July 3, 2022No Comments

Food Uncertainty: The overlooked consequences of Putin’s actions

Author: Miguel Jiménez.

In this increasing globalized world interdependencies are strengthened, and countries become very import-dependent to satisfy its citizens’ daily needs. Obviously, some of these needs are more important than others. For instance, the achievement of food security is one of them and it represents one of the biggest challenges of our time. Developing countries suffer from illness the most, and this issue is often overlooked. Climate change and Covid 19 have made this goal even more unreachable by disrupting supply chains and fostering autarky. The current invasion is the cherry on top as it has closed down a major stream of food imports from low-income countries.

Beyond the Two Main Actors

June 24th marks the 4th month of Russian invasion in Ukraine. Roughly 120 days of ongoing humanitarian crisis which have resulted in the death of 4,266 civilians and the displacement of millions to neighboring countries. Negative economic effects have been even more immediate, with the markets of several sectors plummeting. The biggest toll is undoubtedly being suffered by Ukraine and Russia. According to the IMF, by the end of 2022, the former is expected to suffer a severed doble digit drop in GDP and the latter a large contraction.

However, besides the negative effects that the invader and the invaded are suffering, as well as the energy crisis especially striking Europe, the interruption in the supply and markets of crops due to the invasion may result in a major threat to food security in the developing world. Disruptions in the global food supply are not a new phenomenon. Between 2002 and 2008, the nominal price of food doubled as a result of droughts in food-exporting countries, food export bans and high energy prices. Nevertheless, current disruptions are unprecedented if the destructive impact of the invasion is coupled with other hunger-drivers such as COVID 19’s long-lasting effects and the devastating escalation of climate shocks.

To put it into context, Russia and Ukraine are agricultural production powerhouses. Together, they supply 12% of the world’s traded calories, mainly composed of wheat, barley, maize and sunflower oil. Yet, when one analyses the share that this represents in some of the importing countries, the strong dependence of the developing world comes to the surface.  According to the FAO, 26 countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for at least 50 percent of their wheat imports

The Enemies of Trade

These agriculture-market disruptions are caused by two major factors. Firstly, in order to erode the resistance put up by Ukrainians, Russia has been targeting all aspects of Ukraine’s agriculture with the intention of crippling a major source of the country’s income. Secondly, aside from hindering production, harvested crops have few ways of reaching offshore as Russia set a naval blockade in one of the main trading routes, the Black Sea.  Thus, by March, record highs in the food market were reached, more concretely, in the FAO’s Cereal Price Index, Vegetable Oil Price Index and Meat Price Index

Seeking for alternative producers would be the most coherent move by countries in need, as we are currently seeing with the restructuring of the energy trade. There are certainly alternative producers which under “normal circumstances” could step up and take care of the lack of supply. However, to make matters worse, offsetting production shortages and the disrupted supply channels is prevented by two major factors.

 On the one hand, the effects of climate change are becoming a major barrier for stable crop production. For instance, the delayed rains in China and extreme temperatures in India, largest and second largest wheat producers in the world respectively, are sapping yields in breadbaskets. On the other hand, rising inflationary pressures, aggravated by the economic sanctions implemented to punish the invasor, have limited fertilizer exports from Russia and Belarus, inhibiting western farmers to boost productivity and capitalize on higher global prices.

From Coup d’ État to Devastating Famines

The mismatch between supply and demand is likely to extend to middle-income countries as well. The deployment of unprecedented fiscal packages during the pandemics to ensure a social safety net exhausted middle-income countries’ savings making them exceptionally poorly placed to cope with increased food insecurity. The combination of these factors created a weak balance which has been tilted by the invasion, resulting in civil unrest and devastating famines that are just starting.

Analysts are drawing parallels with the Arab spring revolts. Precisely one of the triggers for the outbreak of the coup d’état back in 2011 was attributed to high food prices. Currently, this factor has ultimately ousted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, incentivized the rise of deadly protests in Peru, and increased the likelihood of civil unrest by the end of the year in countries such as Philippines, Argentina and Tunisia

Nevertheless, these consequences are mild relative to the massive famines that this invasion is causing and can cause in low-income countries.  Food insecurity is a recurring trend in those parts of the world, and poor households tend to spend more of their budget on food. For instance, a sub-Saharan household spends up to 40% of their income in food. Therefore, a slight increase in such inelastic goods translates into a major shock for the household income. According to the FAO, food insecurity will worsen throughout this year in 20 “hunger hotspots and are in need of urgent humanitarian actions. Hunger hotspots stand for places where hunger is most severe. These countries tend to carry the burden of ongoing religious or ethnic-prone domestic conflicts as well. South Sudan, Nigeria and Ethiopia are perhaps the best examples of this perfect storm.

