Predicting the future is a hazardous endeavour. When it comes to agricultural production and nutrition, there are many unknowns. Yet detailed scenarios and projections developed for this report point unequivocally towards an overwhelming conclusion: the world faces a real and imminent risk of major setbacks in efforts to combat the scourge of hunger.57 That risk is not a remote future threat. It is emerging today, will intensify over the next decade, and evolve over the 21st century as ecology, demography and climate change interact to create a vicious circle of vulnerability and hunger in some of the world’s poorest countries.
There are alternatives. But the central message to emerge from the scenario analysis is that the international community is sleepwalking into an unprecedented and avoidable human development reversal. Research carried out for this report explored a range of food price scenarios for 2020 and 2030 using international trade models.58 In the absence of urgent and aggressive action to tackle global warming, prices of basic staple foods are expected to skyrocket in the coming two decades. Using a different model that nevertheless forecasts a similar trend, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has recently calculated that 12 million more children would be consigned to hunger by 2050, compared with a scenario with no climate change.59
Headline figures such as this provide only a partial picture of the scale of threat. Over the lifetime of a single generation, the world is losing an opportunity to remove the spectre of hunger from an under-five population larger than all of the children in that age group living today in France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. Standing by and failing to prevent that outcome would represent an abdication of responsibility and failure of international leadership without precedent; not least because this is an avoidable tragedy if – and only if – governments act decisively in the next few years to avert it.
Why the focus on food prices? First, because world food prices provide a useful barometer of how the tectonic shifts in demography, ecology and climate might play out within the food system. Rising prices signal imbalances in the supply response to rising demand. Second, food prices have a major bearing on hunger because they influence the capacity of poor people – and poor countries – to gain access to calories. Of course, prices cannot be viewed in isolation: purchasing power is also influenced by income. But in many of the developing regions facing the gravest challenges with malnutrition, food still accounts for around half of average household spending – and for an even greater share of spending by people living in poverty (see Figure 6).60
International price projections for the major traded food staples reflect the severe stresses under which the food system is buckling. Over the next two decades, prices for commodities such as rice, wheat and maize are forecast to rise by between 60 and 80 per cent (see Figure 7). This will hit the poorest people the hardest. For example, although food accounts for 46 per cent of an average West African household’s spending, in the poorest 20 per cent of Malian households, food consumes 53 per cent of all household spending; and although in much of South Asia 40 per cent of all household spending goes on food, for the poorest 20 per cent of Sri Lankans, the figure is as high as 64 per cent. 61