Rising food costs highlight the need for foreign aid

Rising food costs highlight the need for foreign aid
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A major piece of foreign policy legislation has been moving quickly through Congress over the past week, and if it passes, it will be a marvel in our era of fractured politics: something that Republicans and Democrats can actually agree on.

The Global Food Security Act, initially signed into law in 2016, funds foreign aid programs that focus on ending hunger. The Senate voted last week to reauthorize the law for another five years, and it’s expected to come to a full House vote soon.

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Foreign assistance programs funded under GFSA have enjoyed bipartisan support in large part because they do a lot of good. By delivering skills and American agricultural expertise to enable countries to better feed themselves, U.S. government efforts have lifted 9 million people out of poverty and unlocked billions of dollars in additional financing available to small-scale farmers worldwide.

 

These efforts couldn’t come at a more pertinent time, because there are signs of increasing vulnerability in our global food system. The number of hungry people in the world is on the rise for the first time in a decade, and recently, global prices of staple food grains reached the highest level in more than three years, according to the United Nations. High food costs hit hardest in the developing world, where people spend the majority of their incomes on what they eat.

Preventing another food crisis

Rising food costs are an important reminder of why it’s important to prioritize policies like the GFSA that promote sustainable crop production. Almost exactly 10 years ago, the world learned exactly what can happen when food supplies are in question. During the global food crisis of 2008, prices for wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice surged to records, civil unrest broke out in dozens of countries, and 1 billion people were thrust into poverty and hunger. Back then, it felt like humanity’s ability to feed itself, long taken for granted, rested on a knife’s edge.

Thanks to several years of increasing world supplies, concern has understandably receded with time. However, the risks that sparked the crisis haven’t gone away. The world still has a voracious appetite for food, and consumption only stands to increase further as the population climbs toward 10 billion by 2050.

In Africa, where population growth will be the fastest, grain output will need to triple by then to meet rising demand, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Fortunately, the continent has a lot of room for growth. Crop yields across Sub-Saharan Africa lag behind global averages, but increased access to financing, agricultural training, and better inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizer could go a long way toward closing the production gap, especially for millions of the continent’s small-scale farmers. 

Threat of climate change

Harvesting enough food to keep up with demand will be a challenge, and climate change threatens to make it even more difficult. Extreme weather is already occurring around the world, as evidenced by recent droughts, severe storms, and floods, and it’s expected to become more frequent in coming years.

No one knows for sure what kind of affect this will have on food supplies, but according to one IFPRI model, climate change could cut global corn output by 24 percent by 2050 if we don’t change our current course. And since global grain trade is highly concentrated, a simultaneous weather disaster in one or two major producing countries, like the U.S. or China, could put the world over the edge.

Thankfully, we’re not facing an emergency scenario yet, but the threat underscores the need to be prepared. On the ground, farmers need more support to put sustainable farming practices in place, to guarantee big harvests long-term. Importantly, we need to concentrate on increasing yields on farmland that’s already in production, to avoid clearing forests and damaging the environment any further.

Once again, Sub-Saharan Africa holds a possible solution. Governments, investors, and the international community need to increase support for small-scale farmers, to unlock potentially significant yield gains.

Uncertain political outlook

In the U.S., foreign assistance programs that provide financing and training to farmers have long received bipartisan support, although recently, our political environment has been somewhat less certain. Last year, the Trump administration proposed to significantly slash budgets for foreign assistance programs, which members of the international community warned could be deadly for people in developing countries. 

Fortunately, members of Congress still control the budget, and by passing the GFSA, they can protect funding for some of the world’s most vulnerable people for the next five years.

Food is fundamental for survival, and 2008 was a warning that we can no longer take it for granted. The challenges ahead will require us to work together. We need to continue the work we started in the wake of that crisis, and support programs to sustainably increase crop production long-term. 

Stephanie Hanson a senior vice president at One Acre Fund, a nonprofit social enterprise that’s working with 600,000 farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to eradicate hunger.  

Whitney McFerron is a writer for One Acre Fund, and previously covered the global food crisis as an agricultural markets reporter for Bloomberg News.