Time to act on food insecurity

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"Time to act on food insecurity"

Jake Caldwell, CAP’s Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade & Energy, looks at strategies to address rising food prices, in this cross-post. For more, see the CP series on food insecurity

Global food prices increased for the eighth consecutive month in a row, according to a report released today by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, soaring to record levels last month””with devastating consequences for the world’s poor. Food prices are on the rise due to growing populations and rising incomes across much of the developing world alongside tight supplies, high oil prices, and stockpiling of imports as the main factors, although profound uncertainty regarding future harvests due to global warming is also a clear catalyst.

The FAO report is the latest troubling analysis to land at the feet of U.S. policymakers as they consider the possibility of deep and misguided cuts to U.S. food assistance by Congress in the coming weeks. The World Bank estimates that the spike in food prices since June has placed 44 million people into extreme poverty. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting U.S. food prices will increase 4 percent this year, squeezing already tight family budgets.

FAO food price index

Yet as food prices continue to climb, conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives are responding by slashing the budgets of the very U.S. government assistance programs that hold the most promise to end the misery and despair that global hunger brings. The House-passed budget proposal, H.R. 1, sends our overseas food aid commitments backwards to 2001 levels, slashing $800 million from the food aid budget at the precise moment when it is needed most and when it will have the greatest impact.

These drastic and shortsighted cuts will inevitably lead to more people going hungry around the world, lost opportunities to sell U.S. products and services in healthy overseas markets, and increased levels of global poverty and instability that threaten our national security. The funding for agricultural investment and emergency food aid needs to be restored immediately.

In particular, Congress needs to embrace the Obama administration’s $1.64 billion budget request to bolster the U.S. investment in global food security through the Feed the Future initiative, which is included in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, which begins in October this year. U.S. overseas agriculture assistance today stands at only 3.5 percent of overall U.S. development aid, down from 18 percent in 1979.

These funds are urgently needed. Agricultural productivity growth in developing countries is now less than 1 percent annually. The Feed the Future initiative puts us back on the right course by prioritizing investment in agricultural development in developing countries and establishing partnerships with key countries to leverage local and technical expertise in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. As the global population surges to 9 billion by 2050, the Feed the Future program represents a forward-leaning investment in the world’s capacity to produce and make accessible more food for all.

The program deserves the nation’s full support, especially due to uncertainty about future harvests and overstretched capacity in the global food system in the face of climate change. In the past year, a series of extreme weather events have increased the level of uncertainty and unpredictability surrounding the success or failure of upcoming harvests. The status of future food stocks are affected by flooding in Australia, Pakistan, and Brazil, and unprecedented heat waves and drought in Russia, Ukraine, and now China. Heavy rains in Iowa and Illinois and dry conditions in key U.S. wheat growing regions such as Kansas and Colorado are also sending prices higher and playing havoc with harvest forecasts.

Leading global companies such as reinsurer Munich Re, whose business it is to know and understand natural disasters, recently noted “It would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” And the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that extreme weather events such as drought and heavy rains exacerbated by climate change are already having an effect on the safety of the world’s food supplies as crops are wiped out and health threats to humans from such toxic organisms as mycotoxins flourish in scarce food supply conditions.

Indeed, the consequences of climate change on agriculture could well be even more severe in the coming decades. Agriculture in the United States and the world is at risk from the negative effects of rising temperatures, prolonged drought, and increased evaporation and water consumption. And a rising sea level will lead to more intense flooding and the potential loss of limited arable land. As resources become more scarce, mass migrations of millions of people will intensify.

Given the magnitude of the coming crisis, it is in the national security interests of the United States to provide financing to allow the most vulnerable developing countries to prepare for and adapt to the effects of climate change in agriculture and development. Congress must act to restore funding for climate change adaptation, drought resistance, and tropical forest conservation, consistent with the commitments the United States has made to the world.

The Group of Twenty industrial and industrializing nations have pledged $20 billion for agricultural development in developing countries, and $6 billion for a World Bank fund for food security. To date, however, only $925 million has been delivered. At its June 2011 summit, the G-20 plan to make global food security a centerpiece of their annual summit. In order for the world to make progress on ensuring reliable and affordable access to food, all nations must fulfill their financial commitments.

Of course, rising oil prices also are driving food prices higher. Oil and fossil fuels are a significant agricultural input cost, from fertilizer and crop production, to fuel to drive machinery for farmers and producers. The price of oil also has an impact on the cost of storage and transportation of food around the world. As oil prices rise, inflationary pressures send food prices soaring in both developing countries and the United States.

World food index vs. Brent oil price

This is why the United States also must reduce its dependence on foreign oil. The United States must maintain and increase efforts to improve fuel efficiency, invest in non-fossil fuel based research and transportation infrastructure, and bring advanced biofuels to commercial scale. And in light of current ethanol policy and the growing competition for grain, there is a need in the United States to transition beyond corn as a biofuels feedstock and strive to produce advanced biofuels that deliver measurable life cycle greenhouse gas reductions, utilize non-food based feedstocks grown in closed tanks or on semi-arable land that does not compete with food or feed.

