Scary headlines about food shortages are misleading. Here’s why

A wheat kernel during the summer harvest on a farm at sunset.
There are real concerns a combination of climate change, conflict, and post-COVID-19 supply chain problems could lead to an availability issue in the coming years–but we're not there yet.
Andrey Rudakov—Bloomberg/Getty Images

These days, it is almost impossible to avoid news stories about how we are on the brink of a devastating food crisis, how we only have a few weeks’ worth of wheat left, and how getting out some 20 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine could determine the fate of the world’s hungry.

These stories are eye-catching and bound to induce hoarding, panic buying, and beggar-thy-neighbor behavior. They are also inaccurate.

There are three main problems with these headlines.

They conflate access and affordability with availability

We have enough food to feed everyone. Sure, there are concerns over impacts from erratic weather and fallout from this tragic war in Ukraine, but we still have sufficient supplies.

This year’s forecast for cereal production–which includes the staples wheat, maize, and rice–stands at 2,784.5 million tons, a drop from last year’s 2,800 million tons but still higher than the 2018-2020 average of 2,711.4 million tons, according to the United NationsFood and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We are producing more meat and milk this year too.

The issue is access and/or affordability–the main causes of hunger and starvation in today’s world. In many instances, they are a result of political decisions.

“As of today, the world has no global shortage of food, but food is quite expensive and people’s wages have not adjusted yet,” said David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the Washington D.C.-based think tank International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), who has been tracking stock levels.

“The main issue is that we have problems moving this food around, either due to the war or export restrictions. Of course, bad weather and lack of fertilizers could lead to an availability problem next year. But we are not there yet,” he added.

The export figures only tell 24.7% of the story

What is traded internationally is a fraction of total production. Most of the food we produce around the world is consumed locally.

When news stories say Russia and Ukraine jointly account for a third of global wheat supply, that is only part of the picture. Last year, the world produced 776.8 million tonnes of wheat, of which only 192.1 million tonnes (24.7%) were exported. 

Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, pointed out this difference in a Twitter thread that went viral. She did it because “everybody was just whipping themselves up into a frenzy that was disconnected from reality.”

“It is very rare to see any writer actually look up ‘there’s X amount of wheat available for export right now, and Y amount of demand’ before they start hollering that there’s not enough and we’re all gonna die,” Taber noted.

The focus on Ukraine obscures structural problems in our food system

It is much easier to blame Russia for the current food crisis rather than acknowledge how dysfunctional our food systems are. They are unequal, unhealthy, and environmentally destructive. The failure to reform them is the reason we are now experiencing our third major food crisis in 15 years

Current food systems are also highly inefficient. More than a third of the cereals we grow in the world are fed to animals. Raising animals for food takes up approximately 83% of the world’s farmland but accounts for only 18% of global calories.

The World Bank has estimated that for each percentage point increase in food prices, 10 million people are thrown into extreme poverty. The UN has warned that an unprecedented 49 million people are on the verge of starvation.

There are also real concerns a combination of climate change, conflict, and post-COVID-19 supply chain problems could lead to an availability issue in the future.

However, not everyone is suffering. An investigation by Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit European newsroom that I am a part of, found a huge influx of investor cash into specialist agricultural funds, much of it coming from speculators who have little to do with the physical production or distribution of wheat, but see an opportunity to make a quick buck.

This type of speculation, made possible by a history of failures to regulate the markets, is contributing to the food price rises we are seeing all over the world, which are devastating for many poor people, who spend a huge percentage of their incomes on food.

What we now urgently need to do is to make sure the food gets to those who need it but are unable to get it or pay for it and prevent hoarding, excessive speculation, and trade restrictions.

We also should not compromise on efforts to structurally improve our food systems. It is extremely short-sighted to continue polluting our soils and waterways, destroy nature to increase food supply, or prioritize feed over food.

Thin Lei Win is a multimedia journalist specializing in food systems and climate change issues, through her own newsletter Thin Ink, and as a reporter with Lighthouse Reports. She also writes regularly for The New Humanitarian.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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