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With food prices climbing, the U.N. is warning of crippling global shortages

A Combine harvesting machine reaps wheat in a field of the Hula valley near the town of Kiryat Shmona in the north of Israel on May 22, 2022. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)
A Combine harvesting machine reaps wheat in a field of the Hula valley near the town of Kiryat Shmona in the north of Israel on May 22, 2022. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Fears of a global food crisis are growing due to the shock of the war in Ukraine, climate change and rising inflation.

Kristalina Georgieva, the International Monetary Fund managing director, told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Monday that "the anxiety about access to food at a reasonable price globally is hitting the roof" as food prices continue "to go up up up".

Last week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned of "the specter of a global food shortage in the coming months" without urgent international action.

The U.N. estimates that in the past year, global food prices have risen by almost one third, fertilizer by more than half and oil prices by almost two thirds.

According to U.N. figures, the number of severely food-insecure people has doubled in the past two years, from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today. Now, more than half a million people are experiencing famine conditions, according to the U.N., an increase of more than 500% since 2016.

In Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, the number of people facing extreme hunger has more than doubled since last year, from roughly 10 million to more than 23 million today, according to the report. Across the three countries, the report notes, one person is likely dying every 48 seconds from acute hunger-related causes stemming from armed conflict, COVID-19, climate change and inflationary pressures worsened by the war in Ukraine.

In India, a devastating heatwave has upset the nation's wheat harvest, driving up prices around the world for the staple commodity. Earlier this month, as temperatures in the capital of Delhi hovered near 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the government announced a ban on wheat exports. The announcement helped push wheat prices to record levels.

Wheat prices were already hit hard by the war in Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia are some of the world's biggest wheat producers, combining to produce around 25% of global supply. Global wheat prices surged in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. They had already risen an estimated 80% in just over a year before December 2021, according to the IMF.

International shocks have brought some countries into near breakdown. In Sri Lanka, rising inflation has led to a wholesale economic emergency, with extreme shortages of food, medicine and fuel.

Humanitarian agencies have warned that Afghanistan has been close to famine for months, while Lebanon has been in economic crisis for over a year.

In the U.S., consumer prices in April were up 8.3% from a year earlier, according to data from the Labor Department. Food costs were up 9.4%, with prices for things like meats, poultry, fish and eggs up 14.3% from the previous year. In March, around 65% of the 200 food banks in the Feeding America network, the nation's largest food recovery organization, reported a greater demand for assistance month on month.

In China, prices of fresh vegetables are 24% higher than a year ago, according to data released from the country's National Bureau of Statistics. China's "zero COVID" policy has meant an economic slowdown, and added to inflation around the world and global supply chain issues.

The U.N.'s Guterres has urged a five step plan to help confront the challenges: increasing supplies of food and fertilizers; social protection systems within countries; more access to international finance; further government help for smallholder food producers; and better funding for humanitarian operations to reduce famine and hunger.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.