No food on the table. Hunger will be less a problem of price than of availability.

The World is entering 2023 in a hunger crisis. The World Food Programme [WFP], a UN agency that coordinates the distribution of food aid, reckons the number of people facing acute food insecurity jumped from 282 million at the end of 2021 to a record 345 million in 2022.

As many as 50 million people will begin 2023 on the brink of famine. And with governments still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic and grappling with slowing economic growth, many of those people could be starving in the coming months.

Until now, the problem has largely been spiralling prices rather than availability. Russia and Ukraine were among the top five global exporters of barley, maize and sunflower products in the world.

So when war broke out, supplies of many staple foods were seriously affected. The countries worst affected were among the poorest in the world. Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda for example relied on Russia and Ukraine for over 40% of their wheat imports.

But the effects were felt everywhere. Global food prices soared as other countries, including Argentina and India, responded with trade restrictions. Emergency relief efforts everywhere were hit because the WFP usually buys half of the wheat it distributes from Ukraine.

As the war rolls on, shipments from Ukraine have restarted and then faced an on-and-off blockade. Weak economic growth is weighing on demand. And, in index of the UN'S Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] which measures the monthly change in international prices for food commodities, has fallen gradually from its all time-high in March 2022.

Antonio Guterres, the UN'S secretary-general, has warned that the world may shift from struggling with food-price inflation to simply not having enough food.

Production of nitrogen fertiliser has collapsed as Russian exporters of natural gas, a crucial ingredient, are squeezed.Farmers are using less fertilizer, switching crops and cutting production.

In 2023, people will go hungry for many different reasons. In conflict zones, such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, farming will be disrupted. Climate change means extreme weather events, like the floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa, are becoming more common.

Elsewhere, including rich countries like America and Britain, and large food-producing nations like Brazil and India, the problem is simple poverty. A mix of high inflation and a slowing global economy means that many people will struggle to pay for the food they need.

The consequences of food shortages are grim. Going hungry raises the risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Malnutrition does not just mean people eat too little and get thin.

Particularly in cities, those who cannot afford nutritious meals may buy cheap, packaged foods instead, and the poor are increasingly in danger of obesity.

Women are worst affected. They are more likely to be poor and to forgo food in order to feed their families. The FAO says that in 2021, 31.9% of women in the world were moderately or severely ''food insecure'' compared with 27.6 % of men, and that gap is widening.

A survey by Care, an NGO shows how gender in equality and food insecurity collide.

In Somalia, men said they were eating smaller meals, but women said they were skipping meals altogether. The report quotes a woman in Nigeria . ''We have reduced the amount of food for everyone,'' she says, ''except my husband who is the man of the house.''

In children, hunger stunts brain development and reduces immunity. Just a few months of poor nutrition in childhood can reduce a person's hopes of living a healthy, productive life.

In a nursery for underprivileged children in Sao Paulo, the headteacher, Claudia Russo, sees more and more infants arriving for breakfast in the morning having eaten nothing since the lunch the nursery provided the day before.

Those children are smaller, sicker and slower as a result. For them, the effects of the current food crisis will linger long after supply chains have been rebuilt and food prices have fallen.

The World Students Society thanks author Avantika Chilkoti, ' The Economist '.


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