Leading food systems experts are warning the food-price crisis is entering a dangerous new phase, as the world teeters on the brink of a debt crisis that could plunge millions more into global hunger.

The IPES-Food (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) special report comes as global leaders meet in Qatar to address challenges faced by the world’s least developed countries, with ‘debt sustainability and debt cancellation’ on the agenda.

A year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, record-high food prices have receded, but growing numbers of countries are facing rising hunger and soaring debt repayments according to the report.

60% of low-income countries are now considered at high risk of, or already in, debt distress, while some 21 countries are nearing catastrophic levels of both debt distress and food insecurity.

Zambia, Sri Lanka, and Suriname already defaulted on their debts; Ghana and Pakistan are currently in urgent talks to avoid default, the report said.

Source: IPES-Food report – ‘Breaking the cycle of unsustainable food systems, hunger, and debt’

Global hunger

According to IPES, policymakers are ignoring the critical role of unsustainable, import-heavy food systems in driving rising debt and hunger.

Skyrocketing costs for imports of food, fertiliser, and energy are straining the public finances of many low-income (and also some middle-income) countries, the report stated.

Rising interest rates and plunging currencies are sending debt bills higher, constraining the ability of governments to ensure the food security of their citizens.

Those same countries are locked into exporting cash crops (such as cocoa, coffee, and cotton) to pay off dollar-denominated debts and import basic necessities – at the expense of feeding local populations, the IPES-Food report added.

Meanwhile, record-high debt burdens are preventing urgently needed investments in sustainable, climate-resilient food production and food security, creating a vicious cycle, the experts have stated.

Debt repayments dwarf spending on climate resilience and social protection in the world’s poorest countries.

Debt relief

The experts state that failure to break this vicious cycle of unsustainable debt and unsustainable food systems will mean the reversal of decades of progress in addressing poverty and hunger, and abject failure to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

They call for urgent action to: 

  • Provide debt relief and development finance on a scale for Covid-19 recovery, climate action, resilient food systems, and the SDGs;
  • Repair historical food system injustices and return resources to the global south;
  • Democratise financial and food systems governance to put the interests of the world’s poorest countries and marginalised populations first.

Jennifer Clapp, IPES-Food expert and economist, said: “Last year’s record-high food prices may have receded, but the food crisis is still biting and it’s entering a dangerous new phase – of skyrocketing debt distress and spiraling hunger in dozens of low- and middle-income countries.

“Rising debt bills are becoming unaffordable for many governments, just as they struggle to pay for food and fertiliser imports – and they’re running out of road. Decades of progress in reducing hunger risks being undone.”

Million Belay, IPES-Food expert from Ethiopia, added: “Many African countries’ economies and food systems are on the brink of meltdown. Africa is stuck in a bind.

“We’re selling coffee and cotton to the rich to pay off debts, while we import increasingly unaffordable staple foods from outside, climate change batters our harvests, and interest payments spiral out of control.

“The economic system prioritises servicing debt over feeding people, while our governments are starved of cash to build the sustainable food systems we need to feed ourselves.”

Lim Li Ching, co-chair of IPES-Food, said: “Yes, the debts of poorer nations should be cancelled to allow them to feed their people – but this is not enough.

“To get off the debt treadmill, it’s vital to break the vicious cycle of unsustainable food systems, hunger, and debt – by also investing in building resilient food and farming, repairing the historical injustices that have left poor countries funneling resources to the rich, and reforming international decision-making on food and debt to put poor countries first.”