. So while millions go hungry, thousands of tons of grains have gone to waste. Ukrainian sources claim that Russia has targeted grain elevators and fertilizer plants precisely to destroy Ukraine’s ability to grow more grain.

Another extreme cause of the food shortages which is not related to wars and will even outlast it are the erratic weather patterns due to climate change. Good harvests are at the very least dependent on good or moderate weather. Climate change has meant an increase in these global weather patterns. According to Britain’s Meteorological Office, global warming has made the extreme heat wave like this year’s temperature “100 times more likely.” It has also been the main cause of the seesawing of La Niña and El Niño all over the world.

Coincidentally, the ongoing energy crisis has seriously increased the price and incidences of shortages of energy products. As a result, it has also increased certain inputs of the agriculture industry like fertilizers and pesticides. This has also caused serious decline in farm production.

The causes of looming food shortages and potential worldwide famine are clearly man-made. Even another major source of food, the ocean, is being seriously endangered by plastic pollution and other waste materials being thrown into the ocean.

Obviously, only a concerted action by the nations of the world can successfully address these problems. Realistically, greed seems to be overriding the need for actions that will address climate change and wars. Personally, I can only foresee that this looming food crisis will continue to plague humankind.

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