There was already little margin for error in a world where, for the first time in history, 1 billion people are suffering from chronic hunger. But the fragility of world food markets has been underscored by the tragic events of this summer.
The brutal wildfires and crippling drought in Russia are decimating wheat crops and prompting shortsighted export bans. The ongoing floods and widespread crop destruction in Pakistan are creating a massive humanitarian crisis that has left more than 1,600 dead and some 16 million homeless and hungry in a region vital to U.S. national security. These and other climate crises trigger widespread food-price volatility, disproportionately and relentlessly devastating the world's poor.
Less noticed has been the spiking price of wheat -- up 50 percent since early June. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization recently cut its 2010 global wheat forecast by 4 percent amid fears of a scramble among national governments to secure supplies. As wheat prices climb, demand for other essential food crops such as rice will increase as part of a knock-on effect on world food markets, driving up costs for consumers. In particular, Egypt and other countries that depend heavily on Russian wheat might see dramatic price increases and unrest in the streets.
Fortunately, there are signs we will likely avoid a repeat of the 2007-2008 food crisis, when prices jumped as much as 100 percent and led to deadly riots in Port-au-Prince and Mogadishu. This year, bumper crops in the United States, alongside replenished wheat stocks globally, may be adequate to offset shortages due to the fires in Russia. But these short-term measures should not lull us into complacency or a false sense of confidence. We still have neither a strategy nor a solution to ending global hunger.
India's starving children don't need more blind handouts. They need real social change.
By Purnima Menon
In the short term, the United States must implement U.S. President Barack Obama's promise to commit $3.5 billion to food security assistance. Since he made the pledge in 2009, only $812 million has been allocated. Surely the United States can do better, and at a faster pace. Emergency food aid is needed now to prevent famine and needless deaths in Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and northern Nigeria. Congress should increase U.S. contributions to the World Food Program and insist on accountability and reform in the distribution of more than $2 billion in annual U.S. food aid. And the Emergency Food Security Program, which allows greater flexibility in international food assistance by allowing purchases from local producers, cash transfers, and food vouchers, is a step in the right direction and deserves congressional support.
Looking beyond the immediate crisis, the United States and other developed countries must renew long-neglected investments in agriculture assistance across the developing world, targeting small farmers as the fundamental drivers of economic growth. In Africa, for example, agriculture employs more than 60 percent of the labor force and accounts for 25 percent of the continent's economic output. And yet, Africa continues to struggle: Nearly 10 million people in the northern Sahel region are suffering from extreme hunger, and most countries still lack adequate investment in agricultural and road infrastructure to facilitate the development of value-added products and new markets.
While the United States provides more than half of the world's food aid, agriculture assistance today stands at only 3.5 percent of overall U.S. development aid, down from 18 percent in 1979. Not surprisingly, agricultural productivity growth in developing countries is now less than 1 percent annually.