How do We Bring Back the Balance?

With this devastating scenario ahead, what is to be done to reestablish food supply chains and resume production? Attempting to restore damaged crops in highly disputed areas  appears to be an impossible task for the time being, if we consider that the Ukrainian government forecasted the invasion to last until winter. The end of the war would not make the Black sea route viable in months either, as Ukraine has defended its coastline with mines and strategically sunk ships. What’s worse, reinforcing the creation of alternative trade routes does not seem viable as Ukraine’s rail system is wider than the EU’s, meaning loads would have to be switched to different wagons. Furthermore, grain wouldn’t even be reaching the places where it is needed most. These factors lead to the conclusion that the short-term solution for avoiding unprecedented famines ought to be outside of Ukraine. 

Without overlooking Russia’s role in creating this situation, easing up on sanctions and switching the final use of crops may alleviate it. Firstly, the export of fertilizers account for less than 5 percent of Russia’s GDP yet it deeply has an impact on farmers’ decisions on what to grow, and in turn, prevents meeting developing countries’ demand. Thus, lifting sanctions on fertilizers could improve the situation. Secondly, about 10 percent of all grains are used to make biofuel and 18 percent of vegetable oil go to make biodiesel. To put it into perspective, that percentage of vegetable oil contains an amount of calories sufficient to feed more than 320 million people per year. Weakening biofuel mandates just like Finland and Croatia have done, should become the immediate trend. 

One last resort is to rely on one of the most used development tools, aid. The US announced more than $320 million in humanitarian assistance in the horn of Africa. Yet even this falls short, as the amount of aid now is worth much less than a few years ago due to the ongoing inflation. 

Conclusion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the last event of a chain of events that have worsened the very fragile state of the developing world. The complexity of the situation makes finding a solution very tough and compromising already existing alliances.  In spite of the fact that lifting sanctions may seem controversial, millions dying from starvation far outweighs avoiding financing Putin’s war. Even more if some of those restrictions, such as fertilizers and food, account for very little of Russia’s GDP and so much for millions of developing countries’ households.

June 18, 2022No Comments

Food Security at Risk in Africa

Author: Alessandra Gramolini.

Before and during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict

Russia and Ukraine are not only the world’s biggest producers of wheat, they have also been the cheapest exporters on the market. This made them very attractive to low-income countries. Over 40% of wheat consumed in Africa usually comes from Ukraine and Russia. The war interrupted global markets and trade flows to Africaincreasing even more food prices in the region. Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea have been widely blocked for exports since the conflict began. Kyiv and its allies blame Moscow for blocking the ports. Even countries that import little from the two countries are indirectly impacted by higher world prices for key commodities.

Before the war in Ukraine, African countries were already struggling with the increase of food prices due to extreme climate and weather events and also after two year of Covid-19 pandemic,. Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, global food prices have reached new heights. Five weeks into the Ukraine war, disruptions are more severe and food prices are even surpassing the levels of the 2008 global financial crisis. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index, affirmed that international wheat prices rose for a fourth consecutive month in 2022. The March index is the highest it has been since the measure was created in the 1990s. In 2020 alone, Africa imported $4 billion and $2.9 billion worth of agricultural products from Russia and Ukraine. With this war in Ukraine, about 20 million people in the Sahel and West Africa do not have access to sufficient food. 

In Egypt, wheat is the main food item, and the Egyptian government imports about 50 to 60 percent of its cereal from Russia and Ukraine, despite the government’s efforts to diversify imports following the 2008 global food crisis. Egypt had to borrow three billion dollars from the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (Itfc), an Islamic finance instrument based in Saudi Arabia. Countries like Tunisia imported 50% of their grain needs exclusively from Russia and Ukraine. For the moment, Tunisia claims to have stocks, but to avoid food riots, as happened in the Arab Spring, basic products are subsidized and controlled by the government. Algeria, the second largest African wheat consumer after Egypt has also imposed moderate prices.