Finally, the United States needs to take the lead in combatting shortsighted government and private-sector actions such as government food-export bans and the hoarding of tight supplies. Prohibiting the export of essential staples and the secretive stockpiling of grain supplies are government practices that must end. In addition, subsidies and tariffs in developed countries, and barriers to trade between developing countries must be eliminated.

Eight consecutive months of rising food prices are a threat to global health and poverty reduction. We have moved well beyond a wake-up call. The increases in food and fuel prices are hurting families all over the world, roiling markets, and threatening to stall the global economic recovery. The world needs to work cooperatively toward investing in agriculture, combating climate change, and promoting open and transparent government actions. Congress needs to fully fund the U.S. commitment to agricultural development and food security.

Ultimately, the global food system is resting on a knife’s edge with little margin for error. The condition of new crops due in a few months is now paramount. In order to prevent a full-fledged food crisis, the world will require good harvests in the major food producing nations in the coming months, and the strong political will to make the long-term investments in global food security immediately.

Jake Caldwell is Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade and Energy at the Center for American Progress.

See also

Making Egypt More Food Secure by Jake Caldwell

The Coming Food Crisis (Foreign Policy) by John Podesta and Jake Caldwell

« »

16 Responses to Time to act on food insecurity

  1. Peter M says:

    The food crises will only worsen due to climate instability. until policy makers begin to realize they must adapt to climate change, the food crises will cause more unrest in 3rd world nations, and higher prices elsewhere.

  2. dan allen says:

    In light of the fast-approaching energetic and climatic disruptions, the US must act NOW to safe-guard our OWN food supply. This requires that we begin an IMMEDIATE transition towards growing our food with minimal fossil-energy inputs, and in a more climatic-resilient manner.

    How do we do this? See http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-12-13/agriculture-stands-chance-perennial-polyculture-hard-limits-post-carbon-farming.

  3. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Good article.

    Millions of people worldwide suffer from hunger and undernutrition . A major factor contributing to this international problem is food insecurity. This condition exists when people lack sustainable physical or economic access to enough safe, nutritious, and socially acceptable food for a healthy and productive life. Food insecurity may be chronic , seasonal, or temporary, and it may occur at the household, regional, or national level.
    The United Nations estimates there are 840 million undernourished people in the world. The majority of undernourished people (799 million) reside in developing disasters.countries, most of which are on the continents of Africa and Asia. This figure also includes 11 million people located in developed countries and 30 million people located in countries in transition (e.g., the former Soviet Union).
    In developing countries, the root causes of food insecurity include: poverty, war and civil conflict, corruption, national policies that do not promote equal access to food for all, environmental degradation, barriers to trade, insufficient agricultural development, population growth, low levels of education, social and gender inequality, poor health status, cultural insensitivity, and natural

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  4. Lore says:

    On a personal note, I want to commend Joe for his many posts recently on the issues surrounding climate change as it relates to global food security. I had questioned him several months ago about needing more coverage on the subject and I have to say that he has come through exposing more about this dire concern then any other science or environmentally involved blog.

    Thanks Joe for continuing to bring the subject to the forefront,…! I just hope the populace begins to wise up.

  5. Wit's End says:

    ho hum…


    “Lower Crop Yields Due To Ozone A Factor In World Food Crisis” from 2008!

    Heat waves, droughts and fuel prices are just a few reasons for the current global food crisis that is making headlines around the world. Research by William Manning of the University of Massachusetts Amherst indicates that rising background levels of ozone in the atmosphere are a likely contributor to the problem, lowering the yield of important food crops, such as wheat and soybeans.

    “Plants are much more sensitive to ozone than people, and a slight increase in exposure can have a large impact on their productivity,” says Manning, a professor of plant, soil and insect sciences. “The new ozone standard set by the U.S. EPA in March 2008 is based on protecting human health, and may not be strict enough to protect plants.” Manning served on the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee for the EPA in 1997 when the previous air quality standard for ozone was developed.

    According to Manning, emission controls on cars have been successful in reducing short periods of high ozone levels called peaks, but average concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere throughout the year, called the background level, is increasing as polluted air masses from Asia travel to the U. S. and then on to Europe. Background levels are now between 20 and 45 parts per billion in Europe and the United States, and are expected to increase to between 42 and 84 parts per billion by 2100.

    “Plants are much more sensitive to ozone than people, and a slight increase in exposure can have a large impact on their productivity,” says Manning, a professor of plant, soil and insect sciences. “The new ozone standard set by the U.S. EPA in March 2008 is based on protecting human health, and may not be strict enough to protect plants.” Manning served on the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee for the EPA in 1997 when the previous air quality standard for ozone was developed.

