“As long as food is grown to generate profit rather than end hunger, we are always going to have people who cannot afford that food. Tragically, as a result of the rise in prices, we are certain to see tens of millions of people fall into hunger throughout the Global South.” —Raj Patel on Democracy Now
In the face of relentless corporate spin promoting industrial agriculture, researchers like Frances Moore Lappé have been arguing for over five decades that hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy. If the current conflict in Ukraine shows us anything about hunger, it is indeed that the loss of sovereignty over one’s life, land, and nation is one of its key drivers.
The World Food Program lists war and conflict as the number one cause of hunger, followed by poverty, gender inequality, and climate change. (Raj Patel cites the “four Cs” as the key culprits in today’s hunger: conflict, Covid, climate change, and capitalism.) In Ukraine, an estimated 10 million people have been forced to flee their homes—nearly a quarter of the population—since the conflict began and are now experiencing precarious access to food and water.
Vulnerable people around the world are also beginning to feel the conflict’s impact, mainly poor, urban consumers in import-dependent countries. As UN Secretary General António Guterres said last week, “grain prices have already exceeded those at the start of the Arab Spring and the food riots of 2007-2008.”
Speaking about the 2008 crisis on the Real Food Reads podcast, Eating Tomorrow author Time Wise noted that neoliberal policy advisors told countries for decades they should get their food cheap on international markets—and then suddenly, global food prices skyrocketed. This, said Wise, ushered in a temporary sea change in global ag policy:
A new consensus seemed to emerge suggesting that international policy and national governments should support developing countries to grow more of their own food and recognize that the people who currently produce that food—small-scale farmers—should get the investment and the support. [It was] very encouraging. But five years beyond that, it was very clear that that promise was not being met.
While we can certainly point to Russian aggression as exacerbating hunger, complicit is a global trade, financial, and agriculture system that fosters dependency, speculation, and large-scale agribusiness over national and local food sovereignty. This system is not only highly vulnerable to regional conflicts, but to the climate crisis as well.
As the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy pointed out in a recent post: “The continued defiance of commodity exchanges to effective regulation has created a system that amplifies rather than absorbs the price shocks of the Russian invasion. How, then, can the exchanges hope to manage the consequences of severe climate tipping points?”
As farmers in Ukraine struggle to stay on the land, displacement continues, and global market volatility deepens hunger, it is important not to accept media framings that hunger is merely a question of “supply and demand.” Such a framing risks opening the door to greater corporate control and productivist narratives that claim increasing global supply through industrial methods can address hunger.
The real solutions to global hunger lie in supporting the small and medium farmers who grow real food, regulating a volatile global commodities market, investing in climate-resilient agroecology, and putting food systems back in the hands of communities.
In solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those fighting for food sovereignty, land, and dignity around the world,
Tanya, Tiffani, Christina, and Anna