Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the closely watched food price index of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reached its highest recorded level, stoking consumer prices across the world. In the UK, for example, the prices of many everyday items increased way ahead of inflation, with bread and eggs both up 18% in the year to December, and milk up 30%.

Food prices in the UK are at their highest for 15 years and something similar is happening in almost every country around the world.

“Control oil, and you control nations; control food and you control people.” This aphorism, often attributed to Henry Kissinger, recently came to mind when I saw first hand how both strategies have been effectively deployed in Israel’s occupation and blockade of Gaza.

Growing numbers of Australians are reported to be struggling to put enough healthy food on the table every day as the cost of living soars. But Australia doesn’t collect enough data on food insecurity. The lack of data makes it difficult for policymakers to grasp the extent of the problem, let alone take effective action to solve it.

Without phosphorus food cannot be produced, since all plants and animals need it to grow. Put simply: if there is no phosphorus, there is no life. As such, phosphorus-based fertilisers – it is the “P” in “NPK” fertiliser – have become critical to the global food system.

Somalia is on the brink of catastrophe. A recent assessment suggests that 7.7 million Somalis need emergency aid right now, a similar number to those affected by the Ethiopian famine in 1984, one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history. About one million people died then.

Rising competition for many of the world’s important crops is sending increasing amounts toward uses other than directly feeding people. These competing uses include making biofuels; converting crops into processing ingredients, such as livestock meal, hydrogenated oils and starches; and selling them on global markets to countries that can afford to pay for them.

The Food Foundation now estimates at least three million people in the UK depend on food banks. HASPhotos
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Tim Lang, City, University of London; Erik P Millstone, University of Sussex, and Terry Marsden, Cardiff University

Planning failures and financial cuts are being exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the world of food, too, planning is needed both to deal with short-term emergencies and to address longer-term risks.