The Global Food Crisis in the Age of Catastrophe 

by Jennifer Clapp

We are now in the midst of a major worldwide food crisis characterised by rising hunger in a context of increasing ecological fragility. This crisis in food must be considered as one part of a wider polycrisis, in which the climate emergency interlaces with an economic and debt crisis, a health crisis, and a geopolitical crisis. That these different crises cannot be easily separated speaks to the interlinked and overlapping nature of contemporary economic, ecological, health and geopolitical systems. 

The global interplay of these systems creates complex dynamics with sometimes unpredictable outcomes. This is not the first time we have witnessed a worldwide food crisis that has been entangled within a wider polycrisis; the repeated nature of the polycrisis points to deeper structural features of the global food system that make it especially vulnerable to disasters. In order to combat the food crisis, we must transform our food systems to make them more just and sustainable, and to do this we must understand the dynamics that cause hunger. 

The Crisis Within The Broader Polycrisis

By 2022, the number of people facing chronic hunger had increased by 122 million from 2019’s figure, bringing the global total to nearly 800 million. That is 9% of the world’s population. A series of events – the global pandemic, an acceleration of the climate emergency, geopolitical conflicts, and economic uncertainty – have driven this food crisis since 2019. These overlapping jolts led to breakdowns in the global food system, undermining food security. 

This current world food crisis, however, is not simply the result of multiple triggers acting on an isolated system. Instead, it is part of a constellation of crises that together constitute a global polycrisis. As historian Adam Tooze has written for the Financial Times, although the shocks that contribute to a polycrisis may be disparate, “(…) they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.”  

These kinds of interactive effects took hold with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The spread of illness combined with the policy responses and slowed economic activity. These dynamics disrupted global food supply chains, resulting in the colossal wastage of food in some places and acute shortages in others. These uneven outcomes were exacerbated by the globalised nature of food supply chains, where approximately 20% of dietary energy supply worldwide comes from imported foods.

The pandemic, and the policies which different countries chose to implement in response to it, hastened the onset of an economic crisis that had dramatic effects on food systems from Ethiopia to Japan. 

A worldwide recession took hold from the first half of 2020, with the unemployment rate rising, and the poorest and most vulnerable suddenly unable to buy and access sufficient food. Even as economic activity began to recover by late 2020 through early 2021, ongoing disruptions to global supply chains resulted in massive inflationary pressure that saw food prices rise sharply; in most countries at rates that were higher than the overall rate of inflation. By mid-2022, food price inflation spiked well above 20% in parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe, which contributed to a ‘cost of living’ crisis and other political aftershocks.

Compounding this pandemic exacerbated economic fragility is a growing global debt crisis that is hitting the Global South countries hard. Ongoing food inflation, coupled with rising interest rates, has forced many countries to choose between repaying debts and ensuring that people are fed. This is a stark example of the way in which unsustainable debt reinforces unsustainable food systems; characterised by dependency on imported food, volatile markets, and extractive financial flows. 

Geopolitical crises have further threatened the food system in recent years, most notably the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has been ongoing since early 2022. Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat, maize, and oilseeds, meaning that the onset of the war sparked a major panic in global food export markets, which pushed prices even higher than their already-record levels. Countries in Africa and in the Middle East, which are heavily reliant on grain from Russia and Ukraine, suddenly had to seek out other import sources. 

To compound this, fears over localised grain shortages sparked speculative financial investment in the grain futures markets, with prices reaching heights that went far beyond what supply and demand conditions warranted. Although food prices started to fall as 2022 progressed, the Russian-Ukraine war contributed to ongoing volatility and elevated prices in global grain markets. In 2023, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that some 20 to 30 million additional people globally faced hunger as a consequence of the war in Ukraine.

Finally, there is perhaps the most existential threat to food production – the climate and biodiversity crisis. Already the effects of climate change are wreaking havoc on food production, in both direct and less obvious ways. Take India; in 2022 the country experienced an unprecedented heat wave that meant its wheat yields fell by up to 25%. These shortages prompted the government to place an export ban on wheat, which demonstrates the ripple effect that country-specific shortages can quickly have on the global system. A year later, after heavy monsoon rains ravaged its rice crop, India again banned exports, this time on non-basmati rice. India is just one example. 

Extreme weather is affecting food production in grain producing regions including North America, Australia, and Southeast Asia. These climate-related ructions on global food markets are only likely to get worse too. 

The acceleration of climate change makes it nearly inevitable that simultaneous production shocks will occur in multiple regions of the world, including those that produce globally traded staple crops.

