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William Moseley: Understanding Global Food Security

Dr. William Moseley is a human-environment and development geographer whose courses include: Introduction to Human Geography; Humans, Agriculture, and the Environment; Africa; Development and Underdevelopment; and Advanced Seminar in Environmental and Development Studies.

His research interests lie in political ecology, tropical agriculture, environmental and development policies, and livelihood security. He also has a decade of practical experience in the field of international development, having worked as a project manager and policy analyst for organizations such as Save the Children UK, the Environment Department of the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Peace Corps.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues to affect the economies and resource security of countries around the world. In an article co-authored by Dr. Moseley and other scholars, titled "The impacts on global food security and nutrition of the military conflict in Ukraine," he highlights a range of issues caused by the military conflict, including considerable disruptions in global trade, and increases and fluctuations in food prices. As the conflict remains unresolved, SPCIS has interviewed Dr. Moseley to understand whether the conflict continues to cast a shadow over global trade, food prices, and overall food security. Additionally, they have asked him to share his views and recommendations on a globally coordinated policy response to the current humanitarian crisis.

Understanding Global Food Security amidst Conflict and the Need for a Decentralized System

Thank you for asking for an update to The impacts on global food security and nutrition of the military conflict in Ukraine, a policy brief of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) that I helped co-write. Here I respond in my personal capacity and not in my role as a steering committee member of the HLPE-FSN.

The food price situation is better now than it was at the start of the war in Ukraine when global food prices hit an all-time high in February-March 2022. More specifically, the FAO Food Price Index averaged 124.3 points in May 2023, which is down 2.6 percent from the previous month and down by 22.1 percent from the all-time high in March 2022. Although prices have dropped, they remain higher than prices in 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. High global food prices are a contributing factor, along with conflict and adverse weather conditions, to high levels of global food insecurity. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), some 345 million people in the world face acute food insecurity today. This compares to 258 million in 2022, 193 million in 2021 and 113 million before the COVID pandemic in 2018.

The global food system is like a massive ocean vessel that takes time to redirect. The war in Ukraine, coupled with the COVID-19 related supply chain disruptions, has definitely started a conversation about the need to build a global food system that is not so dependent on trade and a few major global bread baskets. As such, many national governments are reprioritizing food production at home and price sensitive consumers are adjusting their diets as imported grains become more expensive. For example, bread consumption in many West African cities declined as the cost of wheat flour went up.

While the global food system is beginning to change, much of it remains the same. Interestingly, Russia has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of declining Ukrainian grain exports (Ukrainian wheat exports declined 37% last year). Russia had a record 43 million tons of wheat exports in 2022-23. Other areas of the world, namely North and South America, have also been increasing exports as those from Ukraine declined. However, the countries hardest hit by the war in Ukraine continue to be those that were most dependent on its grain exports, namely several countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, the resulting price increases have fallen hardest on the poorest of the poor.

The international community is in a state of paralysis right now over how to respond to the global food crisis for two reasons. The first reason is that part of the current food crisis is linked to the war in Ukraine. As such, any attempt to resolve problems related to food exports from the Black Sea region, such as the negotiations related to the Black Sea Grain Deal and subsequent renewals, are highly politicized and viewed through a prism of one side versus the other. This tension over the war also plays out in other international fora and often paralyzes discussions about efforts to address the food crisis in the short term.

The other big reason for paralysis is more of a philosophical disagreement on how best to move forward following this food crisis. On one side, many of the major grain exporting countries and conventional food security thinkers would like to return to the status quo situation after the crisis, namely a global food system that is based on a few major grain producers using energy intensive farming methods and exporting surpluses around the world. On the other side, some countries and actors see the current global food system as deeply broken and highly vulnerable (because of the aforementioned structure) to different shocks, such as: energy price hikes, pandemic related supply chain disruptions, increasingly erratic weather patterns related to climate change, and war and conflict in major food producing areas. For this second group, what is needed is a more decentralized food system, with more local and regional food production, using less energy intensive farming methods.

The reality is that nobody wins when there is widespread food insecurity in the world as this leads to social unrest, migration, and human suffering. While the war in Ukraine is outside the purview of the community of food security scholars, policymakers and activists, I and others have well-articulated views on the second debate (described above) regarding returning to the status quo versus pushing for more a decentralized food system. I favor the latter, and am against the status quo response, because each time the world has faced food security crises in the past, it has responded by doubling down on production agriculture and trade. We saw this with the first Green Revolution (which had profound impacts in China) in the 1960s and 1970s, the focus on agricultural trade in the 1980s and 1990s, and most recently the New Green Revolution for Africa from 2007-2022. Given the failures of production agriculture to resolve hunger and the increasing fragility of the global food system, it is time we tried a different approach emphasizing agroecological production methods, territorial markets and robust social safety nets.

Moseley bio

William G. Moseley is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography, and Director of the Program for Food, Agriculture and Society,

at Macalester College, Saint Paul, USA.



Contact: Fang Yaoyuan

Interview: Lu Xinxu

Editor: Chao Wei



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