Food emergencies and responses
Disasters such as drought, flooding, hurricanes and earthquakes can destroy crops and create food shortages, but this does not lead to a hunger crisis if governments and aid agencies intervene in time.
For example, since independence India has been successful at preventing famines, even though the country has experienced many substantial crop failures, often covering large areas and sometimes causing sharp drops in the amount of food available nationally.
On the other hand, famines have occurred in Asia and Africa without a large drop in food production and availability. Sometimes a famine has even coincided with a peak in food production, as in the Bangladesh famine of 1974, in which as many as 1.5 million people may have died.
Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued that the Bangladesh famine was caused by a spike in food prices due to flooding coinciding with a fall in work opportunities for agricultural workers. That created a situation where many starved because they were unable to afford the food that was available.
Food emergencies usually result from years of stresses that gradually tip into crisis unless governments and aid agencies intervene.
It often takes several failed harvests before farmers run out of ways to cope, although the situation can be more sudden for people who lose their livelihoods in a particular region, with no means of finding work. This can happen when a sector fails, or when war forces people to flee their homes and land.
Often a food crisis affects only certain groups – not the entire population in a particular region.
Governments are extremely reluctant to call a food crisis a "famine", because it implies they have failed to stop a food shortage from turning into a major humanitarian crisis.
Similarly, aid agencies tend to avoid the f-word, either because they are dependent on the state for access to the vulnerable communities, or because it implies they too have failed in their response to the food shortages.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines famine as more than two people per 10,000 dying every day (see p. 32). This is based on FAO's Integrated Food Security Phase Classification which has been adapted and adopted by several international agencies and supported by several governments. See the User Guide for more.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has described famine as a catastrophic food crisis that results in widespread acute malnutrition and mass mortality. It is a process, rather than an event, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
When the TV cameras pitch up during a food emergency, their images of people at feeding centres don't tell the full story.
The same people who walk to feeding centres have spent months, even years, living with food shortages and have exhausted all their coping strategies.
Early coping mechanisms include eating seeds and selling livestock, jewellery and furniture. Men migrate in search of work and communities fall back on their cereal banks.
Some take out loans, and most cut back on their food intake and eat more wild foods. Many families are forced to pull their children out of school – to save on school costs or so kids can work – and spend less on healthcare.
If the shortages continue for several years, families may be forced to sell their tools, home and land.
Initial food aid is usually provided by the government, often from its own strategic stores. Aid agencies may already be working among the most vulnerable groups or may be invited in.
The world's largest food aid distributor is the U.N. World Food Programme, based in Rome.
Funded mainly by donor governments and in part by private donations, it distributes food by aircraft, truck and pack animal in hunger spots around the world. Actual distribution on the ground is usually done in conjunction with partner agencies, usually local or international aid groups.
WFP buys its food locally as much as possible to reduce transport costs and help boost the local economy. The United States is the largest donor to WFP, supplying half of global food aid. Under U.S. legislation almost all U.S. food aid must be bought in the United States and shipped on U.S. vessels. This is called “in-kind” aid. In April 2013, the U.S. administration proposed sweeping changes to curb the practice of supplying in-kind aid.
Food is sometimes distributed as part of "food for work" schemes or through school feeding programmes that are also intended to keep children in school.
Some international aid agencies also distribute their own food, while donor governments sometimes organise food aid shipments directly to countries in need.
Although imported food is sometimes necessary – such as when massive floods destroyed crops in Pakistan in 2010 – it can distort local markets, lead to dependence, it’s expensive to transport and store, and sometimes arrives rotten after a long voyage, experts say.
Increasingly aid agencies are distributing cash or food vouchers instead of food. They are cheaper and faster to distribute, boost local traders and farmers, and give people greater choice over what they can eat.
New methods have been developed to deliver cash and vouchers. The Pakistan government gave flood survivors pre-paid cards and a pin number that they could use in the nearest ATM. The World Food Programme sends people e-vouchers via their mobile phones. Some aid agencies use electronic smart cards that they can top up and they can track how the money is spent.