Additionally, according to the UN, Russia is the highest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer and the second-highest exporter of phosphorus and potassium fertilizer globally.  Several African countries rely on importing these Russian fertilizers, including Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal and Kenya. But following severe economic sanctions against Russia, its ability to sell fertilizer globally has taken down, precipitating a major shortage. In Kenya, farmers are scaling back on farming because of the exorbitant fertilizer prices that would certainly affect their profits. Others plan to avoid fertilizing their farms, especially olive and orange groves farmers. This will lower production and, of course, the quality. The pressure and prices will likely increase further as the war continues, raising food security concerns, with citizens beginning to feel the impact.

Image Source: https://www.wfp.org/news/hunger-west-africa-reaches-record-high-decade-region-faces-unprecedented-crisis-exacerbated

Alarm from aid agencies

Aid agencies have also felt the impact of rising prices. The World Food Program (WFP) used to buy more than half of its grain from Ukraine and Russia. The organization now spends an additional $71 million a month to reach the same number of people it did before the conflict. That money could be used to provide daily food rations to four million people for a month. The activities of the WFP in West and Central Africa have started to suffer too. The aid agency supports national school feeding programmes that run independently. But some governments are now asking the WFP for help, because they can no longer afford some food products. The WFP also distributes cash for people in the region to buy food, but with soaring prices this is not an effective solution. 

A recent FAO-WFP report issued today calls for urgent humanitarian action in 20 ‘hunger hotspots’ where acute hunger is expected to worsen during summer 2022. The effects of the war in Ukraine are expected to be particularly severe where economic instability and high prices combine with drops in food production due to climate events such as recurrent droughts or flooding. 

“We are deeply concerned about the combined impacts of overlapping crises jeopardizing people’s ability to produce and access foods, pushing millions more into extreme levels of acute food insecurity,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “We are in a race against time to help farmers in the most affected countries, including by rapidly increasing potential food production and boosting their resilience in the face of challenges.” 

Qu Dongyu called on Mediterranean countries to work together to avoid the risks to food security aggravated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “We must keep our world food trade system open and ensure that agri-food exports are not limited or taxed”, he said a few days ago during a summit on the food crisis in the Mediterranean area. He then illustrated the main steps on which this cooperation should focus on: greater investments in the countries most affected by the current increase in food prices; reduction of food losses and waste; better and more efficient use of natural resources; and finally, great attention to technological and social innovations that can significantly reduce the losses of the agricultural market. 

What are the consequences?

Some analysts argue the Kremlin is hoping that a possible food crisis will put political pressure on the West by provoking new refugee flows towards Europe from food-insecure countries in the Middle East and Africa.

“The situation is forcing hundreds of thousands of people to move to different communities and to live with host families who are already living in difficult conditions themselves. There is not enough food, let alone food that is nutritious enough for children. We must help them urgently because their health, their future and even their lives are at risk,” said Philippe Adapoe, Save the Children's director for West and Central Africa. The war is starting to push families to the brink of survival and increasing also the risk of violence against women. Hibo Aden, women's rights officer at ActionAid Somaliland, said the situation has become so desperate for some families that girls are forced to marry in exchange for food and water. 

The presence of unstable conditions and civil wars further aggravate the scenario. Many people in African countries will have problems accessing better hygiene, health, or school conditions, given that the family's spending power will be dedicated to the purchase of food at higher prices. Furthermore, phenomena of internal conflict are beginning to be seen, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa or Ethiopia, which have chosen to restrict some food exports, blocking supply chains and trade, thus creating other problems.

In conclusion, the forecasts for the future are somewhat catastrophic. In these conditions, hunger will increase at high rates and will be more and more deadly. If the international community does not act in support of rural communities affected by hunger, the degree of devastation will be dangerous.

February 28, 2022No Comments

Agriculture 4.0 – The Revolutionary Power of Artificial Intelligence

Author: Zrinka Boric, Giorgia Zaghi, and Beatrice Gori

According to the estimates, the global population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. To meet such growing food demand, the food production in the world will need to increase by 70% in the upcoming decades. At the same time, the agricultural sector is currently facing several challenges, such as limited availability of arable land and fresh water, a slowdown in the growth of crop yields, consequences of climate change, and covid-19. The UN's second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2) targets to end hunger, double agricultural productivity, and ensure sustainable food production systems by 2030. To successfully address the challenges and achieve food security digital technologies are expected to become a foundation in future food production. At the World Summit on Food Security 2009, the four pillars of food security were identified as availability, access, utilization, and stability.

