Food crisis: is a worldwide food shortage imminent?

Jul 14, 2021
Food crisis occurs when rates of hunger and malnutrition rise sharply at local, national, or global levels. In 2020, at least 155 million people in some of the planet’s most fragile regions confronted the threat of food crisis. If current trends continue, the world will be unable to deliver on its commitment to eradicate hunger by 2030.

The world’s worst food crises occur in countries affected by several threats at once: from violent conflicts to climate shocks to economic instability. The COVID-19 pandemic may be tightening the screws still more. According to the Global Network Against Food Crisis, the three worst food crises of 2020 happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and Afghanistan.

‘Food crisis’ is not the same as ‘chronic hunger’ or ‘food instability’, though they’re often interlinked. What makes ‘food crisis’ unique is the rapidity of the worsening situation. Across countries and regions, entire communities may be catapulted from struggling to starving in a matter of months. Ethiopia didn’t appear in the “three worst” for 2020, for instance, yet the UN declared famine for the Tigray Region by June 2021.

This article explains why Canadians should pay attention to food crisis everywhere. You’ll learn where food crisis is happening, what causes it and how a country’s circumstances hasten it along. We’ll explore the impact of food crisis on children. And we’ll investigate the likelihood of a food crisis in Canada.

Help address the global food crisis and eradicate child hunger


Understanding ‘food crisis’

‘Food crisis’ is a situation in which food circumstances drastically worsen within a short period. It gripped at least 155 million people in 2020, with most in just 10 countries. Violent conflict was the key driver, with extreme weather events and economic shocks also playing a role. In 2020, two out of three people facing acute food insecurity lived in Africa.

By the time a food crisis is officially declared in a region, thousands of families have already lost their livelihoods and exhausted their savings. Malnutrition is on the increase. There’s no time left for the global community to consider creative ways to help people build resilience. The world must act quickly to prevent widespread destruction of livelihoods and death.

A young child is checked out at a World Vision Mobile Health Clinic. The band around the child’s arm measures ‘red’ for danger.
In December 2020, the United Nations reported that nearly half of all children younger than five in Afghanistan, about 3.1 million, were facing acute malnutrition. That was a 16% jump since June 2020. Photo: Narges Ghafary

What makes food crises happen so quickly within countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen? Here in Canada, the earliest signs of food shortage would likely trigger effective plans and programs to provide for our country’s people. Why doesn’t that happen everywhere? 

Because in fragile regions, governments, societies, and economies are often in turmoil. People are already spending all they have on food – going without essentials like medicine and livestock upkeep. Food crisis fuels conflict, and vice versa. Even the best-laid national plans can too easily be destroyed by drought or gunfire.

South Sudan food crisis example

In May 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that South Sudan was facing unprecedented levels of food insecurity. A full 55 per cent of the country’s people were at risk of severe, acute food insecurity.

School children in South Sudan line up to wash their hands.
Even before COVID-19, many children in South Sudan relied on school feeding programs for nutrition. Schools opened in the spring of 2021,
after 14 months of lockdown, yet the country is still in a food crisis. Photo: Cecil Laguardia

Large areas of South Sudan fit the official definition of ‘food crisis’, according to the global system used to assess food shortage situations. A tragic, ‘perfect storm’ has meant:
  • violent conflict has forced millions to live on the run, unable to plant grains and vegetables, raise livestock or run their livelihoods,  
  • severe drought has robbed families and communities of crops, income, and community food reserves,
  • lost livelihoods due to COVID-19 have pushed entire families across entire regions to the breaking point of survival.
A nineteen-year-old woman bends to scoop water from a ditch in the middle of a parched landscape.
A teen bride in South Sudan draws water from a make-shift ditch, to do her domestic work. Climate change has parched the landscape, prompting food crisis when crops and livestock die. Photo: Jemima Tumalu

Food insecurity classification: The speed of food crisis onset

When so many factors combine, food crisis can descend in a matter of just months. Here’s how a food crisis might look for communities, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system:

Phase 1 – Stable

Within communities, most families can meet essential food needs, along with non-food needs like medicine and house repairs. They are relatively self-sufficient at this stage. In the world’s most fragile regions, millions of people haven’t enjoyed this kind of stability for generations.

Phase 2 – Stressed

Many families have the minimum in food staples but may not be able to afford essentials like medicine, shelter repairs, school fees or the upkeep of livestock. Some are already selling their more disposable assets. In countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan and Venezuela, millions of families were already at the ‘Stressed’ or even ‘Crisis’ phase when COVID-19 hit.

Phase 3 – Crisis                                                                 

The UN declares a food crisis. In large areas of a country, families are making decisions which affect their ability to feed their families. Acute malnutrition begins to increase. Families often sell essential livelihood assets like oxen or sewing machines. Some might consider marriage for their daughters. Members of a family may migrate, in search of food or work.