For more, see AlertNet's Food aid - how does it work?
While some disasters such as floods or wars can create food shortages almost overnight, the onset of food crises is usually slower and much more predictable.
For example, warning signs of the impending Horn of Africa food crisis of 2011 – which killed thousands and affected millions of people – began as early as August 2010. A U.N. appeal was launched in November that year.
But humanitarian funding was only drastically increased in June and July 2011 after the annual May rains had failed and significant media and public attention began. By then, people were already dying and many had lost their livelihoods, according to a report by aid agency Oxfam.
Aid agencies would much rather get funding in place well before a food crisis. This saves lives, people’s livelihoods and aid costs.
A lot of effort has therefore been put into developing early warning systems such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), funded by USAID.
In drought-prone areas, food aid often kicks in only when farmers have sold their animals and eaten their seeds and have nothing left to fall back on. This forces them deeper into poverty and makes them even more vulnerable to the following crisis.
Insurance schemes are being piloted to try to address this.
In Ethiopia, which has a history of severe food crises, agencies have established a scheme that gives farmers payouts when rains fail, well before they have exhausted their coping strategies.
A similar insurance scheme has been established in Haiti to help small-scale entrepreneurs in the event of a hurricane, flood or earthquake.
In both cases, aid agencies pay at least part of a monthly premium to insurance companies on behalf of the farmer or entrepreneur.
WFP and the African Union have set up the African Risk Capacity insurance scheme that aims to give participating governments payouts when extreme drought, flood or cyclones strike, and reduce their reliance on international aid.
Most aid agencies including WFP say the long-term aim should be to reduce dependence on food aid both through sustainable agricultural development and reducing poverty.
The debate on the best way of boosting agricultural output and avoiding food crises is never-ending, but experts say more resilient seed types, more appropriate crops, better irrigation and business planning all have a role to play.
Most of the world's worst famines in the last century took place not in Africa – as is widely believed – but the Soviet Union and Asia, including China and India. Both India and China have since largely avoided serious food crises – although not chronic malnutrition.
Experts attribute that to better planning and agricultural techniques as well as strong overall economic growth. But while India has avoided famine and produces ample food, it still has one of the largest populations of undernourished people in the world.
Experts are divided over the best ways of improving agriculture in Africa. Some say improved fertiliser and seeds – including genetically modified types – are the answer, while others favour lower tech solutions. Agricultural experts offer a string of specific farming techniques for specific regions aimed at reducing soil erosion or water loss.
To track the latest food emergencies and developing crises around the world, visit FEWS NET.
Another useful tracking agency is the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems. It gives a country-by-country round-up of national monitoring systems and useful links. The website also has some useful background papers on food issues, in its publications section.
The U.N. World Food Programme website gives a country-by-country overview of the food situation, WFP's activities and a local WFP contact, as well as plenty of global facts and figures. Several websites have excellent food-related maps.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a huge amount of information on every aspect of food production and agriculture, including its Global Information and Early Warning System on food and agriculture (GIEWS). FAO also produces annual reports on food security, to monitor progress on food and agriculture.
FAO's Locust watch monitors outbreaks of locusts, and produces situation reports, maps and useful backgrounders. It also has some locust recipes.
For a widely-recognised definition of famine and food crises, called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, see this User Guide.
Another U.N. agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) works to boost food production and ease rural poverty by improving poor peoples' access to financial services, markets, technology, land and other natural resources.
For in-depth research on hunger-related issues, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) runs a comprehensive website and produces a Global Hunger Index, listing countries according to levels of hunger.
The Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index looks at developing countries' political will to address hunger. It's produced by the Institute of Development Studies.
For in-depth research on the impact of humanitarian interventions, visit the Emergency Nutrition Network site.
And for a look at possible solutions to hunger, see AlertNet's hunger special report