Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is exacerbating global hunger. In an interview, human rights activist Jean Ziegler explains where the greatest catastrophes are threatening, why people still have to starve today and what we can do about it.

Whether it’s the Ukraine war, the energy crisis or still Corona – there is certainly no shortage of crisis topics and threatening-sounding news at the moment. That’s why we’re taking a back seat to an issue that has never really gone away and is gaining more urgency than it has for a long time: hunger in many of the world’s poorer countries.

For decades, the Swiss sociologist, critic of capitalism and globalization Jean Ziegler has been fighting this “absolute scandal of our time”, as he calls the fact that people are still starving on our rich planet. The longstanding UN special rapporteur on the right to food is still active today as an advisor to the UN Human Rights Council. His book “What is so bad about capitalism?”, published in 2019, also deals with the topic and its background.

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We spoke to Jean Ziegler about impending famine, but also about what gives him hope for a world without hunger.

FOCUS online: Mr. Ziegler, there have been warnings for months that the Russian attack on Ukraine will lead to famine in many countries. How big do you think this risk is?

Jean Ziegler: This danger is immense. Not least because of the war of annihilation that the mass murderer Putin is waging in Ukraine, we are on the brink of terrible famine. This threatens the lives of millions of people in the “Third World”. Because Ukraine is one of the most important grain exporters worldwide, a large part of the harvest there can no longer be exported due to the war. Millions of tons left over from last year rot in the silos. In addition, the new harvest is about half that. The Russians not only hamper exports, but also mine fields and bomb grain depots in order to destroy Ukrainian agriculture.

Which regions and countries are likely to be particularly affected by the consequences of the Ukraine war?

Ziegler: There are 45 countries in Africa and the Near and Middle East that consistently meet at least a third of their needs with supplies from Ukraine. Of course, this affects them in a very special and direct way. Apart from that, the crisis is having a massive impact on the world market. Many other important grain growers have declared an embargo to protect their citizens. So they keep all of their harvests in their own country. So far there have been 41 countries in total, including India, for example. Therefore, not only urgently needed products from Ukraine are missing, but also from other important food suppliers. And what still comes onto the market is usually very expensive. This is a catastrophe, especially for poorer countries with little agricultural production of their own.

Can you give us a specific example?

Ziegler: Egypt, with its 102 million inhabitants, is one of the 45 countries mentioned that are particularly dependent on food from Ukraine. Before the war, the country imported 12 million tons of grain annually, eight million of them from Ukraine. This is used to make flatbread, which covers 70 percent of basic food needs. Almost half of its price is subsidized by the state. Egypt currently has a few months’ worth of supplies left. Then grain prices will explode and the state will no longer be able to pay for it. As in 1977, there will then be hunger riots.

Are there ways to prevent these impending catastrophes in the short term?

Ziegler: The United Nations’ World Food Program, or WFP for short, provides emergency aid in such cases. In the last year alone, it saved 91 million people from starvation. A major problem, however, is that the donor countries are not providing enough money to combat the new famines. Here the industrialized nations have to pay significantly more right now in order to at least prevent the worst. The World Food Program is currently short of $22 billion.

The war in Ukraine is now dramatically aggravating the problem of hunger, but in recent years and decades many regions have been repeatedly hit by famine. Why isn’t humanity getting a grip on this problem?

Ziegler: First of all, you have to realize that there is actually enough food on our planet for everyone. With the production forces available today, twelve billion people could be fed, i.e. around four billion more than are currently living on earth. Nevertheless, hunger is claiming an alarming number of victims worldwide.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO for short, a child under the age of ten dies every five seconds from hunger or its immediate consequences. As of 2021, 874 million people worldwide are permanently severely undernourished. The daily slaughter of hunger by tens of thousands on a planet overflowing with wealth is the absolute scandal of our time.

If there are basically enough food resources, how can it be that such a large part of humanity still has to starve?

Ziegler: With regard to the causes, the UN distinguishes between economic and structural hunger. Economic hunger refers to the hunger that breaks out and kills people when the entire economy collapses in a country due to war or natural disasters, when nobody can sow or harvest anymore or has access to imported aid goods.

And what does “structural hunger” mean?

Ziegler: Structural hunger claims many more lives every year than the famines that are visible from afar. It is also called “the hidden hunger”. It is implicit in a country’s underdeveloped productive forces. Its causes are multiple and complex, they overlap and reinforce each other.

What are the causes exactly?

Ziegler: One important factor is the high level of foreign debt in many southern countries. As a result, agricultural productivity there is significantly lower than in Europe, for example. Let’s take an example from Africa: In good harvest years without any disasters, farmers in the Sahel produce an average of 600 to 700 kilograms of grain per hectare. In Tyrol, Baden-Württemberg or the Po Valley, on the other hand, it is 10,000 kilograms per hectare. However, this is not because European producers are so much more competent and hard-working, but because the heavily indebted African states do not give their farmers any pesticides, mineral fertilizers, tractors or silos

What other factors also play a role?

Ziegler: Another major problem is agricultural dumping. Surpluses from European agriculture, for example, are exported dirt cheap to Africa in order to keep prices in the EU stable. There they drive local food from the markets and rob the farmers of their livelihoods. Stock market speculation with staple foods also has fatal effects.

The food and financial groups make huge profits and drive up world market prices. Families in the slums of southern metropolises can therefore afford less and less food. And then there is the land grab by financial groups. They are buying up arable land in the “Third World” on a large scale in order to grow products for export to the industrialized nations. The local farmers are chased away and end up in the slums of the big cities.

Climate change is also contributing more and more to global hunger, isn’t it?

Ziegler: That’s right, the climate crisis has enormous and increasing effects. On the African continent, a third of the soil is already so dry that cultivation is only possible with artificial irrigation. So far, however, this has only been possible on 3.5 percent of the arable land. The groundwater level in the Sahel zone, for example, is often more than 60 meters deep, so electric motor pumps would be needed to bring the water to the surface. But they are hardly available. The Sahara Desert is constantly expanding southwards. First the animals die, then the people and the survivors flee to the slums. Proud African farmers become beggars.

Do you see a chance to successfully combat global hunger and defeat it once and for all?

Ziegler: My only hope is public opinion here. Germany, for example, has a creative, incredibly vibrant democracy. Citizens are not powerless, the constitution gives them the power to force the government and legislators to do something. The Bundestag should ban stock market speculation with food, the finance minister should work internationally for a total debt relief for poorer countries and the agriculture minister should combat agricultural dumping.

Land grabs by financial groups should also be stopped. Hunger in the world is not an unchangeable destiny, but man-made. A child who is starving, at this very moment, is being murdered. As free citizens, we can prevent that. But this requires an uprising of conscience in the ruled countries.