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.