Russia’s war against Ukraine should trigger structural solutions to food insecurity

The emerging food crisis is widely presented as an effect of Russia’s war against Ukraine, but its key causes predate the conflict. It brings many threats to Africa, but also the opportunity to turn the high political attention and promised funding into policies and investments that address the structural obstacles to food and nutrition security in Africa. An excessive focus on emergency measures would not make food systems more resilient – and exactly that is fundamental to reducing the likelihood of new crises.

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    Several medium- and long-term factors within and outside Africa are responsible for the high level of food and nutrition insecurity on the continent. Examples are low agricultural productivity, barriers to intra-regional food trade, inadequate physical and financial infrastructures, dependency on global markets (including for agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and seeds), local conflicts and weak policies (for instance those focused on supporting export cash crops).

    The effects of the war in Ukraine aggravate the levels of food insecurity and poverty in Africa, but these had been already worsening for several years due to the negative impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Food price hikes and concerns over food being used as a weapon are now triggering unprecedented political attention to global food security issues as well as funding commitments and announcements, both in Africa and elsewhere. Some African governments have introduced or increased food subsidies. The African Development Bank, for example, just launched a $1.5 billion African Emergency Food Production Facility to provide African farmers with fertilisers and certified seeds for some cereal crops.

    Development partners are also launching new initiatives, or reallocating existing resources. For instance, in May, the World Bank announced $30 billion in existing and new projects to help respond to the global food crisis. The EU is preparing a €600 million package, in addition to bilateral and multilateral initiatives (such as the Global Alliance for Food Security, led by the G7 under the German Presidency).

    The risks of short-termism

    Although we don’t know the operational details of these initiatives and resources yet, the risk is that they will be devoted only to emergency measures and quick fixes that do not address structural issues. But panic is never a good advisor, and data suggests that the immediate direct impacts of the conflict on Africa as a whole may be overstated – even if increasing international prices of fertilisers and specific commodities will affect those few countries that import high volumes of wheat, such as Egypt.

    Short-termism will likely result in a situation in which the majority of those promised funds is used for subsidising food imports and fertilisers in every country, which has negative consequences for longer-term resilience and sustainability. This will not only disrupt local markets, but growth in imports of low-cost and high-calorie foods could perpetuate patterns of dependence on those same imports, and deteriorate the quality of diets.

    Inefficient or excessive use of chemical fertilisers can pollute water and the atmosphere, and aggravate an already dramatic situation of soil degradation. Moreover, given current market powers and structures, the direct beneficiaries of subsidised chemical fertilisers and certified seeds are likely to be foreign companies, large importers and distributors, rather than the thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises that, if assisted, could create millions of jobs in Africa.

    Five opportunities for structural solutions

    The alternative scenario is to use the current global political attention and funding pledges to promote medium- and long-term interventions that address structural obstacles to food and nutrition security.

    This does not exclude short-term subsidies for key commodity imports or fertilisers to deal with rising prices in specific African countries, nor other emergency measures to address extreme hunger situations. But the focus should always be on policies and investments to tackle the bottlenecks that existed well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This includes making local and national food systems more socially and environmentally sustainable, which is also the only way to increase their resilience to external shocks of this kind.

    There are important opportunities to address the structural bottlenecks to food and nutrition security and food systems resilience in Africa that are emerging from the current crisis.

    1. The volumes of intra-African food trade should be substantially increased and import dependency from other parts of the world should be reduced, including through policies and investments for regional value chain development.

    2. Food production and consumption should be diversified in every country, towards less dependence on few grains and staple crops and towards diets based on more nutritious foods – which in itself is also a strategy to adapt to climate change by reducing the risks of crop failure.

    3. National and regional fertiliser industries should be created, and more investment in greener and organic fertilisers and more efficient fertiliser use is needed.

    4. Social protection and safety nets for food-insecure households should become a pillar of national development plans.

    5. The current political attention and pressure on these issues should be used to hold national policymakers and international partners accountable for their commitments and announcements. For example, there have been numerous statements by the AU and the EU – as well as from both unions jointly – on increasing intra-African food trade, but we’ve seen little concrete action.

    Getting it right

    Making use of these opportunities requires innovations both at the policy and the financial level. Policies, and the processes to design them, should avoid the mistakes of the past and directly target the development of socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture and food systems.

    Agricultural input policies, for instance, should be designed with smallholder farmers, which represent the vast majority of farmers in Africa. These policies should serve smallholder farmers’ specific input requirements, without excluding support for organic fertilisers, and avoiding restrictive laws against farmer-saved seeds that benefit certified seeds companies.

    Moreover, the current discussions on international support to tackle inflationary effects of rising commodity prices should also contribute to repurposing current food subsidies, many of which have serious negative social and environmental effects.

    At the financial level, the scale of these food security and food systems challenges requires substantial investments by local and international private financial markets, well beyond public resources and aid. Significantly increasing funds to address structural bottlenecks requires approaches and instruments to mobilise finance at scale (under concessionary terms to avoid contributing to the spiralling debt crisis in most low-income countries).

    Africa and its partners, like the EU, should push for using several finance mechanisms to address the food crisis in a coordinated way, such as the reallocation of the $650 billion Special Drawing Rights to the most vulnerable countries, public-private initiatives, cooperation with financial markets and institutional financiers, the issuance of sustainability bonds, and blended finance mechanisms (such as guarantees by public development banks). The latter are particularly important to reduce the risk of investing in agriculture and support access to finance by smallholders and micro and small agribusinesses.

    The deterioration of food and nutrition insecurity is not inevitable. Africa and its partners need to grasp the opportunities presented by the increased global attention to food insecurity, to act now for the benefit of structural solutions, avoiding short-termism and implementing the right policies and investments to build resilience against future shocks.

    The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM. 

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