Ending world hunger is a universal goal, yet progress and social awareness of the issue waxes and wanes in the course of broader political and economic developments. The massive famine in China under Chairman Mao’s 1958–62 Great Leap Forward, a succession of severe droughts and associated famines in India in 1965–66, and the political violence that accompanied regime change in Indonesia in 1964–67 left tens of millions of people starving and drew global attention to the threat of food insecurity. What emerged from these events was an international commitment to agricultural technology transfers, water resource development, and foreign assistance – partly in the spirit of humanitarian goodwill and partly in pursuit of long-term geopolitical and economic interests revolving around the Cold War. Whatever the motivation, the outcome over the ensuing decades was more than a doubling of staple cereal yields in Asia, and a steady decline in real (inflation-adjusted) cereal prices.
Despite these gains, a second, quite different, rallying cry for food security resounded in 2007–8 as international grain prices spiked, food riots erupted in numerous cities throughout the developing world, and the global economy headed into a deep recession. Several factors sparked this crisis, but unlike the earlier periods of dire food shortages, the root causes included unwieldy financial markets and escalating demands for food, animal feeds, and fuel (including biofuels) in a globalized economy. This episode prompted new analyses of the connection between global commodity markets and food security, the political-economy foundations of agricultural development, and the differential impacts of food prices on net producers and net consumers. In the five-year period from 2007 to 2012, international cereal prices were highly unstable, varying by as much as 300 percent.
Today, international agricultural markets have settled at relatively low prices, but civil conflicts, extreme climate events, and other natural disasters are blocking the path toward ending hunger. In February 2017, the United Nations declared a famine in South Sudan, as war and economic collapse ravaged the newly independent nation. Although the famine officially ended in mid-2017, food emergencies and severe undernourishment still threaten tens of millions of people in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria, due to a combination of civil conflict, prolonged droughts, and occasional floods. On the surface, it seems incomprehensible that there could be such difficulty in addressing these looming famines at a time when global cereal production and stocks are at historical highs. But the problem is not a matter of food supply; the problem is war.