In the clinical language of emergency food relief, the desperate day-to-day reality of hunger is reduced to numbers on a scale of one to five.
Those facing some difficulties feeding themselves or meeting basic food needs are measured as a level-one or level-two crisis. Widespread malnutrition is level three or four. It’s in the latter group of countries where international aid organizations become involved.
This numbered system, used around the world to categorize food insecurity, is designed to warn against and hopefully prevent a level-five disaster, or famine. Level five, in what is called the Integrated Phase Classification, is a measure reserved for only the most dire situations – where extreme malnutrition, starvation and ultimately death become commonplace.
But, as the war in Ukraine grinds on, it’s a measure that’s likely to be met by more and more countries, and with horrifying frequency.
Among the devastating effects of Russia’s invasion has been the destruction that it’s dealt to the global food supply. With Ukraine and Russia – both major food producers – suddenly severed from global markets, large swaths of the world’s population are being cut off from staple food products. Prices for food around the world have skyrocketed.
In recent weeks, some of the world’s major organizations – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank – have sounded the alarm on the crisis that’s unfolding. And it’s only expected to worsen. Some 44 million people around the world, according to the WFP, are currently on the cusp of a level-five famine.
The impact could be catastrophic: widespread mortality, devastating effects to global health in a world still reeling from a pandemic and the potential disruptions of mass migration and political unrest.
“I always think about who is most affected and most vulnerable,” said Warren Dodd, a professor of global health at the University of Waterloo, on the effects of such a crisis in Canada. “I don’t think we’ll all have to worry equally.”
But just because this country will likely be spared from the worst, that doesn’t mean we can afford complacency, he said. As Canada scrambles to figure out how to assist, it leads to a bigger, more fundamental question: What role can we play in fixing a global food system that increasingly looks to be broken?
Another term borrowed from the world of food aid is “The three Cs.”
This is how aid organizations have taken to describing the current situation, which unfolds after years of other crises: COVID, climate change, and now, consequences of the war.
Exacerbating the crisis is that many of the countries most dependent on Ukraine and Russia for food are among the world’s poorest. Between them, Ukraine and Russia produce about a quarter of the world’s exports of wheat, and are major suppliers of other staple grains and oils. About 50 countries – many of them in the Middle East and Africa – rely on the region for food.
Roughly 80 per cent of Lebanon’s wheat comes from Ukraine. In the Mideast country, food costs have increased by more than 300 per cent over the past year. Yemen, which is already facing a level-three food-security crisis, imports 97 per cent of its grains – the majority of that from Ukraine and Russia.
The region also produces other key agricultural products such as fertilizer, raising the cost of a crucial input for farmers around the world.
“What we’re seeing is one more shock on top of a very fragile system,” said Andy Harrington, executive director of Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFB), a charity that delivers food aid around the world.
Organizations including the CFB have already felt its impact. In Syria and Lebanon, they’ve seen their purchasing power dramatically reduced, with prices rising up to 35 per cent over the past two months. In Ethiopia, a food basket that cost $38 three years ago now costs $60.
“Who do we go to and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not able to give the same rations we were able to give you last month?’ ” Mr. Harrington asked.
“We’re talking about families who are in severe hunger and famine.”
The World Food Programme predicts that if the war continues beyond the end of April, an additional 47 million people will be facing acute hunger. This is on top of 276 million already in that dire situation.
At first glance, Canada’s potential to help might seem straightforward. As a major producer of many of the same products now facing shortages – wheat, oilseed and fertilizer – Canadian farmers have faced calls to increase output to help alleviate the scarcities.
But that could complicate things further, experts say.
It’s a fact that CFB can attest to. Founded in the 1980s, the Winnipeg-based charity originally began with a simple idea: Canadian farmers had excess crops and were looking for ways to share those crops. But after decades of shipping food, chartering tankers to ship grain and other products around the world, they realized the flaws of that system.
“It wasn’t the most efficient way of doing things,” Mr. Harrington said.
On top of logistical challenges, the Canadian crops were often unsuitable for local communities. And often, the influx of imported products would have an adverse effect on local industries.
“We started to wipe out local businesses as a result of suddenly dumping our grains,” he said.
There’s also the issue of timing. Most planting decisions at Canadian farms for the year – decisions that were months in the making – have long since been finalized.
