Image courtesy of Oxfam East Africa - flickr
A new study assessing the availability and stability of food supplies in 196 countries has rated the food security of Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as lowest in the world, whilst countries in the drought stricken Horn of Africa are also at ‘extreme risk’.
The Food Security Risk Index (FSRI), released by risk analysis and mapping company Maplecroft, is based on the key elements of food security as laid out by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is calculated using 12 indicators, measuring the availability, access and stability of food supplies across all countries, as well as the nutritional and health status of populations.
Vulnerability to food insecurity
According to the FSRI, a number of critical factors have combined to intensify the current food crisis affecting countries in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia (ranked joint 1st), Eritrea (4), Ethiopia (7) and Djibouti (14).
These countries, along with much of Sub-Saharan Africa, are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Maplecroft states that contributing factors for food insecurity include: a low capacity to combat the effects of extreme weather events such as drought; prevalence of poverty; and failing infrastructures, which undermine both food production and emergency food distribution capacity. Conflict is also a major driver of food insecurity as it displaces people from their normal social networks and livelihoods. The on-going violence in eastern DR Congo, for example, is largely responsible for its precarious food security situation.
Somalia in crisis
It is nevertheless the Horn of Africa where the world’s attention is currently focused. The worst drought in the region in 60 years has seen the rains fail for two consecutive seasons leading to crop failures and livestock deaths. By the end of August 2011, in southern Somalia alone, more than 29,000 children under the age of five have died over the course of the current crisis. The total number of people requiring food assistance in eastern Africa is estimated at 17.5 million, over 12 million of which are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Food Security Risk Index
© Maplecroft, 2011
Somalia’s ranking as joint 1st in the FSRI relates to a number of issues. The country has been ravaged by two decades of conflict and political turmoil resulting in an ineffective government and poor infrastructure. The human and economic toll of the conflict has been profound, causing large-scale loss of life, displacement, disruption of trade and the destruction of transportation networks, which has impeded efforts to deliver humanitarian aid.
Inflationary pressures on the cost of staple cereals have also rendered many Somalis acutely vulnerable. Maize prices in Mogadishu were 100% higher in June 2011 than in June 2010, and the price of sorghum in Somalia rose by 180% compared with 2010 prices. Thirty per cent of the population within the southern areas of Somalia are currently suffering from acute malnutrition, with the rate exceeding 40% for children in some areas.
Global food stocks ‘alarmingly’ low
Despite a slight decrease in global food prices since February 2011, the prices of commodities such as rice, maize and wheat remain volatile. The World Bank warns that global food stocks remain at “alarmingly low” levels and even small reductions in yields will apply considerable upward pressure on prices.
“Food insecurity can not only cause humanitarian disasters; we have also seen it emerge as a contributing factor to societal unrest,” says Maplecroft CEO, Alyson Warhurst. “As global demand for food grows due to rising populations, food security will take on increasing importance for governments and it needs to be on the risk agenda of multinational corporations.”
Over the course of 2010 and 2011, a spate of climate-related natural disasters in cereal producing countries resulted in global food price rises. The severe drought and wildfires in Russia in 2010 destroyed 20% of its wheat crop, which constituted a 1.6% reduction in global wheat production and resulted in an export ban that was only lifted in July 2011. Floods in Pakistan, Australia and China also added to market pressures.
However, Maplecroft states that the impact of natural hazards on global food security has been compounded by human factors, which have the greatest effects on the most vulnerable populations. These include: volatility in the commodity markets relating to speculation by banks and hedge funds and the increased use of biofuels in the developed world, both of which have contributed to spikes in cereals and vegetable oil prices.
African ‘land grab’ – risks and opportunities for development
The diversion of resources, land, and agricultural outputs away from food production and towards biofuels has become an especially contentious issue. A July 2011 FAO report on the relationship between price volatility and food security reveals that the expanding biofuels market is a major cause of rising prices of food staples.
Aside from driving up agro-commodity prices, increased use of biofuels has also led to what is being termed a ‘land grab’ in Africa. Private energy companies based in the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden are reported to have secured contracts for land in highest risk African countries, in the FSRI, for the production of biofuels. These include: Ethiopia (7), Mozambique (18) and Tanzania (29). China is also reported to have secured contracts to grow palm oil and jatropha in the DR Congo (1) and Zambia (23), as part of its intensified effort to ensure energy security. China’s requested land deal in Zambia elicited fierce criticism from opposition leader Michael Sata in the light of food shortages and high prices following severe flooding and drought in 2008.
Large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries nonetheless present opportunities as well as risks. Increased investment in countries’ agricultural industries can serve to benefit the rural poor by generating employment in the sector, by developing rural infrastructure, as well as by contributing to poverty reduction.
“Responsible investment can lead to development and play an important role in expanding access to sufficient and stable food supplies,” added Alyson Warhurst. “The transfer of technological advances and expertise in agronomy may also help to improve the capacity of the agricultural systems of developing countries to increase production of food crops for both domestic consumption and export markets.”
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