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Food Insecurity Could Be the Next Major Global Crisis

What’s happening?

This week, a leading global health figure has warned that growing food insecurity could pose a global threat comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Peter Sands—executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—food shortages not only increase the global risk of starvation but also cause widespread malnutrition. This puts even larger populations at a greater risk for disease, which would compound the threat of further disease outbreaks.

The Russia-Ukraine war, pandemic recovery, supply chain issues, climate change, and increased inflation are all contributing to the rise of global food insecurity.

Combined, Russia and Ukraine provide about 30% of the world’s wheat and 55% of its sunflower oil supplies. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 50 countries rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least 30% of their wheat imports. 

These key food sources are being blocked by Russia at Ukraine’s Black Sea and Azov sea ports. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, has accused Russia of hoarding food exports to drive global prices and leverage political support.

Russia is also the world’s top nitrogen fertilizer supplier, the second leading potassium supplier, and the third-largest phosphorous fertilizer supplier. 

The FAO, which records global commodity prices, shows global food prices at record highs in 2022.

Image courtesy of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

What’s the impact?

The UN World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley has called the impact of global food security “beyond anything we’ve seen since World War II.”

The most obvious impact is on developing countries, which are likely to see increased levels of malnutrition, famine, and starvation for years to come. The number of people facing acute food insecurity has already doubled since 2019 before the pandemic started. Middle-income countries are also at high risk, having exhausted their resources to cope with the pandemic. This includes countries like Egypt, Brazil, and Tunisia.

Sanctions on Russian fertilizer exports have also increased global fertilizer costs. This could have a significant impact on future harvests in countries that rely heavily on agriculture, like the United States.

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Another outcome is an increased risk of political upheaval, social instability, and conflict. This has already been observed in Sri Lanka, which saw a political crisis as basic goods shortages and power cuts motivated widespread protests.

Experts are citing events like the Arab spring revolts as a potential consequence of food insecurity in countries like Egypt, which imported 80% of its grain from Russia and Ukraine in 2021. Iran, which is also facing tough sanctions from the US, has seen violent protests related to food prices in recent weeks.

A recent report has put middle-income countries at the highest risk for civil unrest. The report also names 10 countries worth monitoring for destabilizing unrest in 2022: Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Senegal, Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

How Can OSINT Help?

To support national security interests, governments need to monitor regions of interest for signs of escalating civil unrest as global food insecurity spreads. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) helps intelligence agencies understand and make more effective decisions in response to quickly evolving political situations.

Public data sources like social media can also provide insights not available through classified sources—like on-the-ground events and broader trends and public sentiment in countries most affected by food shortages. Social media sources that are popular in regions of interest can also give a more nuanced perspective of the information environment there.

To learn more about OSINT for geopolitical monitoring, read our solutions overview.