Analysis | Food security is not just a humanitarian concern

Even the wealthiest countries cannot buy their way to a stable food supply.

Emily Crane Linn and Alistair Somerville

Empty grocery store shelves (Image: Mick Haupt on Unsplash)

The global food system is broken: 811 million people around the world are food insecure, just as one third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. At the center of this crisis are the world’s poorest: 144 million children under five experienced stunting from malnutrition in 2019, and as many as 49 million experienced wasting from acute caloric deprivation. Most were in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.

But right now, the global food system isn’t serving anyone. In the past year, global political instability, anthropogenic climate change and the ongoing pandemic have caused supply chain disruptions for even the wealthiest countries. While the world’s hungriest, living in the most climate-sensitive and conflict-vulnerable regions, should remain the focus of efforts to end food insecurity, systemic reform requires going beyond humanitarian interventions. Even the United States has been unable to spend its way out of the problem.

Domestic food supply disruptions should focus U.S. policymakers’ attention on the underlying drivers of the problem. In the world’s wealthiest country, the latest threats to the food system have manifested in higher food prices. The latest Department of Agriculture data show a 3.7 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index for food prices since August 2020. As in other parts of the world, two major drivers of higher prices stand out: the coronavirus pandemic and an increase in extreme weather events as a result of climate change.

In its August report, “Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger-Instability Nexus,” the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy outlined the ways in which pandemic-induced “lockdowns and border closures cause serious disruptions not only in the distribution of food, but they also prohibit people from producing food, selling food, and/or earning enough money to purchase food.” At the beginning of the pandemic, food distributors faced immediate supply chain shocks, as governments and other large clients canceled orders due to restaurant closures and housebound populations. Meanwhile, grocery stores faced a significant increase in demand, but struggled to keep employees and customers safe.

[Read the full report “Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger-Instability Nexus”]

The pandemic has also disrupted the labor market, compounding its overall impact on the food system. In the United States, the pandemic has caused labor shortages at every level of the food supply chain, from farms, to processing facilities, to warehouses and delivery trucks. COVID-19 outbreaks have forced processing facility closures and have made some workers hesitant to come to work, while the closure of schools and childcare facilities has given some workers no option but to exit the workforce altogether. This lack of workers has made it difficult for food distributors to fulfill orders from restaurants and grocery stores, leading to empty shelves and “out of stock” stickers.

Meanwhile, restrictive immigration policies have only exacerbated the labor shortage: 44 percent fewer people received permanent and temporary worker visas in the United States in 2020, compared to 2019, and H-visas (which include temporary agriculture work) were down 24 percent. Overall, 5 million fewer people were issued visas to the United States in 2020, compared to 2019. Because immigrants make up 22 percent of the workforce in the U.S. food supply chain, restrictions in overall immigration have made it even more difficult for employers to fill positions. A similar story is unfolding in the United Kingdom, where shortages in immigrant labor caused by Brexit and the pandemic have left thousands of positions in the food supply chain vacant.

Moreover, according to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, farmworkers, some of the most essential players in the food supply chain,are among the groups most likely to contract and transmit the coronavirus. Among farmworkers in the Salinas Valley in California, 13 percent of those surveyed in the Berkeley study had tested positive between mid-July and November 2020, compared to only 5 percent of the state’s overall population. Cramped working and living conditions, higher rates of comorbidities, and fear over lost wages and potential food insecurity among workers themselves also contributed to the spread. At other points in the food system, outbreaks at meat processing plants led to closures and slowed production. While the U.S. population as a whole is not at risk of food insecurity, pandemic trends over recent months highlight the economic, health, and social impacts of such major disruptions to the food system.

On the climate front, especially dry conditions in Canada and in the northwestern United States caused an uptick in wheat prices. Meanwhile, frost in Brazil triggered the highest coffee prices since 2014. Wheat prices have also risen, just as this year’s corn, soybean, almond, honey, citrus, and avocado production have plummeted . With one third of U.S. residents experiencing an extreme weather event this summer, and the dire prognosis of the August Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, these trends are set to continue. Worryingly, U.S. policymakers including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, have downplayed these upward food price trends at home, arguing that inflationary pressures will likely be temporary.

Increasing political upheaval and abrupt foreign policy swings are also destabilizing food systems in rich countries. In the United Kingdom, popular restaurant chains and grocery stores are struggling to serve customers as the country reckons with Brexit-induced labor shortages and looming customs changes. And in China, consumers saw the price of pork double in the span of three months, as a result of their 2019 trade dispute and ongoing geopolitical competition with the United States. Globally, the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to give rise to growing unrest and political instability, leaving the global food supply vulnerable to more shocks.

This past year has revealed the weaknesses of the global food system, making clear that global food system reform is not just a humanitarian cause; it is in everyone’s best interest. Achieving universal food security will take more than humanitarian intervention; it will require reforms at every level of society, from changes in consumer behavior, to new business models, and changes to labor laws, public health policies, and employee protection.

Emily Crane Linn is a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is in her second year of her Global Human Development master’s degree at Georgetown, with a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Emily is also one of ISD’s inaugural McHenry Fellows.

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and editor of The Diplomatic Pouch. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville.

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