Josette Sheeran
Josette Sheeran

For those of us who work in the humanitarian world, the dawn of the twenty-first century has dealt us a difficult hand. As the expert practitioners in the game of preparing and planning for sudden, unpredictable events, we at the World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian agency, have become the recognised experts in emergency response.

Unfortunately, no amount of planning, preparation or foresight could have steeled us, or indeed the broader humanitarian community, for the situation we face today.

As an agency that makes huge purchases of food – moving it from where it is grown and processed to where it is needed – we are being squeezed at both ends of our business. On the purchasing side, prices are up, and on the beneficiary side, demand is rising. Caught in between, the United Nations World Food Programme is being stretched to its very limits.

Many of us are part of a generation that grew up during an age of colossal food surpluses. In the 1960s and 1970s agricultural economists spoke repeatedly of the “grain mountains” and “wine lakes” that had built up in the industrialised world, and the challenge of what to do with this over-production. Today, those mountains have eroded and the lakes have dried up.

In the next year, world grain stocks are expected to fall to their lowest levels in two decades, confirming the contention that we are now living in a post-food surplus era. As supply runs low, prices are being driven upwards by a combination of factors beyond our control:

  • World population is exploding: We are currently a global citizenry of 6.7 billion. The United Nations projects world population to climb to 8 billion by 2025 and to 9.1 billion by 2050. The vast majority of that growth will take place in the developing world.
  • Biofuels: We are facing the relatively new phenomenon of food for fuel, as farmers sell their corn production to ethanol producers.
  • Economic growth: As populations in India and China move out of abject poverty (living on $1 per day) they, like the rest of the developed world, consume eggs, dairy products, or even chicken. Almost all milk and egg-producing animals consume grains. So in essence, cows and chickens are competing with humans for corn and wheat.

Meanwhile, just as WFP has had to contend with unpredictable events on the international grain markets, so too have farmers, their families and their customers, had to contend with the most unpredictable phenomenon in the world today: the weather. Farmers throughout the developing world depend heavily on WFP for food and assistance when disaster strikes. And climate change has meant that disaster is striking more frequently.

We are in the midst of some of the worst flooding in Africa in living memory, with rivers bursting their banks across the continent from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east. In some countries, like Somalia, severe drought has been followed within months by a deluge that has swamped whole regions of the country.

The head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said recently that the sheer number of floods, droughts and storms in 2007 had confirmed that the impact of climate change is with us here and now – confirmation, if it was needed that the demand for assistance from agencies like WFP is only likely to increase.

So this combination of growing world population, increased commodity prices and climate change are forming a perfect storm that has driven WFP into an uncomfortably tight corner.

At the very time that we are being asked to do so much more, our funding has failed to keep pace. We just completed our budget for 2008 and 2009. On top of the commodity price rise of 50 percent over the past five years, we are projecting an additional 35 percent increase over the next two years. Over the same two years, we will deliver about 780,000 fewer metric tons of food.

How are we coping with these challenges? By feeding smarter. And that means doing our work in a way that will not just eliminate hunger at the moment, but will attack the causes of hunger at their roots.

So in Ethiopia, we are piloting a drought insurance programme that covers farmers’ losses when arid weather starves their crops so that they can plan for the next season rather than joining the ranks of migrant populations.

Across Africa, we are more often purchasing food for the hungry from small farmers. Last month, for example, we bought white maize from farmers in Lesotho. In fact, 77 percent of our cash-bought food is sourced in 70 developing countries around the world. This practice not only saves WFP money, it also helps to sustain livelihoods of small farmers. They, in turn, help to anchor their local economies.

We’ve learned a lot over a near half century in the field, and the challenge for WFP is to use that knowledge to not only feed and nourish people today, but to do so in a way that helps to break the cycle of hunger.

Photo by FAO / Alessandra

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