The result has been a smaller pool of income available to pay for nutrition, compounding the problems of a strained public sector. As Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen showed in his landmark 1981 study on famine, most episodes of severe hunger are caused not by an absolute shortage of food, but by the price of food rising beyond the capacity of the poorest members of society to pay for it.
Those problems are compounded by conflict, still the most important cause of hunger worldwide. War and unrest can choke off supply chains, crash currencies, destroy jobs and raise prices all at once. The war in Ukraine is only the latest instance of such breakdowns. The number of people displaced by strife, a decent proxy for the global human toll of unrest, in late 2021 hit its highest level since records began, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — up 8% from a year earlier, and double its level a decade ago.
Finally, there’s the impact of climate and weather disasters to consider. For people in low-income countries most at risk of starvation, the prices of global commodities are often almost irrelevant, because they lack the cash or the supply connections to buy from international markets.
Indeed, in parts of the world dependent on exports of cash crops such as palm oil, cocoa, or coffee, falling food prices are as likely to cause problems as rising ones by choking off incomes for farmers. That makes floods like those that swept through Pakistan last week, or drought like the one that’s ravaged eastern Africa in recent years, as much of a threat as geopolitics.
Falling food prices, should they be sustained, may at least provide some relief for the world’s 768 million undernourished people. They won’t be enough to turn the tide on four years of rising food insecurity. To do that, the world needs to address deeper-seated problems, from the long-run impact of Covid-19, to the persistent effects of inequality, war and conflict.
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