Structural Vulnerabilities in the Global Industrial Food System 

The current polycrisis echoes previous world food crises, in particular the mid-1970s and between 2008 and 2012. Like this current crisis, these previous crises were triggered by a number of factors that interlocked in complex ways, and the effects on the global system were similar. The 1970s food crisis, for example, was inseparable from simultaneous geopolitical, energy, and economic crises, and occurred in a context of multiregional droughts. Similarly, the 2008 to 2012 food crisis was entangled with a major financial crisis and played out against a backdrop of accelerating climate stresses and the rise of China as a major global food importer. In both cases, the crises played out similarly to what we are witnessing today; from highly volatile staple grain markets to rampant financial speculation on commodity markets, to production shortfalls, and of course the inevitable result – rising hunger. 

The fact that food crises have kept repeating over the past fifty years highlights the vulnerability of the global industrial food system, its susceptibility to breakdowns caused by disruptions in other systems. Three features of this systemic vulnerability stand out: industrial food production based on a narrow selection of staple crops; an imbalance between a small number of agro-exporting states and many import-dependent states; and highly financialised and concentrated global agrifood markets. 

The origins of all of these features date back centuries to the rise of industrial capitalism, early agricultural production and accelerated technological change. The longstanding policies of the world’s most powerful states have only encouraged these trends.

Industrial Food Production

Most food today is produced with industrial farming methods that rely on mechanisation, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and a limited variety of often genetically altered seeds. This system has encouraged producers to focus on a very narrow base of staple crops that are able to be cultivated in large-scale uniform fields. On a global scale, this kind of farming drives vulnerability in the food system in multifaceted ways.

The rise of industrial farming from the 19th century onwards, coupled with the urbanisation of Europe, encouraged the large-scale monocultural production of staple crops. This was for several reasons, including the need for reliable, cheap, and transportable sustenance for industrial workers. From the outset, this system relied on just a few staple crops that still today provide the bulk of the global cereal trade. Indeed, over time this focus has become so extreme that today just three cereal grains – wheat, maize, and rice – make up nearly half of human diets and account for 86% of all cereal exports. With the addition of soy, together these crops account for around two thirds of human caloric intake. The extreme dependency on this narrow base of crops means that if the production or trade of any of the four is diminished or disrupted for any reason – be it climate change or geopolitical tensions – global food security is threatened. 

Concentrated industrial production systems also rely on petroleum products to fuel farm machinery and in production of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilisers and chemical pesticides. Fossil fuels are also used in the long-distance transport of grains produced for global markets. 

The industrial farming system’s heavy dependency on fossil fuels not only renders it sensitive to oil price changes, but also contributes to climate change. Activities within food systems, from land use changes to food production, to transportation, account for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Imbalance between Exporters and Importers 

A very small number of countries produce and export staple crops to a much larger number of countries, which are reliant on these imported crops. This produces an imbalance, in which the food security of much of the world depends on just a handful of countries. As such, disruptions that undermine production in just one exporting country can threaten food availability in many countries.

The highly imbalanced nature of the food system can be traced back to the rise of industrial crop production methods from the 19th century. The countries in the regions where these methods were first established – North America, Australia, South America, and parts of Europe – dominated export markets for staple crops. This is also partly to do with the landscape of a country – notably, monocultural export production was, and still is, only possible in countries with large tracts of arable land. In the 1990s, the liberalisation of agricultural trade cemented these patterns but also opened the door for some new entrants to join the agro-exporting powerhouse club, as we have seen with the rise of soy production in Brazil and Argentina in recent decades. Today, five countries account for at least 72% of the production of wheat, maize, rice, and soy crops. 

Seven countries, plus the European Union (EU), account for around 90% of the world’s wheat exports, while four countries account for over 80% of the world’s maize exports. Grain exports are a key source of income for these countries, so they have a vested interest in maintaining this system. As such, export countries tend to influence and shape the global trade rules in ways that reinforce their export power. 

The pattern of food import-dependence has intensified over the past half century. Although many countries do produce staple grains for their own consumption, the majority do not produce enough to meet domestic demand, and therefore rely on global markets to make up the shortfall. This insufficient supply is not through lack of trying on the part of these countries. One key reason that production has declined in these regions is their inability to compete with the highly industrialised farming methods of agro-exporting countries. These methods are also often subsidised in the exporter countries, which further undermine the livelihoods of small-scale food producing countries in the Global South. 

At the same time, neoliberal programs of structural adjustment imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged countries in the Global South to divest from food production and instead to focus on producing export crops such as coffee, tea and cocoa and purchasing staples on the global marketplace. Policies like these have meant that many sub-Saharan African countries, for example, developed food import dependencies they did not have 50 years ago. 