In 2020, just 10 countries/territories accounted for two-thirds of the 155 million people in crisis or worse. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone had nearly 22 million, Yemen and Afghanistan, more than 13 million each.

Phase 4 – Emergency

In most communities within a country, families’ access to food is so drastically compromised that acute malnutrition soars. Deaths from malnutrition-related illness increase. Often, food can be acquired only through drastic measures like selling property, entering prostitution or selling a daughter into marriage.

In 2020, just seven countries accounted for 75 per cent of the global total number in the Emergency category. Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Haiti and Zimbabwe each had 1 million people or more in this phase.
In Yemen, an adolescent girl shows a document to an aid worker who is wearing a mask.
In a food crisis, the dowry parents can receive for a daughter, can keep other children alive. In Yemen, years of civil war have pushed
millions into severe malnourishment. This increases the temptation to marry off a young daughter. Photo: Elise Nalbandian

Phase 5 – Catastrophe/Famine

In most of the country, families are out of options. Though people have taken every measure they can to raise funds or secure food, there is a total lack of food. Starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.

By June 2021, an estimated 350 thousand people in the Tigray region of Ethiopia alone were facing famine. They needed urgent action to prevent widespread death and total collapse of livelihoods. *

* For Famine classification, an entire area needs to have extreme critical levels of acute malnutrition and mortality. Read what a Famine is and the steps involved with declaring one. 

Food crisis around the world

Of the 55 food crises identified in 2020, 10 stood out in terms of the number of people affected. Here are the countries/territories with the highest number of people in food crisis (Phase 3 in the classification system we introduced earlier) or worse:
  1. Democratic Republic of Congo – 21.8 million people *
  2. Yemen – 13.5 million people
  3. Afghanistan – 13.2 million people
  4. Syrian Arab Republic – 12.5 million people
  5. Sudan – 9.6 million people
  6. Nigeria – 9.2 million people
  7. Ethiopia – 8.6 million people
  8. South Sudan – 6.5 million people
  9. Zimbabwe – 4.3 million people
  10. Haiti – 4.1 million people
*The numbers listed above are reflective only of the percentage of the country’s population that could be analysed in 2020. For the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, that was only 33 per cent.
It’s often hard to get a complete, timely picture of unfolding food crisis amidst disasters like drought or conflict. Data collection becomes low priority when people are struggling for survival. Many affected regions are remote, in countries with limited infrastructure. And food crisis develops so quickly, numbers can change drastically from one month to the next.
A mother in Honduras opens the door to a World Vision worker who is carrying a bag of seeds.
COVID-19 just increases the risk of food crisis in fragile regions in Honduras. World Vision teams have been delivering aid to people’s homes, to prevent the worst from happening. Photo: Katherine Bustamante

Available data gives a chilling sense of what’s happening in other regions of a country. If a community is unreachable due to violent conflict, it’s highly unlikely that families there are enjoying a stable food supply. The Global Network Against Food Crises analyzes data in current and emerging food shortage situations. According to their 2020 Global Report on Food Crisis:
  • people in 55 countries/territories were experiencing food crisis or worse in 2020 – a remarkably high number of people and level of severity,
  • these food crises were driven by persistent conflict, pre-existing and COVID-19-related economic shocks, and weather extremes,
  • the number of affected countries/territories identified in the 2020 was the highest in the report’s five-year existence,
  • forecasts pointed to a grim outlook for 2021, with the threat of famine persisting in some of the world’s worst food crises.

How food crisis hurts children and women

Food crisis affects people of every age, but children are often the most vulnerable of all. According to UNICEF, more than half of the world’s children experiencing malnutrition and its lifelong impacts are living in countries affected by food crisis.

Nutrition-related factors contribute to about 45 per cent of deaths in children under five. For children who  survive food crisis, the lack of nutrition they experienced during key childhood development windows can mean a lifetime of struggle. In these countries, one of every two children is stunted, physically, developmentally, or both.

A large family group in Mali sits together on the ground, in a refugee camp setting.
In many regions, women and girls are expected to eat last, least and of poorer quality food. This leaves them more vulnerable in a food crisis. Photo: Porimpe Isaac Sogoba

A few other ways food crisis can devastate children’s futures:
  • Children can lose a parent or caregiver to malnutrition or illness, increasing poverty within the family. In this case, children are often called on to assume adult roles, dropping out of school to work or raise younger siblings.
  • Children’s families can be forced to migrate in search of work or food, cutting off children from community support and protection.
  • Children can be sent out to work, to help put food on the table. Often, they are drastically underpaid to do work that’s degrading or very dangerous. Having left school, it’s often impossible to catch up, affecting a child’s prospects for a lifetime.
  • Girls can be forced into early marriage for a dowry, to help feed her other family members. COVID-19 has exacerbated this tragic situation. Child brides can face a lifetime of abuse and poverty, as well as the threat of death from early childbirth.
An aid worker wearing a mask indicates the need for physical distancing in a long lineup of women wearing black head coverings and garments.
In Yemen, women and children line up to collect emergency assistance. Despite ongoing humanitarian assistance, more than 16 million people there are food insecure. Photo: Elise Nalbandian