Instead, the best approach for the immediate disaster is funding, aid organizations say. Charity groups such as CFB have called on the Canadian government for increased funding for aid. They’re asking as well that such funding be tied to food inflation in the future.
Donations help, too, said Julie Marshall, a Canadian spokeswoman for the World Food Programme.
“[Cash] is more effective and efficient. It just is,” she said. “It can very often cost as much to ship food as the food itself. So let’s purchase it locally.”
But that’s just the immediate disaster.
For Lenore Newman, the timeline begins in 2019. That was when wildfires in Australia devastated crops and killed more than a billion animals.
“Since then, there hasn’t been a moment our food system hasn’t been in crisis,” said Prof. Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at University of the Fraser Valley. And with each crisis, she said, global food systems have sputtered, then collapsed.
In 2020, there was the pandemic, which led to widespread lockdowns, labour shortages and broken supply chains. In Canada, that was followed quickly with the “heat dome” in British Columbia and catastrophic flooding – both of those events devastated farms and wreaked havoc on transportation corridors. Many of those supply chains are still reeling.
This, she said, prompts the question: Why would an otherwise healthy system have such difficulties coping?
For Prof. Newman, the answer requires a deeper examination. Climate change, she said, has made it clear that our existing systems are no longer sustainable. The fundamental assumptions that our food system is based on – globalization, long supply chains and cheap labour – no longer make sense.
“We have to at least start to consider that the age of globalization is in retreat, at least in terms of food,” she said.
Countries such as Canada, she said, need instead to focus on shorter supply chains. On local production and regionally grounded, intensive agriculture.
“That is an epoch-shaking change.”
Prof. Newman says this will require technology: accelerating plans to shift toward indoor agriculture. In place of importing fruits and vegetables from California and Mexico, she said, we should be building greenhouses and vertical farms that can feed communities across the country.
Making these changes locally can help the global system, too, she said.
“If we can make the technology work under our conditions, which are very harsh, they’ll work almost anywhere. We can export that expertise around the world.”
Groups such as CFB already work to support small farmers globally. In developing countries in Africa and Asia, CFB partners with small farmers to develop climate-resilient practices and to diversify local food systems.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” said Prof. Dodd at the University of Waterloo, “for Canada to support not only emergency food measures and humanitarian food relief … but also longer-term solutions – in thinking about how Canadian expertise and resources can be used to build out more sustainable local food systems.”
Another word that comes up frequently in conversations about the current food crisis with aid organizations: inequality.
For the past several months, Evan Fraser has been using images from political unrest in the Middle East a decade ago to illustrate the role inequality plays in the current crisis – and the potential consequences of ignoring such inequalities.
As a wave of upheaval touched off in Tunisia in 2010, sweeping across the region in what would become known as the Arab Spring, it was bread prices that initially drew protesters to the streets. As such, the unrest became synonymous with images of protesters wielding baguettes, aish and kesra.
In his studies on civil unrest, Prof. Fraser found that over and over again, a similar set of circumstances existed: political instability and extreme inequality – often symbolized by sharply rising food prices.
“There’s a psychological element to food prices which is well-studied and long-standing,” said Prof. Fraser, director of Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
“We eat it. It connects us with our families and culture,” he said. “We have a different kind of intimate relationship with food than other things, and other systems we survive on.”
As anger over the current food crisis bubbles around the world, he said, Canada, too, must address its own food-insecurity problem. Within our borders, this means addressing the root cause: income. Policy-makers must focus on strengthening social-support measures to ensure all groups have access to healthy food, he said – particularly Black, Indigenous, people of colour and other marginalized communities.
“Am I predicting widespread food riots in downtown Toronto?” Prof. Fraser said. “At the moment, I say no.”
But he said that in the hardest-hit parts of the world – regions already known for political instability – the potential for widespread unrest is almost certain. At that point, he said, the ripple effects of the crisis will no longer be measured or contained by any scale.
“We’re at a dangerous point in history.”
He described his frustration with policy-makers in responding to the recent surge in food insecurity. “We need to transition from looking at this as a short-term problem.”
Longer-term solutions are needed, he said – ones that address the entire food system and recognize that food insecurity is a symptom of a much broader problem.
“It isn’t a problem you can solve by handing food out.”
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