“Thinking Big” But Acting Now for Food Security

Making the world more food secure involves collective action and creative thinking.

Roughly one-fifth of the world’s population is facing acute food insecurity. The numbers grow daily as inflation ravages emerging markets and developing countries, which are already saddled with high debts and obsolete agro-industries while suffering from the collapsing demand for their exports.

Developing countries and poor people will be hit the hardest by the emerging global hunger crisis, especially the most vulnerable, such as children and women. Trade shocks will further compound the suffering as panic buying occurs and governments impose export controls during the 2007–2008 food crisis. Already Egypt has banned the export of flour, lentils, and beans, while Indonesia tightened shipments abroad of palm oil. More incidents of civil unrest and regional conflicts will probably unfold, too. As the hungry demand bread, justice, and equity, another Arab Spring may occur to the detriment of the region — and the world.

It is no longer a question of whether the crisis will happen; it’s a question of how great the suffering will be and how long. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time until we see more instability arising in countries that will no longer be able to afford to feed their citizens. So, what do governments need to do to better prepare for this looming crisis?

WHAT IT MEANS TO “THINK BIG” 

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen just urged central bankers gathered in Washington, DC, to “think big,” especially now as many countries confront the wide-ranging and costly spillover from isolating Russia. There is a stronger foundation for global cooperation to make access to food more secure. After all, nations did come together to combat COVID-19’s spread and support Ukraine with humanitarian and military aid.

It is no longer a question of whether a food crisis will happen; it’s a question of how great the suffering will be and how long.

But there are few options for immediate relief to fill the void left by Ukraine and Russia, which account for one-quarter of the world’s wheat. Fourteen countries already rely on Ukraine for 10% of their grain, and most of these places — like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Lebanon — already face severe food insecurity. The World Food Program, the largest distributor of humanitarian food aid, purchased more than 85% of its wheat for feeding programs from Ukraine and Russia. Moreover, the United States no longer has a strategic food reserve to release grain stocks to countries in need. After depleting holdings during the last food crisis in 2007–2008, Washington established a trust to buy food commodities as needed rather than to replenish stocks, as it does for oil reserves.

Today’s reality indicates that targeted, emergency aid requires a global effort to purchase enough food to meet food insecure states’ most urgent daily needs. For example, assistance to small-scale farmers can play a more significant role if they are given capital, supplies, and training to boost production in sustainable ways. Incentivizing entrepreneurs also offers enormous opportunities, as proven by World Central Kitchen, which hires local chefs to serve refugee camps, and Sanku, which helps millers in Africa improve the nutritional values of flour. These public initiatives and public-private partnerships can be the start of repairs to the frayed safety net.

Wealthy countries must do more to curtail food waste. It’s estimated that roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is thrown away each year. Therefore, part of “thinking big” is to find ways to ramp up the production of nutritious foods using wastes. For example, chefs in Norway make bread flour from ground chicken bones. We must improve how foods are harvested, stored, shipped, sold, and used in homes and processors. Regulations, taxes, and other policies must encourage repurposing.

“Thinking big” also means thinking creatively about transportation because even if more supplies can be made available for the direst situations, difficulties remain in transporting foodstuffs now as ports worldwide are clogged with unprecedented shipping volume — and high fuel costs have added to their overall costs of operation.  Efforts are underway to alleviate the blockages and other constraints of the beleaguered global supply chain, such as training and recruiting more port workers and truckers. As a result, economists are optimistic that we could see wait times reduced at ports by late summer. But their optimism may be misplaced if countries are unable to come up with feasible and sustainable longer-term solutions.

THE LONGER-TERM SOLUTIONS

There are indeed longer-term solutions to food security, but each wrestles with legacies of intransigence, inertia, and more pressing national interests.

One solution is to rethink global agricultural policies. Import controls, price supports, and payouts to keep farmlands idle have resulted in a labyrinth of crosscutting purposes that promote inefficiencies, raise costs, and squander the potential for farmers to expand sales in foreign markets. These programs have long histories of political deals that are difficult to unravel by leaders dependent on farmers’ votes. But this crisis necessitates a rethink. We are now seeing the interdependence between our domestic supplies of food and the global economy. Food is indeed a national security issue. To turn inward causes price increases that policies were supposed to mitigate. Surely, there must be a better balance struck between market-based principles and countries’ own needs.

A second solution, which has fallen off the global agenda, is to build up the agro-economies of emerging and developing countries. It’s time to agree on an approach, a novel one that finally sees food systems as a cornerstone for sustainable practices that provide good livelihoods while advancing peoples’ health through an emphasis on nutritious foods. For example, use of biofertilizers can reduce dependence on those produced with fossil fuels. Management of lands can use seed oil plants, such as jatropha that thrive well in areas prone to drought. Nitrogen-fixing plants like this one can help capture and build up soil while providing byproducts, such as the biodiesel oil the jatropha beans yield to run water pumps and cell phone towers.

Targeting women will also lead to more inclusive development. Providing women with access to solar electrical grids, like the nongovernmental organization Earthspark is doing in Les Anglais, Haiti, advances food security and prevents deforestation. In other words, see food security as interwoven with other objectives that will strengthen the economy while enhancing peoples’ quality of life. Programs that target communities may offer the best chance of medium-term agricultural revitalization.

The third solution is to use technology to make the world more secure. In the vineyards of Bordeaux, chips help monitor precipitation and sunlight. Software helps farmers predict the likelihood of pests and disease. Devices regulate the flow of water to irrigate crops. Plot-by-plot data collected about the quality and quantity of harvests can modify farming techniques to improve yields. Funding tech-based agricultural practices will result in a new agro-revolution that will lead to sustainability. For example, Egypt has implemented smart irrigation technologies to reduce agricultural water usage in a region with an increased water shortage.

The good news is that these solutions are already taking place in laboratories and on the ground. What is needed is acceleration: All of these efforts need to be ramped up as quickly as possible to realize immediate results. Actions must be country-specific and meet the needs of a local population to prevent hunger, starvation, and famine. “Thinking big,” therefore, is not just rhetoric. It involves collective action and creative thinking from all countries to build a sustainable foundation for the long-term alleviation of starvation and malnutrition — and it can’t wait.

James David Spellman is principal of Strategic Communications LLC in Washington, DC.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Distinguished Fellow, Stimson Center, Washington, DC and Adjunct Professor, School of International Service, American University.