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War-fueled food inflation will cause social unrest, UN official says

<i>Adrien Fillon/NurPhoto/Getty Images</i><br/>War-fueled food inflation will cause social unrest
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Adrien Fillon/NurPhoto/Getty Images
War-fueled food inflation will cause social unrest

By Matt Egan, CNN Business

A perfect storm of war, extreme weather and Covid-19 will drive global food prices to levels that will cause social unrest in some parts of the world, according to David Beasley, head of the United Nations World Food Programme.

“If people can’t feed their children and their families, then the politics unsettles,” Beasley told CNN during a conference on Thursday.

Hit by high prices and supply disruptions, Beasley said the UN has been forced to ration food supplies to millions of people around the world.

Often, that means diverting food away from hungry children to feed starving children.

“If we’re not there with a safety net program, then the political extremists or whatever the case may be, will exploit that,” Beasley said during the SABEW Conference in New York. “Next thing you know, you’ve got riots, famine, destabilization and then mass migration by necessity.”

Food prices are the main problem this year, but Beasley fears next year there will be a food availability crisis, for a variety of reasons including the war in Ukraine.

“In 2023, you’re going to have a food shortage problem,” Beasley said.

Social unrest

Meanwhile, the impact of high food prices will be felt around the world, although in different ways.

“In the United States, some people might buy less Netflix, but you have enough money to buy the food you need,” Beasley said. “It’s going to be tough on people, but nothing compared to Chad, Mali and Ethiopia.”

Beasley said societal impact will likewise vary.

“You’re seeing it happen in the United States, a wealthy nation, with inflation and families at the grocery store buying milk at higher prices. So can you imagine what the heck is happening in places like Chad, Malawi and DRC,” Beasley said, referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He pointed to recent protests in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Beasley noted that both the war in Syria and the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 were preceded by food price spikes and supply issues. And he argued that some economic metrics are already significantly worse than before the Arab Spring.

‘Much worse than you think’

Heading into January, the UN worried that 2022 would mark the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

And then Russia invaded Ukraine, the world’s breadbasket. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading exporters of corn, wheat, barley and sunflower oil.

Beasley estimates that under normal circumstances, Ukraine’s farmers grow enough food to feed about 400 million people. “That’s pretty much going to be out of the equation for many, many months,” he said.

Not only are some of Ukraine’s critical Black Sea ports blocked by Russia, preventing vital exports from going overseas, but the country’s farmers find themselves on the frontlines of the war, instead of tending to their crops.

“It’s going to be much worse than you think,” Beasley said.

Can billionaires do more to help?

As of about five years ago, roughly 80 million people around the world were “marching toward starvation,” as Beasley put it. But that number spiked to 135 million before Covid-19 erupted, largely due to conflict and extreme weather, he said.

Now, a staggering 276 million people are at that critical level, including nearly 49 million people in 43 countries that are on the brink of famine, according to the UN.

These sobering statistics prompted Beasley to urge the world’s billionaires to do more.

“We have a one-time crisis, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “You’re putting rockets up in space, you’ve got incredible technologies and mindsets. Let’s solve the hunger problem for countries around the world. It’s doable.”

Beasley noted that at the height of Covid, the average net worth increase of the world’s billionaires stood at $5.2 billion — per day.

“I just need two days of your net worth increase,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”

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