G20 Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense
New Atlanticist November 14, 2022

Memo to the G20: The fierce urgency of food security

By Peter Engelke

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and gave a speech for the ages. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” he so eloquently said, calling for immediate action against racial injustice in the United States.

Decades later, at the Atlantic Council’s Global Food Security Forum, held on the sidelines of this week’s Group of Twenty (G20) Summit in Bali, Indonesia, speaker after speaker echoed King’s theme—if not explicitly then at least in spirit. During an unprecedented global food crisis, they said, the plight of the world’s hungry must not be ignored. As was true in King’s time, the fierce urgency of our own time also is a moral one: to take decisive action to correct a great injustice and source of global instability.

At the Forum, which the Atlantic Council co-hosted with the Gaurav & Sharon Srivastava Family Foundation as well as Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense and Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Investment, leading officials and experts from around the world examined the complexity, fragility, and unsustainability of today’s global food system. They assessed the numerous and often complex roots of global food insecurity and the many equally complex consequences. These roots range from near-term shocks to the global food system—for example, the awful destructiveness of the war in Ukraine or unforeseen spikes in energy prices—to longer-term and more structural challenges such as the significant and possibly catastrophic impacts of climate change on food production. The consequences then ripple through global food supply chains, reflected in the increasing prices of grain, fertilizers, and foodstuffs. Price spikes in turn harm all who depend on price stability, most especially the world’s poor.

The Forum’s participants repeatedly returned to one consistent theme: that the victims of food insecurity are ordinary people whose suffering cannot be overlooked. Today, hunger and famine threaten an estimated 828 million people every single day. Nearly fifty million are children under age five suffering from acute malnutrition. Those numbers, unfortunately, are trending in the wrong direction, the result of a confluence of factors including the war in Ukraine, distortions in oil and gas markets, the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on global supply chains, and the increasing impacts of climate change—drought, extreme heat, and flooding. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that it will feed some 150 million hungry people in 2022—a new record, beating the old one established in 2021.

Therein lies a source of enormous trouble. Even if we were to put aside the moral case for relieving hunger, which we never should do, we still would need to recognize just how serious a threat widespread hunger is to global stability and prosperity. Food is the most immediate need that people have. Not having enough food destroys the individual, the family, and the community. Hunger attacks the stomach, strikes fear in the mind, and hardens the heart. If enough people see their families and children go without, hunger becomes the wellspring of insecurity: social unrest, political instability, forced out-migration, even violence and warfare. In such circumstances, no one is immune. Human history is replete with revolutions begun by the hungry and desperate.    

Such a grim future need not be our fate. Although they were clear-eyed about the difficulties of the current situation, Forum participants expressed great hope that humankind can solve the multifaceted problems that give rise to hunger. Real, feasible solutions exist today, or are coming soon, if we have the foresight to see their potential and the courage to invest in them. Humans always possess agency, which means no obstacle is immovable. As difficult as it may be, we can resolve conflicts, fix global supply chains, diversify food production, eliminate food waste, put a stop to our assault on the natural world that gives us our bounty, and ultimately end hunger.

The Global Food Security Forum featured a rich discussion of the steps that the international community can take in the days and months ahead. For G20 member states, meeting this week in Bali, the fierce urgency of their task will be to have the foresight and courage to embrace innovative and transformative solutions to the challenge of global hunger.

Several of the policy recommendations that came out of the Forum are distilled below. All credit goes to the Forum’s speakers and participants:

  • End the war in Ukraine on Ukraine’s terms. By far the Forum’s most common recommendation was to stop the war in Ukraine and end it on Ukrainian terms. Russia’s invasion has been a significant driver of soaring prices for food and agricultural inputs (fertilizer and fuel) during 2022. Russia can stop the war in Ukraine if it chooses to do so.
  • Strengthen global norms and laws against the weaponization of food. Although there are provisions in international humanitarian law (IHL) that can be interpreted as opposing the use of food as a weapon of war, the status of IHL measures against weaponizing food are murky. Strengthening IHL in this context is imperative if the international community is to draw brighter lines against deliberately causing hunger and starvation during warfare.
  • Elevate food security on the multilateral agenda. The Forum’s participants also were unanimous in calling for enhanced food security coordination at the highest levels of global governance. Food security dialogues should be created for this purpose as part of multilateral forums such as the G20 and Group of Seven (G7) summits. Forum participants embraced the idea of creating a standing yearly G20 dialogue as an informal advisory mechanism to annual G20 Summits.
  • Fortify and expand financial instruments for emergency humanitarian relief. The international financing of emergency food reserves should be a greater priority, as doing so addresses the immediate needs of hungry people during food crises. G20 member states, other states, and international organizations ought to build more robust mechanisms for emergency food financing, including the creation of instruments such as barter-based trade exchanges that can help alleviate food shortages during crises.
  • Bolster norms against grain export controls. During food security crises, including the 2022 crisis, grain-exporting states create export controls to protect domestic industries and consumers. Such controls, which are often self-defeating, reduce global trade in food commodities that already have become scarce. G20 countries should strengthen norms against such actions during food crises.
  • Increase fertilizer production over the short run, and remake fertilizer types in the long run. Rising energy prices severely impact fertilizer production, which in turn reduces fertilizer use, particularly by poor farmers. G20 member states should take a variety of actions to combat fertilizer price spikes, including expanding fertilizer production plants around the world, reducing fertilizer trade barriers, making sure that fertilizers are applied as efficiently as possible by farmers, and ensuring that fertilizer subsidies are as effective as possible and oriented toward the greatest need. Over the longer run, fertilizers need to be made more sustainable, including through their decarbonization and integration into the circular economy. Governments should increase investment in projects, for example, that turn food waste—a massive problem on its own—into fertilizer.
  • Make the world’s food system more resilient and sustainable through diversification and investment in nature-based solutions. The global food system is efficient but fragile, depending on too few breadbaskets delivering too few types of grains and with too much impact on the natural world. Diversification of food systems everywhere should be prioritized, including by geography (more breadbaskets) and by commodity (expansion of the number of crops that are grown and traded at scale). Greater investment in nature-based solutions is imperative, including in agroforestry, sustainable fishing and aquaculture, urban agriculture, soil conservation and soil sequestration, waste reduction and recycling, and more.
  • Enhance and grow investments in innovation, ranging from research and development (R&D) to on-farm applications. Innovation is key to solving many of the world’s food security problems. Governments should expand investments in basic science (the underpinning of all technological advancement), support innovation ecosystems that can quickly identify and scale on-farm and off-farm food security solutions, and otherwise embrace innovative experimentation through public policies. As younger generations embrace technology, turning farming and other food-producing sectors into tech-centric endeavors can encourage younger people to build careers in these sectors.
  • Boost agricultural extension services everywhere. Agricultural extension services provide smallholding farmers with greater knowledge, skills, and tools to advance their farming needs. Governments should expand such services to ensure that accurate and practical information and skills are transmitted as swiftly and thoroughly as possible. Such programs not only improve food production but also strengthen rural communities.

Peter Engelke is a deputy director and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security as well as a nonresident senior fellow with the Council’s Global Energy Center.

Further reading

Image: Farmer Mykola Tereshchenko reacts while speaking to Reuters about the harvest, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, on a wheat field in the village of Khreshchate, in Chernihiv region, Ukraine July 5, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko