Marion Kujawa looks over a pond he uses to water the cattle on his farm on July 16, 2012 in Ashley, Illinois. Kujawa has been digging the pond deeper after it began to dry up during the current drought. According to the Illinois Farm Bureau, the state is experiencing the sixth driest year on record.
Credit: Scott Olson

It’s been called the worst drought in decades. As crops wither in the parched American heartland, prices of key grains — soy, corn and wheat – are soaring. Suddenly, population and climate change are beginning to dominate the national conversation.

But is the crisis really new? What's causing it? And what’s being done to address it?

Food shortages are a chronic problem in many parts of the world. Over a billion people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger. According to Feed the Future, a child dies every six seconds from hunger — more than 3.5 million each year. Far more suffer from malnutrition.

To put the food crisis in context, GlobalPost turned to Jonathan White, an expert on food, hunger and development. White runs the German Marshall Fund’s International Development Project, and recently directed a Transatlantic Experts Group on Food Security in Africa.

The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: Droughts and crop destruction this summer are focusing attention on what is being called an urgent global food crisis. But you put out a report in April, months before the summer planting began, pointing out that, “over a billion people suffer from chronic hunger,” and that, “food production must double in the next twenty years to meet demand and stabilize food crisis.”

So what’s new about the current food shortage and how is it different from what you wrote about?

Jonathan White: What we discussed among the forty members of the experts group were the questions of commodity prices, of the energy and food market hitting new equilibrium levels that we’re expecting to be around for some time.

The drivers of this are very much the drought and climatic changes which, with the current crisis, seem to have now hit us in the United States, with an exceptionally severe drought this July. That is affecting the corn and soybean markets. Because the US is one of the largest exporters of those two commodities, it’s affecting the global price.

I would say that the current crisis isn’t necessarily new, but rather a continued trend: climate is impacting not just small holders in Africa but now impacting us at home.

What about the effect of population? The global population continues to grow and now exceeds seven billion.

The more immediate cause is the drought in the US.

More broadly, if we’re looking at the global trend, we are definitely seeing a combination of both supply side shocks—droughts and climatic changes like we’re seeing in the United States—and demand side shocks—the rising population in the emerging markets, and their diet shifting away from grains to livestock and meat. That’s putting further pressure on the production of food and land.

There are also policy issues, which get into the question of biofuels and export bans which have, in many ways, played a role in this global food crisis as well.

Let’s talk about how the crisis will affect various groups. First of all, how will the current acute crisis affect those who are already suffering from hunger, and how will it affect life in countries where food shortages are prevalent? We recall in 2008 when food prices last soared there were riots in at least thirty countries.

As you can imagine, the overall share of income from an American household going to food is much smaller compared to that of a small holder in Africa. So they are much more vulnerable.

Generally, 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas. They tend to derive their income from farming, and often do not have modern irrigation and therefore depend upon rain-fed farming, which links directly to climate change. These farmers are going to have fewer resources and less ability to respond to the climatic changes that we face.

In those parts of the world, these kind of disruptions could not just mean hunger—which we have a moral imperative to address—but also political and social tensions, which could lead to much more serious issues.

How will the problem affect Americans, and what can Americans do to alleviate it?

One thing that would help would be recognizing that what happens overseas affects us at home indirectly. These countries are in some cases very fragile states, and some of those political disruptions affect us in terms of foreign aid and military forces. This has implications in terms of our national security because a lack of security in other parts of the world can create a haven for terrorist networks. You’ve seen US military and national security officials commenting on the importance of food security itself—that says something.

What can the United States do to alleviate the problem? I think in the short term we can support developing countries—helping them create food stocks and prepare for these humanitarian crises. One of our recommendations was creating grain storage facilities, working with the World Food Program to pre-position food in parts of Africa or in the developing world where we can see and anticipate some of these crises. Anticipating and acting early is an issue not only for international donors, but also for host countries themselves. We have seen some leadership on the part of African nations to address the problem early, but that’s not always been the case.

Another short term thing we could do when there is a crisis is purchasing local and regional food rather than shipping food from the United States. We purchase food locally which helps spur and generate markets and sustainability. We generate the opportunity for farmers locally to produce that food.

Is the food crisis a situation where there is physically not enough food on the planet to feed everybody or is it more of an economic problem?

