Never has there been so much food in the world. Farmers have grown far more this past year than all seven billion of us could possibly consume, so mountains of surplus foodstuffs are piling up in dozens of countries, including Canada. And the price of that food is falling fast.
Yet there is hunger. Not in many years have so many been at risk of starvation: For the first time since 2011, the United Nations is using the word "famine" to describe the looming situation in half a dozen countries. On Tuesday, the UN warned that a million people in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and parts of Nigeria are "on the brink of famine" and 20 million live in areas where harvests have failed and malnutrition is on the rise.
How can both these things be true? Somehow, the Reuters news wire service carried these two headlines on Tuesday, within hours of each other: "Grains piled on runways, parking lots, fields amid global glut" and "Risk of mass starvation rising rapidly in Africa, Yemen."
Starvation does not happen because of a shortage of food. And starvation does not happen because there are too many people. There is plenty enough food for all the world's people – in fact, with a little effort, we could double the amount produced. Governments are paying farmers to cut back their harvests, as we have run out of storage space.
Nor does starvation happen in 2017 because food is too expensive. That was the case 10 years ago, when soaring commodity prices sent food costs rising after four decades of declining to their lowest share of household budgets in history. In response to those high prices, investment flooded into agriculture, and land under cultivation expanded greatly. Now, those lands have produced an almost unprecedented three-year sequence of strong harvests, and the world is awash in food.
One consequence is that food prices have finally started falling back to historic lows. In March, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced that global food prices had fallen 2.8 per cent in a month: vegetable oils by 6.2 per cent, milk by 2.3 per cent (the only product experiencing a price rise was meat).
The world currently has a third more rice and wheat in storage than it is expected to consume, sell or turn into fuel in 2017. The combined world surplus of wheat, corn, rice and soya recently passed 670 million tonnes, or enough to feed all of China for a year.
Why didn't someone just ship some of that surplus food to Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan? That, after all, is what usually happens when drought or emergencies cause crops to fail. Sri Lanka, for example, is also experiencing a drought this year – its worst water shortage in four decades, one that has wiped out the entire year's rice crop. Yet nobody in rice-dependent Sri Lanka is starving: The government simply spent $350-million to import enough rice to make up to for the losses. This hurt the Sri Lankan currency, but the economy has kept growing and people are eating.
That is what happens when drought strikes countries that are at peace: They import more food. None of the African and Middle Eastern countries facing famine this year are at peace. And in many cases, the famine has nothing to do with drought or crop failure: In northeastern Nigeria, the war with Boko Haram has prevented farmers from cultivating crops; if the fighting causes them to miss the May-June planting season, seven million will be at risk of starvation.
In Somalia, the al-Shabab militant group continues to block food aid and the organizations that deliver it, and disrupts or sells food shipments for its own needs. In South Sudan, the government and security forces have blocked humanitarian aid, putting its horrendous civil war ahead of the lives of its people.
In 2017, only war and extremism prevent people from eating. It should be a priority for every developed-country government to break the barriers and give these people a share of our global food hoard to get through this crisis. They then need to develop the capacity to connect their countries back to agricultural markets. Most of the famine victims are the children of farmers; their death would be the world's most preventable, and heartbreaking, catastrophe.