Starving for Food Ideas

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

A year ago the Famine Early Warning System (part of USAID) issued a stern warning, noting that a La Niña weather event was emerging in the Pacific to a degree of severity that could foster massive droughts along the length of east Africa. Coupled with already low rainfall patterns due to climate change, and rising basic heat, the FEWS warned that previously weak crop yields were likely to become abysmal. By in large the warning went unheeded. (“We Thought Trouble Was Coming,” 4 AUGUST 2011 | VOL 476 | NATURE | 7)

Estimated food security conditions, 3rd Quarter 2011 (August-September 2011)

Meanwhile, basic grain, seed and fertilizer costs have shown a net trend over the last decade of fantastic price increases, well ahead of general inflation. Between July 2001 and June 2011 rice prices increased 203%; wheat 164%; maize 260%.

Not a drop of water fell from the skies over the Horn of Africa, and as far south as Swaziland, in the months of March, April and May. And by mid-May hundreds of thousands of people in the Horn – especially Somalia – were on the move, in search of food and water. The UN and humanitarian community seemed shocked and unprepared by the scale of the disaster, as the initial trickle of people arriving in Dadaab, Kenya, various locations in Ethiopia and the Somali capital of Mogadishu in search of sustenance swelled to millions within 6 weeks. Both the migration of the starving out of central Somalia and the influx of humanitarian aid wereblocked by al-Shabab, one of the key Islamist insurgent groups vying for control of the Somali government. It is not known how many Somalis have starved to death inside al-Shabab controlled territory.

On July 20 the United Nations officially declared a famine emergency for the region, and the World Bank committed $500 million for agricultural and food relief. Just 11 days later the crisis swelled far beyond expectations, with the UN declaring need for $2.5 billion in aid, for an estimated 12.4 million people at risk of starvation. By then, a roughly estimated “tens of thousands” of children had already starved to death, and all refugee centers were filled to capacity, and were turning needy away. Camp size had to be strictly controlled to avoid outbreaks of disease. Despite attempts to limit camp sizes and conditions, epidemics of cholera and measles are emerging, and there is grave concern regarding polio, pertussis and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Media coverage of these events has been sparse compared to the attention given the 1992 Horn famine, but this may reflect the general decline in traditional press and media. Regardless of the reason, the 2011 disaster hasn’t grabbed the imagination and collective level of concern in America or Europe that has propelled donations in past crises. We may simply be overwhelmed by our own economic news.

Worse, the Horn situation is hardly the only grave food security disaster unfolding in the summer of 2011. The list now includes:

  • Degradation of agricultural lands in China has left the massive nation completely dependent on imported fertilizers, purchased in record tonnage. This is driving fertilizer and potash costs to record levels, rendering these products unaffordable for poorer nations.
  • Food has become so expensive in Swaziland, the nation with the world’s highest HIV rate, that reportedly AIDS patients eat dung so that their medicines aren’t consumed on empty stomachs.
  • UN experts warn that Kenya’s drought is also expanding, and within two weeks some 3.5 million Kenyans may face starvation. Nearby Malawi has been torn by riots and military repression, resulting from both near-starvation and opposition to the Bingu wa Mutharika regime.
  • Petroleum prices have also increased dramatically, despite periodic fluctuations. Agriculture is highly dependent on petrochemicals and fuel oils, and some experts predict that further oil price increases will force greater reliance on locally produced foods. The fertilizer price index in the U.S. doubled between 2000 and 2007.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and numerous other players in the agricultural development field have argued that crop resilience in the face of challenging weather and drought conditions mandate use of genetically-modified (GM) plants.  In many cases crop yield per hectare has dramatically improved with GM seed use, but the European Union staunchly opposes such measures, and disallows importation to the continent of GM crops from Africa and other regions. Joyce Tait of the University of Edinburgh and Guy Barker of University of Warwick argue that Europe’s position cannot be justified: “Europe once had a great deal to offer in terms of an environmentally oriented approach to agricultural technology, but policy and stakeholder interactions related to GM crops and biotechnologies over the past 10–15 years have so far prevented these benefits from being realized. If Europe is to meet its own food security needs and con¬tribute to the food requirements of the rest of the world, policy and regulatory changes will be necessary. We will need clearer strategic think¬ing on how to implement a governance approach under these circumstances for the investments we make in scientific research to contribute to food security.” (EMBO reports (2011) 12, 763–768.)
  • Despite India’s net GDP growth, starvation is on the rise and agricultural productivity is declining. The impact can be felt across the nation, by hundreds of millions of people.
  • Even where it is plentiful in Africa, food prices are reaching record levels, causing economically-derived starvation.
  • Because food and humanitarian aid are committed by donors, and spent by aid organizations, in US Dollars, this summer’s economic crisis, featuring a 20% decline in 10 days in the value of the dollar versus the Swiss franc had a stark and immediate impact on the purchasing power of humanitarian organizations and USAID.
  • 30 years of donor reductions in support for small farmers and improvement in local agricultural production have now taken a toll. Farming inefficiency is high, and cannot tolerate climate shifts. The danger zone for famine is therefore expanding now into Uganda, parts of Tanzania, Djibouti and areas in the African interior.
  • There are competing, equally urgent needs on the other side of the world. 9 million Afghans face immediate starvation, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. The food situation is rapidly deteriorating in Pakistan, as well, with official “food insecurity” declared for more than 60% of the population

Currently the U.S. Feed the Future program, coupled with overall USAID efforts constitutes the lion’s share of humanitarian support in all of the above crises. OXFAM warns that reliance upon donor support, particularly from the United States and United Kingdom, will rise sharply over coming years unless both modes of agricultural production change, and systems of resilience in the face of climate change-induced severe weather events are built immediately to match the scale of need. While the US State Department and USAID have moved swiftly and transparently to respond, the scale of need far exceeds current financial resources. Moreover, it is not matched by commensurate generosity from other donor nations, and may collapse entirely under pressure over the U.S. debt ceiling and FY2012 budget fights.

A malnourished child rests inside the pediatric ward at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Feisal Oma

Questions to Explore:

  1. In the immediate term, can we save 1+ million lives in the declared Horn of Africa famine? What obstacles are in the way, and can they be overcome? How long can Somalia’s neighbors continue to absorb and feed the failed state’s masses?
  2. Regardless of one’s views on the causes of global climate change, there can be no doubt that the swings in severe weather events are greater now, and likely to worsen in coming years. How can we get ahead of the weather, creating resilient agricultural systems in poor and middle income countries?
  3. Is the global donor system for food emergencies and agricultural development broken? If so, can it be fixed?
  4. What is the cost, to our humanity (perhaps our souls?) if people in rich countries witness starvation and take no action? Is there a cost to us, in terms of security, but also in terms of our national character and values? If so, how does such a cost get measured, and argued to political leaders?
  5. Is there a fundamental grand strategy for feeding humanity in the 21st Century?