Financialised and Concentrated Markets

A handful of powerful transnational firms currently dominate the highly financialised grain markets. The outsized role that a small number of powerful corporate and financial actors have in these markets means that disruptions can lead to enormous price swings. These dramatic swings have effects on both people’s ability to access and buy food and producers’ ability to access agricultural inputs such as seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers.  

Financialised agrifood markets began to dominate the global agrifood system by the mid-1800s, in tandem with the rise of industrial production methods and increased global trade in staple crops. Today, financialised futures markets allow investors to reap huge profits on the trade in grain, but these markets are prone to extreme food price volatility. As there are relatively few large financial actors speculating on grain, these markets are prone to volatility, especially when those investors flood into commodity futures markets exactly at the point that the food system is most at risk. Recent decades have seen a weakening of rules with respect to financial investment in these markets. The result has been that a growing cast of investors, from asset management companies, to hedge funds, to pension funds, have rushed into agricultural commodity markets just as prices were rising, pushing grain prices up further.

Large transnational firms also rose to dominance in both the grain trade and agricultural inputs industries in the mid-to-late 1800s and these sectors of the food system have remained highly concentrated ever since. 

The ABCD companies – Archer Daniels, Bunge, Cargills, and Louis Dreyfus – control anywhere from 50-70% of the global grain trade, plus considerable parts of the food processing chain. These firms have experienced record profits in recent years, as food prices have soared. This is just one demonstration of the way in which capital profits directly from the global food crisis. 

False Solutions

The structural vulnerabilities of the global industrial food system serve specific interests: powerful states, private corporations, and financial investors, all of whom have benefited from it since the expansion of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. This system has endured, not because it is the best way to provide global food security, but because it serves the accumulation of wealth and power. It is increasingly evident that the more global agriculture is reconfigured to benefit this set of interests, the more exposed it becomes to crises and disruptions in other systems. 

Because these features of the food system serve powerful interests, we should not be surprised that mainstream responses – especially those promoted by big business, agro-exporting governments, and certain global institutions – do not address the underlying structural problems. Instead, the ‘solutions’ that these actors put forward work to further entrench these features. This was evident in the roll out of the green revolution in the 1960s-70s, the gene revolution in the 1990s, and most recently, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in farming. 

Each of these initiatives was packaged with the narrative that food production must increase within the current industrial framework if we wish to have a hope of addressing world hunger. 

The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) also exemplified this approach. Billed as a forum to catalyse ‘game changing solutions’ to end hunger, the summit was instead largely captured by powerful corporate interests. This influence was so extreme that it prompted a boycott by progressive civil society groups and social movements. An example of the way in which this corporate involvement skewed the UNFSS’s approach, was the very large emphasis that the summit placed on increasing food production via technological innovations, such as digital agriculture and genome editing. Although these technologies were presented as a new way to support sustainability, in reality they only further entrenched the dominant approach to agriculture.

As food prices spiked in the first quarter of 2022, powerful states, international institutions, and corporate actors rolled out a host of initiatives to address hunger and the food situation. For example, in May 2022 the G7 Development Ministers launched the Global Alliance for Food Security (GAFS) as a joint effort with the WB. In September of the same year, 100 governments adopted the Roadmap to Global Food Security – Call to Action, presented at a Leaders’ Summit on Global Food Security hosted by the UN. Both initiatives sought to coordinate financing for ‘crisis preparedness’ for developing countries and were firmly within the framework of industrial food production methods, open trade, and partnerships with industry. The Leader’s Summit declaration emphasised the need for, “science-based and climate resilient agricultural innovations.” 

The International Finance Corporation of the WB, in parallel, established a Global Food Security Platform that is investing US$ 6 billion to improve access to fertilisers, while simultaneously supporting private firms to make longer-term investments. 

For its part, the private sector launched the Global Business for Food Security coalition in mid-2022 with the support of France, the European Commission (EC), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP), the European Investment Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This corporate coalition seeks to improve access to agricultural inputs and food commodities while supporting the development of “robust value chains in fragile countries, particularly in Africa.” The coalition’s members include some of the world’s largest agrifood firms that dominate in concentrated markets for grains, including ADM, Cargill, Bunge, and Dreyfus, and inputs, including fertiliser giant Yara and seed firm Limagrain. 

In calling for industrial inputs to be intensified – including “innovation” based transformation and increased chemical fertiliser access – these powerful interests only encourage the continuation of an agricultural system dependent on fossil fuels. More than this, they advocate an even deeper reliance on global supply chains. 

