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Humanity is staring at a food crisis like never before. That’s why world leaders are scrambling to head off a catastrophe with two meetings at the United Nations, aiming to lay out an action plan.

Food insecurity is not new. It has been a reality for the poor in low-income and developing countries since conflicts, adverse climate patterns and the rising cost of fertilisers impact food production and supply. The Covid-19 pandemic made a bad situation worse, and the Russia-Ukraine war pushed the world into a hunger crisis.

The warring nations account for 30 per cent of the world’s wheat and barley production, while Ukraine also produces 15 per cent of corn on Earth and takes care of half the sunflower oil requirements globally. The conflict has unhinged the world food supply chain and crippled the food imports of 36 countries, including some of the poorest.

There was a sliver of hope when India vowed to release wheat stocks on the world market. But New Delhi soon announced an export ban after the heatwaves hampered domestic crop production and pushed prices higher.

Before the Ukraine war, a record 193 million people went hungry in 2021, a jump of almost 40 million over the previous year, according to the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises.

UN projections expect 232 million people to starve in 81 nations where it runs the World Food Programme, a steep increase of 47 million. The grim statistics are a stain on the world since the quantum jump in technology and agricultural practices should have helped provide ample reserves.

But the reality is different. World food markets are highly concentrated: 86 per cent of wheat exports come from seven countries, and 68 per cent of the world’s wheat reserves are held in three countries. That means any supply disruption, like a conflict, can have devastating consequences.

The food crisis is a wake-up call. The world should rally to put in place mechanisms to prevent the disruption of the food supply. That includes changes in agricultural and energy policies to empower small scale producers, besides improving distribution systems.

Sustained funding too is required to prevent and respond to food insecurity. Or else, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ warning that malnutrition, mass hunger and famine could last for years will become an unwelcome reality.