In many ways, it’s a problem of lack of markets or infrastructure to move foods and commodities from surplus regions to deficit regions. Even within Africa itself, there is an effort to identify where these deficit and surplus regions are and try to connect them. This is a part of the USAID’s strategy to create local food markets and move away from simple humanitarian relief to the creation of indigenous food and agricultural markets not only so Africa can feed itself, but also to feed the world.

Much of the global grain supply goes to raising livestock. What effect does that have?

That’s definitely a factor, especially as countries like China, India and Brazil get wealthier and their diet shifts towards meat. It then requires that much more grain to feed that livestock and that’s more land to be resourced to produce that livestock for the global market, which intensifies the resource demand and pressure.

In the United States, due to the drought impacting the corn and soybean markets, there will be an impact on US livestock because so much corn in particular is seen as foodstuff for US livestock.

At the G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy 2009, leaders pledged $22 billion to a new approach to global food security. What specific steps does this plan take? Is the initiative working and has the money actually been allocated?

This was politically difficult during the most recent G8 summit because the L’Aquila commitments were only met by about 58 percent out of the $22 billion of the pledges. Donors have not fully dispersed their commitments. What came out of the G8 was a continued commitment to live up to those L’Aquila commitments. At least in terms of the numbers, that’s where we are.

In terms of the actual approach, there has been a step change in the way the United States has been programming its foreign assistance. A key initiative on the part of USAID is called Feed the Future. It’s one of the leading initiatives of the Obama administration on development. It’s intended to be a much more focused approach, focused on recognizing the importance of food as a key area of addressing development more broadly—not only hunger, but also the ability of these countries to feed themselves.

The goal is to work with countries that are committed in terms of policies and budget to invest in agriculture, science, research on better seeds, and infrastructure to help connect parts of the country that are facing deficits with regions where there are surpluses of food and invest in irrigation to deal with climate issues.

It’s a relatively new initiative. Congress and others outside the government have been looking to see some of the results

There are some success stories so far in terms of governments making policy commitments, but whether this translates into a real reduction of poverty we’ll have to see in the next two to three years.

The Transatlantic Experts Group also mentions that women are key in the food crisis in cultivating and marketing crops, agro-business, and improving nutrition. How are women’s rights issues tied up to the food crisis, and how much of the crisis is due not to lack of food but lack of knowledge?

With regard to women it’s a huge issue. With small holder African farmers who are usually operating on one acre or two to three acres of land, 80 percent of the time they’re women, yet, at the same time, they lack the right to own that land. They lack the ability to go to a bank to get access to a loan to invest in farm equipment. So they are facing a bit of a challenge there.

Women tend to be responsible for the health and nutrition of the household. They invest resources into the wellbeing of the children in terms of meals and education. There is data in microfinance that shows that women tend to be the most responsible microfinance clients. They tend to invest in their households, their families, and make productive investments in businesses. They are the most reliable in paying back their loans.

The report focuses on harnessing the power of markets in the private sector to get more food to consumers, but agricultural markets are notorious for tariffs, subsidies, rent taking by big corporations and other tampering for reasons that are really difficult to change. How likely is it that better market efficiencies will emerge in the food sector?

It’s not easy. For example, at least in our experience, it is politically very difficult to get the US Congress to move forward on trying to change our food aid policies. A good deal of our food aid is still American produced and shipped, which is more costly, and it can be disruptive to local developing country markets. The commodity groups and interest groups in the United States are very mobilized and that makes it very difficult.

It’s also very politically difficult in Africa.

That said, there are export opportunities where the United States is connecting and making a difference. NGOs are helping small holder farmers and small holder coffee cooperatives connect with Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee, helping create a stable source of demand for those goods and services and providing technical assistance so those small holder farmers can improve the quality of their coffee beans so they can sell not only to Starbucks and Peet’s, but also globally.

Are there any other things that policy makers and citizens should do to address the immediate crisis?

One thing would be to take seriously the US international affairs budget which supports these kinds of programs overseas. It goes back to the idea that what happens in these countries facing acute shortages can affect us at home and recognizing that we are in an interconnected world.

Typically, if you look at the public opinion polls, most Americans think that 20 percent of the US federal budget goes to foreign aid. In fact, it’s actually only one percent. That one percent actually buys us a lot in terms of investments in markets overseas. It creates opportunities for the United States to export for creating more stable partners for us to address national security issues, and it also helps address acute hunger which is, I think, in many ways a virtue Americans value.

Jessen O’Brien contributed reporting from Boston. 

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