This will only extend the power of the countries that already dominate the staples trade. 

Enlisting other countries to supply specialty crops as a result further weakens the food security of said countries by keeping them dependent on food imports. Furthermore, the call by powerful states to collaborate with industry completely overlooks the problem of corporate concentration. Although these initiatives nodded towards the need to monitor financialised agrifood markets, these measures are not with a view to regulation, but rather to better share market information, which ultimately benefits the exporting states and corporate interests. 

Alternative Food Systems

So long as powerful interests profit from the current global food system, they will have no incentive to enact meaningful transformations to it. This means that action must be taken by the people, for the people. At present, powerful players thrive on concentration and uniformity in food systems, both of which directly undermine resilience. Therefore, to enact radical change we need diversity in food production, distribution, and consumption.

In terms of production, it is vital to break from the industrial model of agriculture that has become so hegemonic over the past several centuries. Powerful states and large firms have promoted this system despite the fact that it has caused enormous damage to the very ecosystems and social systems necessary for food production to thrive. We urgently need to shift to ecologically sound and climate-resilient production systems that do not rely on energy intensive inputs like chemical fertilisers. Reducing reliance on these industrial inputs would help insulate farming systems from disruptions in global energy, fertiliser, and agrochemical markets. 

Ecologically oriented production systems must also put people at the centre; providing livelihoods and nutritious food foremost. This must be combined with the democratisation of production systems, empowering people to determine how these systems are designed and function. 

Agroecology is one such system. Centred on the principle of diversity, it involves methods such as the intercropping of diverse species, crop rotation, agroforestry, composting and crop-livestock integration, all of which enhance agrobiodiversity. Agroecological systems also promote diversity in a broader sense by embedding the political goals of equity and agency. This model is already gaining traction across a range of countries, and there is evidence of its potential to meet food needs less harmfully than industrial farming. Agroecological systems also encourage dietary diversity, promoting other crops including millet, sorghum, groundnuts or roots and tubers. This approach pushes back against the narrow base of staple crops that have come to dominate human diets. 

When it comes to distribution, it is essential to enhance the capacity of individual countries to grow more of the food they consume. Reducing food import dependencies will help to ensure that when shocks happen, they do not generate a crisis. This does not mean complete autarky, but rather a much better balance of where food comes from, in terms of both local and global markets. If undertaken using sustainable and equitable farming methods, efforts towards greater self-reliance in staple crop production can also support local people better than multinational corporations and powerful states ever will. 

One way of working towards the goal of a more people-centred food distribution is by supporting territorial markets. Such markets are typically more directly linked with local, national and/or regional food systems. What this tends to mean is that there are shorter supply chains, and that these supply chains are grounded in place. As such, territorial markets embody local conditions and knowledge and foster community and regional relationships. Territorial market arrangements also tend to be less hierarchical, with a high participation of small-scale food producers who are vital suppliers of food in developing countries, but whose livelihoods are under threat from the expansion of corporate-dominated global supply chains. These types of markets provide services that go well beyond food as just a market commodity. They embody principles of inclusivity and by their very nature, they promote diversity. The distribution of food within territories is also supportive of biodiversity and climate change goals for two reasons: It elevates locally specific crops, and it means less fossil fuel energy is needed for transport. 

Finally, people-centred food systems must actively counter corporate and financialised agrifood markets. This is about more than creating alternative production and distribution spaces. It means also pursuing regulatory changes that prevent powerful actors from shaping markets to protect their own interests. Without this, any efforts to promote territorial markets could easily be swamped by corporate actors and financial investors, who of course hold enormous influence over agrifood governance and markets. 

One cause for optimism is the growing movement that is pushing back against corporate power in the food system. However, more is needed. A huge step in the right direction would be much stricter conflict of interest rules for corporate actors, alongside stronger antitrust and competition policies to prevent corporate monopolies and oligopolies in food systems. Similarly, since the 2008 to 2012 food price crisis, there have been growing calls for tighter regulation on financial actors in the food system. Finally, stricter regulation of commodity futures markets would help reduce the speculative investments that drive food price volatility, and can lead to spikes in food prices. Taken together, each of these vital steps – more ecologically sound food production systems, reducing reliance on long-distance food trade, and curbing corporate power in the food system – will make food systems more resilient and less vulnerable to the broader polycrisis.

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Jennifer Clapp

Jennifer Clapp is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo and a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). She holds a PhD in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics. Throughout her career, her research has focused on the global governance of problems that arise at the intersection of the global economy, the environment, and food security. She takes an interdisciplinary approach to her research, combining insights from political science, international relations, economics, environmental studies, and food studies.

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