Women and girls in food crisis                                                  

Women and girls are more likely to be hurt by food shortage as they experience hunger and malnutrition disproportionately. In many regions a woman or girl is often expected to eat last, least and poorer-quality food – and that’s when food is available. Imagine how this plays out when food is scant.

Fighting back against food crisis

Canada is working to eradicate food insecurity crises through its own programs and policies, and in partnership with other nations. Our country joins with groups like World Vision to improve food security, reducing the likelihood of food crisis wherever and whenever possible. When it does occur, countries and organizations link arms, acting swiftly and decisively to help save lives.

Our World Food Programme partnership

World Vision works closely with the World Food Programme (WFP) to bring emergency food to communities facing food crisis. We distribute more food for the WFP than any other organization, often in remote or dangerous regions. In 2020 alone, World Vision reached more than 12 million people in 29 countries with food from the WFP. Of those recipients, nearly 60 per cent were children.

In Afghanistan, women wait with their identification cards for cash assistance to buy food.
Each year, World Vision works with the World Food Programme to provide food and cash assistance to millions of the world’s must vulnerable families. Photo: Mohammad Elias Hatimi

Global partnerships to prevent food crisis

All United Nations member states – including Canada – have committed to transforming food systems to transform our world. Ensuring this happens is a worthy end unto itself. But few of the goals in the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be met without also:
  • ending hunger and malnutrition,
  • having sustainable and resilient, climate-compatible agriculture and food systems,
  • creating food systems that are good for both people and the planet.
Goals like “No Poverty”, “Good Health and Wellbeing” and “Gender Equality” are intertwined with universal food security. Not only does access to nutritious food help empower women, for instance, their empowerment can help improve food security for an entire community.

In South Sudan a woman in red shows off the huge green leafy vegetables she has grown.
In South Sudan, Akech is a mother and leader of the Hadic Farmers Group. She has inspired more women to join farming, learning new techniques for better, more climate-friendly yield. This gives women greater earning power and a greater say in how income is used in the household. Photo: Cecil Laguardia

Canada’s response to food crisis

Global Affairs Canada partners with organizations like World Vision to fund programs for nutrition, food security and emergency food responses in countries around the world.

In addition, our country advocates on the global stage. Canada will be attending the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, ready to help identify solutions to the current global food crisis.

“COVID-19 has laid bare the risks and vulnerabilities in our food system,” said Karina Gould, minister of international development. “But it is also an opportunity to do things better. We need to find and amplify new ways to increase food productivity, reduce waste, raise incomes equitably and improve health and nutrition.

“It is also time to re-examine how to ensure that our food system stays sustainable and supports biodiversity … Canada looks forward to contributing to this summit and to building more-resilient food systems both at home and abroad.”

How Canadians are helping combat food insecurity

Canadian organizations like Food for Famine donate gifts in kind to groups like World Vision, helping children who are severely malnourished make a full recovery. Individual Canadians help by:
  • donating during emergency appeals,
  • sponsoring children overseas to strengthen food security in their communities,
  • supporting our Raw Hope initiative, to strengthen children in the world’s toughest places,
  • by giving a nutrition gift in honour of a friend or family member, through our Gift Catalogue.

young boy wearing a green outfit tend to a baby goat feeding off its mom’s milk.
In Kenya, the gift of goats can provide families with nutritious milk and cheese to enjoy and sell for income. Proceeds can help pay for medicine, home repairs and school fees. Photo: Zipporah Kageha Karani

Should Canada fear a food crisis?

It’s imperative that we Canadians pay attention to food crisis in the news. And not just because we care about the millions of families suffering there.

Not even wealthy countries are immune to the possibility of food crisis in the future. A worldwide food crisis is possible if certain trends (e.g., climate change and population growth) continue and key global goals remain unmet.

But today, Canada is a long way from experiencing ‘food crisis’ according to the official definition. We have strong social programs and trade networks, as well as an infrastructure that allows us to move food around the country. Our population doesn’t face the same violent conflict, economic chaos and climate change impact as millions of the world’s people.

That said, affordable and nutritious food is often an ongoing struggle for some families in Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. For example:  In December 2020, Canada’s government announced an additional $100 million in funding to food banks and food security organizations, to help Canadians through food shortages related to the COVID-19 pandemic.