    According to Manning, emission controls on cars have been successful in reducing short periods of high ozone levels called peaks, but average concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere throughout the year, called the background level, is increasing as polluted air masses from Asia travel to the U. S. and then on to Europe. Background levels are now between 20 and 45 parts per billion in Europe and the United States, and are expected to increase to between 42 and 84 parts per billion by 2100.

  6. Aaron Lewis says:

    Last year the behavior of the jet stream/ polar vortex over Russia was considered very strange. I suggest that it was a natural result of declining Arctic sea ice. Since we have not seen an increase in sea ice over the last year, we can expect to see years of similar behavior in the jet stream/ polar vortex . (Until the sea ice is gone. Then, we will see different jet stream/ polar vortex behaviors.)

    My point is that another dry year (low grain production) is very possible for Russia, Ukraine, and China. China had a recent series of precipitation events in its wheat growing regions, but a few rainstorms do not make for a good wheat crop. Nor, do I see enough water resources for sustained irrigation of China’s wheat, and irrigation is very expensive.

    Last year, China had flood producing rainstorms in it’s southern areas. I think that is a reasonable pattern to expect for this year. Likewise, another year of floods for Pakistan is very possible if the jet stream follows last year’s pattern.

    In addition, Texas and Oklahoma are looking dry this spring, and are not likely to produce large wheat crops. Montana is looking very wet, and maybe too wet for a big wheat crop. In short, US wheat inventories are likely to drop at least 9% in an environment where other countries are trying to buy wheat. “Prudence” would seem to be a good food policy.

    The Tea Party folks are going to learn how hard it is to run a government when food prices are rising rapidly. Rapidly rising food prices make people really cranky. (The joke is on the Tea Party. They thought they were already cranky.)

    (The good news is that India is looking forward to a record wheat crop and record wheat exports.)

  7. Charlie says:

    So how do I read the Y axis on the first chart?

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Encourage people to eat insects and worms.


  9. GFW says:

    Let’s face it, we need to use more birth control. If we do not, the positive (and necessary) effects of de-carbonizing the economy will be less, and eventually swamped by numbers anyway.

  10. George says:

    Seems like the perfect feedback loop: carbon emissions ruins the food supply, which kills off the carbon emitters.

  11. Scrooge says:

    I just don’t see it happening. We live in a country where hating your neighbor is fine but if you forget say grace you’re evil. Since we can’t even get along with our neighbors I don’t think we are capable of handling a problem in africa or asia that’s out of sight and out of mind.
    It comes as no surprise to me that the first casualties of AGW are the poor. We will have plenty of our own casualties in not to distant future. We will still have the crowd that will need someone to blame, more than likely it will be the poor that are blamed. Or it could still be like today where the freeloading teachers, police, firefighters, scientists, and let’s include the military are the cause of all problems.
    I was always an optimist. But more and more it looks like humans are no different than any bacteria overwhelming its host. We have given the earth a fever. It will take care of overpopulation on its own.

  12. Tim says:

    As is well-known to readers here, corporate greed in its many manifestations is largely responsible for our government’s inaction and inconstancy of action on climate change. There is a manifestation of corporate greed (specifically, the greed of investment bankers) that one should bear in mind when looking at gyrations in commodities prices. Since the New Deal days of the 1930’s, the role of speculators in commodities was tightly controlled. It was recognized that limited involvement of speculators was necessary in commodities markets to provide commodities to buyers when sellers (e.g., grain farmers) were not selling their products and to buy from sellers when the end buyers were not buying. The tightly limited role of speculators was ended at the same time that right-wing geniuses dismantled other market control systems (like the Glass-Steagall act, for example). As a result, big institutional investors (including those from huge Petro-states) are involved in massive commodities speculation. The short term run-ups in prices you are seeing in these charts can be the results of speculative buying as much as actual “shortages” in supply. (See the Commodities Bubble chapter in Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia.)

  13. Tim says:

    BTW – the vertical axis on your first graph is mislabeled with “250” all the way up.

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    #8. David, the vast majority of the world’s population does not live on industrial food.

    Some insects are a highly nutritional source of food and are tasty, ME

  15. Edward says:

    “As the global population surges to 9 billion by 2050″

    9 Billion people: Nope. Isn’t going to happen. See:
    “Ecological Footprints and Bio-Capacity: Essential Elements in Sustainability Assessment” by William E. Rees, PhD, University of British Columbia and “Living Planet Report 2008″ also by Rees

    We went past the Earth’s permanent carrying capacity for humans some time in the 1980s. We are 30% over our limit already. And the US no longer has excess biocapacity. We are feeding on imports.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Edward #14 is, unfortunately, correct. We’ll never see nine billion. The point of no return was twenty or more years ago. We are just like the Coyote who’s run off the cliff, looking about aghast at the reality, with gravity magically suspended for sado-comical effect, with the long, long drop into the abyss about to intervene. Regrettably we won’t bounce back for more.