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Global food politics: a beginner's guide

The triple whammy of pandemic, war and climate change is ending the age of abundance in the West. How will the near future look like, and what does it mean for the UK? 

December 24 2022, 19.52pm


In a cabinet speech following the summer break in August, French President Emmanuel Macron warned the end of abundance is nigh - citing climate change and Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the first clear sign of the decline of  the era when global food supply chains catered to a variety of needs and wants of consumers came sooner - after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March, 2020. 


A Covid-19 response plan was formed to prevent the spread of the virus. Safety restrictions were applied to food employees from personal hygiene to personal protective equipment, routine sanitisation of surfaces and surrounding environments and safety in terms of preparation and delivery while social distancing. Limitations and restrictions on food distribution by trucks, sea, land and air declined following the pandemic, while labour shortages and restricted movement instigated a delay in the production cycle and caused food shortages contributing to contemporary food insecurity.


The prevalence of food insecurity


Concerns over food insecurity have brought global food governance to the forefront of the world’s political economy. On a global scale, 800 millions are experiencing undernutrition even though those living on under $1.90 per day reside in rural areas and rely mostly on subsistence farming. 


Food prices as well as food insecurity started rising in 2018 and with a Pandemic to navigate through, Russia’s war in Ukraine and climate change implications, unprecedented price hikes are fairly warranted. UK food price inflation rose to an annual rate of 11.6% in October compared to 10.6% in September. 


Who is impacted by food insecurity:


Farms and fisheries have increased production over the years through adopting synthetic fertilisers, implementing sustainable new technologies and exploiting aquaculture. Over the last 50 years, food production grew threefold while land use increased by around 15%. However, 11% of the world’s population remain food insecure, while one in four UK households with children (approximately four million children) have experienced food insecurity in September, according to a survey by the Food Foundation. Living costs and poverty are consistent drivers of malnutrition and food insecurity. 


North and South America are top exporters of agricultural products, while regions like the Middle East and North Africa lack fertile land. China on the other hand, has long held its position as a pivotal source of fish on a global scale through exploiting its advanced economy. This imbalance has led to a small number of countries being accountable for a major share of food exports. 


Global food chains additionally facilitated the ubiquity of food products and maintaining a constant stream of varieties of food, though this interconnectedness does not transpire into domestic value chains since they do not have access to the same market. Local farmers and fishermen end up the furthest from tapping into the global markets potentials. 


This creates opportunities as well as challenges for producers, food processors and distributors. Trade takes on a necessary role in reducing food insecurity and incentivising economic development and investment in agriculture and environmental sustainabilities. Areas susceptible to climate shocks, however, don’t receive enough support to make up for the dwindling production or adopt new technologies meant for maintaining climate resilience.  


These problems are associated more with developing countries than the UK , however food insecurity has manifested itself in the need for food banks around the country. In May 2022, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) surveyed a total of 101 organisations that represent 194 food banks. These banks are spread across 94 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. The survey covered the period between May 4 - 9 when 93% of these organisations recorded an increase or a significant increase in the need for food banks due to the increased cost of living. According to the Trussell Trust, 320,000 people resorted to food banks in the UK over the past six months alone.


It becomes apparent that the global food system is perhaps not the most practical. In a 2019 World Bank report authored by Martien van Nieuwkoop, the World Bank’s Global Director for Agriculture and Food Global Practice, stated that the global food system as it stands is not “fit for purpose”. For example, the environmental and health costs are at their highest including greenhouse gas emissions, degraded land water and air pollution, foodborne germs and chronic under- and malnutrition in children. 


The global food system is worth £ 6.4 trillion, a tenth of the global economy. For that amount of food, £5 trillion are the approximate expenses of these costs. This is besides the financial support and subsidies that are alone worth half a trillion dollars per year. 


The UK’s sustainability scheme

When it comes to shipping food, 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transporting food with fruits and vegetables being the main culprits. The University of Sydney study examined 74 countries and zones and found that rich countries made up 46% of the global greenhouse emissions from food transport, often referred to as food miles.


In June, the UK joined a global coalition on sustainable food production, and fairtrade and sustainable practices are implemented in the UK through introducing fairtrade or similar certification systems to apply a set of standards in the process of producing or supplying a product or an ingredient. Fairtrade also reaffirms workers’ rights and safer working circumstances, producing more ethically and ensuring fairer pay. 


According to the Fairtrade Foundation, there are over 1.9 million farmers and workers in fairtrade certified organisations. And though fairtrade means sustainable, numbers indicate the efforts towards adopting an all-sustainable approach remain ominously low, especially in countries where priorities differ, and in some cases, clash. In the UK, an incentivising scheme has been introduced, in June, to farmers who receive Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments in exchange for deploying sustainable practices. The scheme is one of three meant for environmental land management. 


While there are apparent efforts towards sustaining food production through several rollout schemes from agricultural lands to school meals, the food industry, as it stands, remains one of the most costly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and food insecurity; issues largely exacerbated by multiple crises. As the cost of living rises in the UK and across the globe, the food scarcity scenario can be offset by an all-encompassing policy with a food system with sustainability at its core.