Recently the Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) for Digital Agriculture (FG-AI4A) was formed, in cooperation with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to explore the potential of technologies (AI, IoT) in the acquisition and handling of necessary data, optimization of agricultural production processes, and to ultimately identify best ways (and possible challenges) to use such technologies within the agricultural domain.Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are forecast to add US$15 trillion to the global economy by 2030. According to the Government AI Readiness Index 2019, the governments of high income-countries have better odds to utilize these gains than low-income countries. Therefore, there is a risk that low-income countries could be left behind by the fourth industrial revolution.

Image Source: https://www.pexels.com/it-it/foto/piante-a-foglia-verde-2132171/

Examples of the use of digital technologies in agriculture

TECHNOLOGYUSE IN AGRICULTURE
AI The utilization of AI and Human Intelligence can increase the capabilities and knowledge of farmers and improve the sustainability of their productions. Meanwhile, farmers can better manage their resources and obtain superior production rates. Sustainable green farms with optimal yielding are a fundamental step towards the Sustainable Development Goal 12 which provides for a “responsible consumption and production."Farms produce massive amounts of data daily, which AI and machine learning models could utilize to increase agricultural productivity while minimizing harmful practices (i.e. extensive use of pesticides, monocropping). 
Image Data (drones & satellites) For instance, agricultural technology or AgriTech drones are powerful tools that can help monitor the most inaccessible and vulnerable areas and design and support adequate farming operations. By surveying and mapping the fields, drones provide information and predictions on the crops' growth and help prevent anomalies and disruption of the productions.Satellite image data paired with AI technology aims to help governments and organizations address agricultural challenges by providing granular insight and data analysis. 
GPS (Global Positioning System) remote sensing technology  GPS technology is already steadily used to enhance agricultural processes and productivity and provides insight into the quantity of food produced proportionately to units of water. 
Internet of Things The IoT refers to devices with a sensor that enables them to transmit data through a network. IoT enables the collection and analysis of data and enables better tracking of performance, making informed decisions, and increasing efficiency and sustainability. 
Yield monitoring and mapping During the harvest, a dataset is collected (using different sensors and GPS technology) which can later be analyzed through specified software.This valuable dataset provides relevant information that helps to improve yield management, rational use of available resources, develop future nutrient strategies, and ultimately achieve more sustainable agriculture with lowered production costs. 
Automation Different forms of automation are used in agriculture to help farms operate more efficiently and increase productivity. Automation appears in many forms, from simple automatic watering systems used in many households, to specialized agricultural drones, robots (like harvest robots), and even driverless tractors. 

AI in low-income countries

AI has the potential to have relevant impacts on low-income countries as it could bring about more opportunities to current problems in agriculture and numerous other fields. AI is a tool directed towards development enhancement, the so-called “AI4D” (AI for development). AI could bring about infrastructural and qualitative development, in terms of societal empowerment and change.  

Moreover, one of the most relevant improvements in the agricultural sector would be rendering more efficient use of scarce resources. 

Specified technologies and systems can target specific needs and/or problems in the exact timing and/or quantities. The specific cases of Israel and China exemplify the relevance of AI for development and resilience. 

Both countries have massively invested in smart agriculture to increase yields, productivity and improve precision agriculture given the constraints of the growing scarcity of natural resources. China and Israel managed to improve their agricultural output to an extent where it is possible to consider them as “nations that feed the world”. Moreover, they both could export basic technologies to other countries to implement such “smart tools” to strengthen the latter’s agricultural export sector. For instance, this would be the case for Israel in countries like Indonesia and Thailand that have successfully utilized Israeli technology to improve their agricultural sector and export.

While the adoption of AI technology in agricultural practices of low-income countries seems like an easy way to solve relevant problems related to development, there are still many risks and barriers that ought to be considered. More specifically, compared to the costs of traditional systems, initial infrastructure costs for AI are extremely high – this would call for more participation from transnational organizations and technology companies to assist and supply basic infrastructure in low-income countries. 

 Conclusion 

To conclude, the opportunities that AI holds in the agricultural sector seem to have the potential to accomplish part of the SDGs agenda for 2030. This is certainly an argument that can be applied to Western countries with the investment capacity to carry on a fourth agricultural revolution. Optimization of precision agriculture and the efficient use of scarce resources are essential steps to fight world hunger and climate change. 

However, new technologies come with high entry-level costs and such investment could be too risky or too high for low-income countries and small-scale food producers. 

