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Experts fear worsening global food crisis if US does not lead

The World Food Program estimates famine could hit three dozen countries

Women stand in line in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for food aid during the coronavirus lockdown in April.
Women stand in line in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for food aid during the coronavirus lockdown in April. (Rehman Asad/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

With global hunger projected to increase dramatically this year as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, humanitarian relief experts are calling on the U.S. government to play a leadership role in ensuring that global food supply lines remain open.

Thus far, the Trump administration and Congress have been preoccupied with alleviating the impacts of the pandemic at home, which experts say is understandable given the scale of the problem.

But time is also of the essence if the United States wants to ease what could become the worst food crisis in a century — which could lead to political destabilization in countries where Washington has national security interests, such as Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Foreign aid organizations want Congress to include $12 billion in additional international assistance in the next coronavirus emergency spending bill it sends to the president. But even more than monetary assistance, U.S. leadership is needed to discourage other countries from erecting trade barriers to agricultural exports and to keep global supply lines running, these groups told CQ Roll Call.

“We desperately and urgently need a systemic response to keep pace with and eventually outpace either the virus or the economic collapse and food insecurity,” said Gayle Smith, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Obama administration and is now the president of the anti-poverty focused ONE Campaign. “The problem with food supply is less that food is not being produced and more that markets are being disrupted. So part of the response has to be a market response.”

Global hunger was at one of its highest points in years even before COVID-19 caused governments worldwide to temporarily shutter large swaths of their economies. In 2019, roughly 135 million people experienced acute hunger across 55 countries, particularly in Yemen, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Venezuela, according to the annual Global Report on Food Crises, which was released last month by a coalition of national and multilateral agencies including USAID and the U.N. World Food Program.

The World Food Program estimates that the global recession caused by COVID-19 could nearly double, to 265 million, the number of people facing severe food shortages before the year is over, and a famine could occur in some three dozen countries.

“I don’t even like to think about what could be happening in developing countries even if they are not hit hard by the pandemic,” said Kim Elliott, a visiting fellow with the nonpartisan Center for Global Development, who specializes in food security and trade policy. “The degree of the economic crisis that we’re seeing is just going to have terrible impacts, not just on the people that are already poor in these countries but the people who may have just gotten over the line of not being poor. Millions of them are likely to fall back into poverty.”

Falling commodity prices

Another concern is the collapse of crude oil prices and other commodities, which many developing countries rely on for national income. Crude oil prices have suffered the most dramatic declines, though coal, natural gas and metals have also experienced severe price downturns, according to an April World Bank report on commodity prices.

Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, in a Council on Foreign Relations conference call earlier this month, said one would have to go back to the Great Depression to see such a crash in global commodity prices, which disproportionately affects the budgets of governments in developing countries.

“Global trade is crashing. These countries depend on that,” he said. “I think we could be looking at a humanitarian crisis, at a scale the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years.”

Food aid experts want the United States and other developed countries to use lessons of past famines to head off the worst hunger-related consequences of the pandemic.

Dina Esposito, who directed USAID’s Food for Peace office from 2010 to 2016, recalled that during food crises in Somalia in 1991 and 2011, there were numerous early warning signs of a famine. But it wasn’t until “we saw wide-scale starvation, death from hunger, did the money really start flowing,” she told CQ Roll Call.

“We want to get way ahead of it and not wait for all of those horrific images that we think of,” said Esposito, now vice president for technical leadership at Mercy Corps.

US surplus food not a solution 

The Trump administration has dedicated $8 million within USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security toward combating coronavirus-related impacts. The funding will be used to help countries develop and implement supply chain strategies to reduce local hunger and to help agricultural businesses adapt their business models to withstand the economic shocks caused by the virus, according to a State Department fact sheet.

American farms that supply mostly shuttered restaurants and schools have been scrambling to find new ways of selling their produce. Some of that food can be diverted to farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture programs, grocery stores and charities, but large quantities are going to waste because of a lack of affordable freezer space.

It’s understandable to view images of U.S. farmers plowing under unharvested lettuce or dumping milk and wonder why the government can’t buy that unused produce and ship it to hungry people in Africa or the Middle East. But most of the U.S. agricultural products going to waste now are also ill-suited to be donated overseas, Elliott said.

“A lot of the stuff that is being plowed under is stuff that can’t be easily stored,” Elliott said. “A lot of this perishable stuff is not going to survive a weeks-long journey plus the internal transportation [network] in Africa.”

Instead, food aid specialists want Congress to give USAID maximum flexibility in how it divides its food aid funding. Some can go toward purchases through the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corporation of U.S. foodstuffs like wheat, corn and rice — but a larger amount should be used to buy food abroad, closer to the sources of hunger, experts say.

In fiscal 2019, 41 percent of Food for Peace’s nearly $4.4 billion food assistance budget was used on in-kind purchases in the United States, according to a USAID fact sheet.

“Right now with all of the supply-chain disruptions that we are seeing, you want your food aid to be as flexible as possible,” Elliott said. “Even a temporary easing of the restrictions requiring in-kind food aid right now in order to speed up and get more money more efficiently to people in desperate need … would be a huge help.”

Food export restrictions

Another problem is that countries are imposing restrictions on food exports as they seek to protect their own domestic supplies. This year’s global scramble to import scarce medical equipment has instilled in national governments a desire not to be caught flat-footed on the food front. 

As of April 22, 17 countries or customs territories had imposed export prohibitions on foodstuffs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Trade Organization.

Wheat and rice have experienced the most export barriers, according to an analysis published last week by Timothy Sulser, a senior scientist with the International Food Policy Research Institute and Shahnila Dunston, a senior research analyst with the institute.

“Currently, the largest economic shocks from the COVID-19 crisis appear to be on household incomes, while global stocks of rice and wheat are in better shape than they were in the 2007-2008 food crisis,” write Sulser and Dunston.

“But the fact that relatively few countries export essential staples like wheat and rice poses a potentially significant risk…. The case of rice is particularly problematic as it is such a crucial source of dietary energy.”

Smith said she is worried about a repeat of the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which was driven by export restrictions, market speculation and panic buying. That cumulatively increased global food prices, leaving many developing countries priced out.

If the United States does not build consensus at the World Trade Organization and other multilateral bodies and in one-on-one conversations with foreign governments on the importance of not imposing export bans on foodstuffs, then the crisis will only grow, she predicted.

Calls for more funding

A large group of humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps and the ONE Campaign, last week released a letter criticizing the lack of international assistance in the $3 trillion aid package that passed the House on Friday.

“U.S. leaders are rightly focused on bolstering our health system and preserving our economy,” reads the letter. “Yet this pandemic requires a global response. As America emerges from the aftermath of COVID-19, developing countries will be at the peak of the pandemic — with deaths in numbers that are hard to imagine in developing nations.”

Thus far, Congress has dedicated just 0.1 percent, about $2.4 billion, of the total emergency funding it has appropriated across four supplemental coronavirus bills to international assistance, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a foreign aid advocacy group.

The Senate is unlikely to consider the House bill absent significant changes. However, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a member of the Appropriations State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, during a press call last week said he was optimistic the Senate will propose on its own billions of dollars in international aid.

The Connecticut Democrat said he has spoken with subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., multiple times about rushing aid to developing countries during the pandemic.

“I think there is an enormous amount of bipartisan support in the Senate for significant international funding in the next emergency relief bill,” said Murphy. “Many Senate Republicans are enthusiastic to have [foreign aid] in that package.”

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