The world's less developed nations are becoming more dependent on food imports while paying a high share of their earnings to feed themselves, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported.
The Rome-based United Nations agency said in a report that the world's poorest countries are increasingly sustained by imports of cereals, fish, meat, dairy, sugar, vegetable oils and other basic food commodities, making them more vulnerable to shortages caused by trade disputes and other disruptions. So far, however, strong supplies have kept global food markets relatively stable.
Another threat to these countries looms, however. A third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, FAO said, while about 35% of what is caught for eating never makes it onto someone's plate.
That calls into question the sustainability of an importance source of protein for those in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than US$1.90 a day. Between 2000 and 2017, the world food import bill tripled to US$1.43 trillion and it rose fivefold for the countries most vulnerable to food shortages, FAO reported.
The longterm trend indicates it will be "an increasing challenge, especially for the poorest countries, to meet their basic food needs from international markets," said FAO study author Adam Prakash.
Many nations facing the worst crises are beset by conflicts and climate change in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, particularly Congo, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.
Greater percentage spent on imports
Prices of oil seeds and oil meals are up, while a trade war between the United States and China, the world's largest soybean producer and buyer, caused a plunge in world soybean and soymeal prices. The cereals market is expected to remain robust and "elevated," FAO said.
Record prices for seafood products are expected in the second half of 2018 amid tightening supplies. World sugar production is forecast to rise 11.1% this year to a record level, far exceeding global consumption, in what would make for the largest sugar surplus in recorded history.
The global food import bill is likely to rise 3% to about US$1.47 trillion in 2018, mostly reflecting greater international trade in fish, a high-value food mostly imported by developed countries, and in cereals, a staple that is an essential import for many low-income countries, FAO said.
Least-developed nations must now spend about 28% of their earnings from exported goods on imported food. By contrast, developed nations not only have a larger GDP per capita to work with — they typically spend only 10% of their export earnings on food imports.
A fishing boat passes Heysham nuclear power station in the U.K. (Arete/John Campbell)
One-in-three fish caught is wasted
FAO separately reported on July 9 that the waste from fishing operations is skyrocketing while more nations depend on seafood to sustain their burgeoning populations. Its annual report highlights some huge concerns about lack of sustainability in the world's fisheries and aquaculture.
Most of the waste is due to poor refrigeration or so-called global bycatch, the unwanted marine species that are unintentionally caught up in the world's fishing nets. The planet's warming temperatures will likely deter fish from remaining in warm tropical waters around seafood-reliant nations.
Global fish production will keep expanding in the next decade, FAO said, despite the amount of fish captured in the wild leveling off and aquaculture's previously explosive growth slowing. Combined production from capture fisheries and aquaculture is projected to grow 18% by 2030.
That growth will require better fisheries management to cut loss and waste, illegal fishing, marine pollution and deal with climate change.
"The fisheries sector is crucial in meeting FAO's goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition, and its contribution to economic growth and the fight against poverty is growing," said José Graziano da Silva, FAO's director-general. "The sector is not without its challenges, however, including the need to reduce the percentage of fish stocks fished beyond biological sustainability."
Part of the problem is the world's governance of the high seas, which cover most of the planet but lie beyond the jurisdiction of national borders. They fall within a patchwork of laws overseen by mostly U.N.-affiliated international organizations.
One of the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is to conserve and sustainably use the world's oceans, seas and marine resources, which are essential for livelihoods, tourism and the planet's health. Coastal and marine resources contribute US$28 trillion a year in "ecosystem services" that underpin the global economy, according to U.N. estimates.
At a recent two-day high seas conference hosted by French and international organizations, one of the participants, Julian Jackson, of Pew Charitable Trusts, described the current management system as "the U.N. alphabet soup that makes up global governance of the oceans and the high seas."