By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A 2020 jump in world hunger is getting worse. Several U.N. agencies have expressed serious concern over the issue, citing several major causes. Nearly 830 million people don’t get enough calories to maintain body weight.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic surged in 2020, it caused a spike in world hunger. Not only did that spike continue to rise in 2021, but in 2022, a number of troubling factors are beginning to compound to make matters even worse.
According to Reuters, “Russia and Ukraine are the world’s third and fourth largest grain exporters, respectively, while Russia is also a key fuel and fertilizer exporter.” The Russia-Ukraine war—as well as fuel costs, climate change, and inflation—will all lead to increased world hunger. From 2019 to 2021, the number of people affected by hunger rose by nearly 200 million.
How do world events, some of which seem completely unrelated to agriculture and farming, shape world hunger? In his video series America and the New Global Economy, Professor Timothy Taylor, Managing Editor of Journal of Economic Perspectives, explains the factors that lead to malnutrition.
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“You can think of food prices as a race between the forces of supply and the forces of demand, and the price of food tells you who’s winning the race,” Professor Taylor said. “For example, if the supply of food keeps increasing ahead of demand, then prices will stay low or fall. However, if demand for food is increasing ahead of supply, then prices tend to rise, and that’s the story in the years after about 2005.”
One of the surprising reasons for higher food prices is biofuels. According to Professor Taylor, corn-based ethanol and the oilseed used for biofuels may be good for the environment but bad for world hunger. An estimate by the World Bank says that the amount of grain needed to produce enough ethanol to fill a gas tank could feed a person in a low-income country for a year.
“On the supply side, the supply of agricultural products around the world just doesn’t increase very quickly in the short run,” he said. “In the long run, there are questions about whether food supply can keep up as population and incomes rise. In the short run, agricultural prices rise and fall with droughts and supply disruptions.”
The Solution Lies in R&D
Citizens of lower-income countries suffer from food price hikes much more severely than their counterparts in higher-income countries. In 2016, Americans spent an average of just 6.6% of their income on food. Nigerians spent 56.6% of their income on food. If food prices bump up by one-third, Americans would still spend less than 9% of their income on food, but Nigerians would spend about 75% of their income on food.
“Increases in the productivity of agriculture have long been a springboard of economic growth,” Professor Taylor said. “That was true in the history of the U.S. economy; it was true for China more recently. We need it to be true for low-income countries all around the world if we’re going to reduce global poverty and hunger and find a way to feed the global population as it rises towards 9 billion people.”
To achieve this, federal funding can go toward research and development across the board to find approaches that yield steady gains in global agricultural yields—especially in poor countries. According to Professor Taylor, these could include better irrigation, fertilizer, cultivation methods, and seeds. They could also benefit by focusing on crops grown in low-income areas, such as cassava and yams instead of just rice and wheat and corn.