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NEW YORK: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has urged the international community to mount combined efforts to overcome the food crisis, which is adversely affecting the lives of millions of people across the planet.

Speaking at a ministerial meeting on “Global Food Security” at the UN headquarters, he said the food crisis had no regard for borders and that no country could overcome it alone.

“Our only chance of lifting millions of people out of hunger is to act together, urgently and with solidarity. Ending hunger is within our reach. There is enough food in our world now for everyone, if we act together,” Mr Bhutto-Zardari said.

He warned that unless the problem was solved soon, the world might face the spectre of food shortages in the coming months.

“Global hunger levels are at a new high. In just two years, the number of severely food insecure people has doubled, from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today.

“More than half a million people are living in famine conditions —– an increase of more than 500 percent since 2016,” said the foreign minister. The frightening figures were inextricably linked to conflict, he said. “If we do not feed people, we feed conflict.”

Mr Bhutto-Zardari suggested five urgent steps to governments, international financial institutions and others, to solve the short-term crisis and prevent a long-term catastrophe.

First, he said, they must urgently reduce the pressure on markets by increasing supplies of food and fertiliser. There should be no restriction on exports, and surpluses must be made available to those most in need.

“But let’s be clear: there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertiliser produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets, despite the war,” he said.

He said Russia must permit the safe and secure export of grain stored in Ukrainian ports. Alternative transportation routes could be explored... Russian food and fertiliser must have unrestricted access to world markets without indirect impediments.

“I have been in intense contact on this issue with the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Turkey, the US, the European Union and several other key countries. I am hopeful, but there is still a long way to go,” he added.

He was of the opinion that the complex security, economic and financial implications involved required goodwill on all sides for a package deal to be reached.

Secondly, he said, social protection systems were required to cover everyone in need, with the right combinations of food, cash and support for water, sanitation, nutrition, and livelihoods.

“Third, finance is essential. Developing countries must have access to liquidity so that they can provide social protection to everyone in need. International financial institutions need to step in with generous investments to prevent a global debt crisis.”

He said there was no answer to the food crisis without an answer to the finance crisis. “Official development assistance is more necessary than ever. Diverting it to other priorities is not an option while the world is on the brink of mass hunger,” he added.

He said the governments must bolster agriculture production and invest in resilient food systems that protect smallholder food producers. Referring to the current high prices of fuel and fertilisers for the farmers, he said that governments must be able to support them with subsidies, and connect them to markets.

“Fifth, humanitarian operations must be fully funded to prevent famine and reduce hunger,” he said.

The foreign minister said the humanitarian organisations had a proven track record of preventing famine, most recently in South Sudan and Yemen. “But they need resources. And those resources must be used for maximum good, by exempting humanitarian food purchases from taxes, sanctions, and other restrictions.”

Mr Bhutto-Zardari said the Global Crisis Response Group on food, energy and finance was tackling the impact of the crisis on vulnerable people, identifying and pushing for solutions.

Sharing his personal experience, he said that two weeks ago he was visiting the Sahel region of Africa, where he met families who did not know where their next meal would come from. “Severe acute malnutrition —– a wasting disease that can kill if left untreated —— is rising. Farm animals are already dying of hunger,” he added.

World leaders, he said, had told him that because of the war in Ukraine the already dangerous situation could turn into a catastrophic on.

He said the “climate emergency” was another driver of global hunger. Over the past decade, 1.7 billion people had been affected by extreme weather and climate-related disasters.

The economic shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic had compounded food insecurity, reducing incomes and disrupting supply chains, he said, adding that an uneven recovery from the pandemic had already put many developing countries on the brink of debt default and restricted access to financial markets.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was amplifying and accelerating all the main factors —— climate change, Covid-19 pandemic, and inequality. “It threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years,” he said.

Between them, Ukraine and Russia produced almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley and half of its sunflower oil, he said. Russia and Belarus were the world’s number two and three producers of potash, a key ingredient of fertiliser.

In the past year, he said, global food prices had risen by nearly one-third, fertiliser by more than half, and oil prices by almost two-thirds. Most developing countries lacked the fiscal space to cushion the blow of these huge increases.

Many could not borrow because markets were closed to them, he said. Those that were able to borrow were charged high interest rates that put them at risk of debt distress and default.

“If high fertiliser prices continue, today’s crisis in grain and cooking oil could affect many other foods including rice, impacting billions of people in Asia and the Americas,” he said.

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