While a new agricultural revolution will benefit countries and food producers who can afford to bring about sustainable development, it is necessary to acknowledge that a significant risk lies ahead: leaving out the have-nots in favor of the sole development of the haves. 

May 20, 20211 Comment

How Poverty Breeds Insecurity

By: Ludovica Aicha Brambilla.

The Global Humanitarian Overview 2021 has projected a historic level of food insecurity, with famine looming in several countries, due in large part to conflict and systemic violence. This forecast took into account the rising trend of the last two years; in 2019, in fact, seventy-seven million people in over 22 countries have experienced starvation due to armed violence. The new 2021 Global Report on Food Crises has confirmed that conflict has been the main driver of food crises also in 2020. Throughout the past year, up to 100 million people in 23 countries have experienced starvation because of violence and insecurity. The evidence that conflict causes food insecurity is well established. For instance, the FAO reports of the past decade have highlighted a recurring figure: The proportion of undernourished people is almost three times as high in countries in conflict than in other developing countries. This is also the result of the rapidly increasing civil displacements which can result in conflicts between social groups, causing food insecurity and a significant loss of income, resulting in acute famine and poverty.

However, these factors can sometimes interplay the other way round. Often poverty fosters conflict dynamics and insecurity; resource scarcity is a key factor of mass migrations and displacements which can result in conflicts between social groups. Economic inequalities are often seedbed for instability and represent a crucial contributing factor of violence together with socio-cultural and political factors. But poverty exacerbates all human vulnerabilities exposing people to a series of different types of risks. The condition of insecurity driven by privation concerns every dimension of life and it binds with multiple factors which reinforce each other and only eventually result in violence. 

For instance, poverty is a key element when addressing food insecurity issues. Food security is a condition in which everybody has regular access to nutritious food, thanks to one’s own livelihood or a safety net provided by the state or any other organisation. Ensuring food security means guaranteeing the production of a sufficient amount of food in total and, especially, that everybody can access such vital resources. The Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen stated that the root cause of the continuation of world hunger is the continuation of poverty, despite the increasing total prosperity. In fact, even in periods of tight food markets, there is enough food available, but a large number of people are just too poor to afford it. 

Many families, especially in developing countries, are particularly vulnerable to high food prices and they lack proper training on how to produce more food more sustainably. Agricultural development plays a key role in generating the incomes needed to ensure food security. In fact, two-thirds of the poor live in rural areas where agriculture is the dominant sector, but poor farmers are extremely vulnerable to the decline in agricultural output and aren’t able to benefit from basic infrastructures and access to markets. Income growth is necessary but the composition of growth matters too, as more equal growth is likely to lead to long-lasting food security. As a matter of fact, other compliments such as safe drinking water, awareness regarding adequate nutrition and access to health services are vital. In light of this approach, to tackle the causes of hunger, the policy objective should be the implementation of social norms dedicated to improving the conditions of the poor rather than concentrate on the overall agricultural production. 

Food insecurity is, indeed, the result of many factors chained together. Some of them include privation and low wages coupled with poor education and inadequate health assistance. Malnutrition can be both a cause and a result of health problems. This depends on the quantity and quality of the food a person eats; the diet which a person can access must be sufficiently balanced otherwise a vicious circle begins. In this context, the crucial matter of health care deprivation and discrimination against women deserves a special mention. In fact, the vicious circle starts with maternal malnutrition and pours out, becoming a mass phenomenon further feeding famine and insecurity. The level of education is an important piece of the puzzle. Education significantly influences the information available and the possibility to obtain a well-paid job by which one can access sustainable and healthy food. But the possibility of having access to education and completing it depends precisely on the state of indigence. Malnutrition affects school performance and the diseases, often related to poor nutrition, reduce one’s opportunities in the labor market. In this way, the vicious cycle keeps feeding itself, pressing people in the tight grip of the poverty trap. 

Ultimately, hunger driven by poverty can be both a cause and a consequence of conflict. The threats to food security can trigger unrest and provides a tangible reason for the instigation of violence. The 2015 FAO report Peace and Food Security estimated that post-conflict countries with high food insecurity are 40% more likely to relapse into conflict within a 10-year timespan. The report also highlighted how the increase in food prices in 2008 together with cuts in food subsidies, reduced real incomes triggering food riots in many countries. 

Thereby, investing in food security may strengthen the effort to prevent conflict and achieve stability. To build long-lasting peace, it is essential to understand the mutual link among poverty, food security and conflict.