Like most Australians, over the past three years, I’ve walked through supermarket aisles that are missing many of the staples I often take for granted. It’s an unsettling experience because it’s so unfamiliar – in a major food-producing country like ours, I’m used to food being available when I need it.
There are lots of elements in our food system that affect whether something as simple as lettuce is available to us.
Over the past five years, record-breaking periods of drought, rain and flood have impacted our food supply. Some of these come from the cyclical nature of seasons, but things have been turbo-charged by the ways we have failed to live out our mandate to steward the earth.
That’s not all. As we’ve faced the challenges of COVID, we’ve seen how important a resilient transport and logistics network is for food distribution. The horror of the conflict in Ukraine has also shown us how far-off events drive up fuel prices and, consequently, the cost of food.
The reality is that nourishing an entire population, from children to the elderly, involves much more than growing enough food.
A global food crisis
This is why, right now, many people around the world are hungry. As of mid-2022, the United Nations estimates that 49 million people in 20 hotspots are at high risk of experiencing catastrophic famine. Almost 200 million are at some stage of a food crisis that requires an urgent response.
To be clear, when we say famine, we’re not talking about missing a meal or two. ‘Famine’ is the highest level on the international classification system for food crises. It means one in five households faces an extreme lack of food and other needs, more than 30 per cent of children suffer from acute malnutrition, and at least two in every 10,000 people die every day from starvation.
Yet, like our empty supermarket shelves, the drivers of famine risk are not as simple as a shortage of food. The same La Nina climate patterns that brought flooding to Australia’s east coast are also having an impact globally, although it’s often the opposite. In parts of East Africa, rainfall is up to 60 per cent below average; some countries in Southern Africa are facing their fifth consecutive year of drought.
Conflict in Ukraine has halted the export of grains and fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia. Both countries had been among the top exporters in the world, responsible for 30 per cent of the world’s wheat exports. In March 2022, this caused food prices to skyrocket to 30 per cent higher than 12 months earlier.
We all face these global challenges, but as shown by the famine risk in countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan, we don’t all have the same resources to draw on in response.
Famine is not a new story
The realities of famine are not new but regular – and influential – characters in the Old Testament. In Genesis, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all moved to new countries driven by famine. Ruth and Naomi embarked on their famine-induced migration. The books of Samuel and Kings record famines, and the motif is never far away from the writings of the Psalmists and prophets.
In the Bible, as in our contemporary experience, starvation is not a result of scarcity but the way societies distribute food. In Genesis, the wider Mesopotamian and Egyptian regions had sufficient food to feed everyone, yet the social and power dynamics meant Abraham, Sarah and their children had to fight to access food.
Shaped by these experiences and in response to the way of living that God laid out for them, the Israelites developed a culture of hospitality towards the vulnerable stranger in their midst and a comprehensive set of economic practices to ensure no one was excluded from access to food and the basics of survival.
As Christians, what is our response to the threat of famine today?
Together with leading Australian international development agencies, we at Baptist World Aid are launching Help Fight Famine, a campaign to advocate for the 49 million people around the world facing this catastrophe.
Like the people of Israel in the Old Testament, we have an opportunity to live out our faith – to let our recent experience of the fragility of our foods systems flow into a social ethic of concern and justice.
Together, we can respond in two ways:
1. Ensure emergency food and fertiliser supplies reach hotspots as quickly as possible.
People facing famine need immediate support to avoid starvation and having to make choices that drive them further into chronic poverty – such as selling their assets, removing children from education so they can work or be married early, or migrating for survival.
2. Support countries’ long-term food security through growing development assistance.
To build resilience against future food shocks that could come from conflict or climate and environmental crises, we can support countries as they build resilient local food systems adapted to changing seasonal and climatic conditions. This means they will be less dependent on imports for resources such as food, seeds, and fertilisers.
Help Fight Famine addresses both priorities, calling on the Australian government to provide an immediate $150 million Famine Prevention Package to help avert catastrophe while developing and investing in a long-term Global Food Security Strategy through rebuilding Australian aid to our region and globally.
Join the campaign by emailing your Member of Parliament using the form here. Ask our government to respond swiftly to the global threat of famine. For more information on the Help Fight Famine campaign, click here).
Peter Keegan is the Director of Advocacy at Baptist World Aid Australia in Sydney.