OMAHA (DTN) -- In a speech Wednesday before the United Nations General Assembly, President Joe Biden committed to nearly $3 billion in "life-saving humanitarian" food aid to help with increasing global food insecurity. Biden noted there are now as many as 193 million people facing "acute food insecurity," up 40 million people in just a year.
Biden called out Russia for its war in Ukraine and Russian propaganda blaming other countries for grain shortages and high food prices.
"Russia in the meantime is pumping out lies, trying to pin the food crisis on the sanctions imposed by many in the world for the aggression against Ukraine," Biden said.
Biden emphasized that sanctions from the U.S. and other countries "explicitly allow Russia to export food and fertilizer."
The president also pointed to the deal reached earlier this summer when Russia agreed to allow Ukraine to export grain out of its Black Sea ports after blockading those for months. "We need to make sure it's extended," Biden said of the export deal. "We believe strongly for the need to feed the world."
Biden also said the U.S. "is scaling innovative ways to get drought and heat-resistant seeds to farmers who need them" and working to "distribute fertilizer and improving fertilizer efficiency so the farmers can grow more while using less."
Turning to exports, Biden also called on countries not to block others' ability to export food.
"We're calling on all countries to refrain from banning food exports or hoarding grain while so many people are suffering. Because in every country in the world, no matter what else divides us, if parents cannot feed their children -- nothing -- nothing else matters."
FOOD SECURITY DETERIORATING
Biden's speech follows the grim findings on how food security continues to deteriorate internationally, according to the most recent Global Food Security Index released early Tuesday morning.
"At a time when global food security is of utmost importance, the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) shows that the global food environment is deteriorating. After hitting its peak in 2019, the GFSI has since declined amid skyrocketing food prices and hunger on an unprecedented scale," stated the report looking at global food security.
Between 2019 and 2022, food costs rose by 11% internationally. At the same time, safety nets were declining to help people access affordable, safe, nutritious food.
Developed by Economist Impact and supported by Corteva Agriscience, the index, now in its 11th year, evaluates food security in 113 countries across four key pillars: affordability, availability, quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation. The index is based on a benchmarking model constructed from 68 qualitative and quantitative drivers of food security.
The GFSI's 68 indicators look at what enables an environment to be more food secure or less. This includes availability and access of food, caloric needs, infrastructure and other areas.
"We look at affordability, which is the ability of populations to actually afford some of the food quality and safety, access and availability of not just food, but also good-quality food. And then, of course, sustainability and adaptation, which is now very deeply connected with the global food security definition," said Pratima Singh, principal of policy and insights at Economist Impact.
WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH FARMERS
Tim Glenn, executive vice president of the Seed Business Unit for Corteva Agriscience, explained the metrics were expanded to 68 this year to "better reflect the importance of what's happening at the farmer level," both on and off the farm in the role farmers have in addressing food security.
"Farmers have been addressing food security, especially around having more efficient operations, getting access to knowledge and tools, like those that are available from Extension Service, the importance of freedom of trade, (and) in empowering female farmers to support their farming operations," Glenn said.
"These are important because farmers are continually being asked to grow significantly more food with fewer resources, and increasing scrutiny from society," continued Glenn. "Farmers face challenges like increasing pressure from the environment, whether it's for pest diseases, or changing environment, the need to improve the productivity of their farms while ensuring profitability to manage their operations, and most importantly, access to technology and knowledge that they need to support their operations. Global food security depends on the ability of farmers to produce more food and more nutritious food, while using fewer resources and being more sustainable. They do all this while resisting short- and long-term shocks."
NOT JUST ONE FACTOR
While this year's index findings were stark, it was also stressed that it wasn't just one factor or shock that affected food security -- such as the pandemic, or Russia-Ukraine war -- that influenced the index. The trend is the index has been falling for a few years.
"Based on 11 years of data, the index highlights that the food system has been weakening over the years, with shocks in 2020-22, including the COVID-19 pandemic and high commodity prices, showcasing this fragility. These shocks exacerbate the systemic issues that are threatening food security and weakening the resilience of the food system," the report stated.
The report's writers stressed that this trend reversed the eight years of strong growth seen in the earlier years of the index.
"This subsequent stalled progress reflects structural issues and significant risks in the global food system, which include, but are not limited to, volatility in agricultural production, scarcity of natural resources, increasing economic inequality, and trade and supply-chain volatility. The economic and socio-political shocks of the past few years have only exacerbated an already-weakening food environment. As these shocks become more frequent and severe, global food security will be increasingly threatened," said the report.
Singh stressed how it was already a weak global food system.
She explained that from 2012 through 2015, there was a lot of progress with an average of about 6% growth in the pace of improvement and growth in the global food environment.
However, there were growing structural weaknesses starting in 2015, although the GFSI still overall showed gains until 2019. "And then these past few years, we've seen declines in the overall environment," she said. "A lot of it is, of course, driven by things like higher food costs, inability of governments to fund safety net programs, socio-political instability and risks ... All of these factors are also very closely linked to long-term structural issues that we've seen that have been weakening the global food system. Many of them include, but are not limited to scarcity of natural resources, management of these resources, increasing inequality, both social and economic inequality, and of course trade volatility."
ALREADY IN CHALLENGING PERIOD
Biden's announcement on the U.S. commitment toward global food security is at a time when the country, along with other countries, is being urged to do more.
Rob Bertram, chief scientist in the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, took part in a webinar Tuesday where he was asked what Ukraine's invasion has done to food prices.
"We were already in a challenging period; even before the invasion of Ukraine, prices were rising for food, fuel and fertilizer. And those three F's tend to go together." He said the invasion "really affected the availability of key foods, especially wheat and vegetable oil, sunflower oil, in particular, that were heavily exported out of Ukraine."
He added the war affected the exports of fertilizer from Russia, a key global source of potassium. "So, this was like throwing fuel on the fire. And some countries that were heavily dependent on imported wheat from the Ukraine, you can think of places like Lebanon, Egypt and others, were really hit hard and faced a market that was rapidly escalating prices because of demand surging ahead of supply.
"Similarly, on the fertilizer side, we also saw a squeeze. And remember, there's a lot of countries that import both a lot of wheat and a lot of fertilizer. But even if they don't import a lot of wheat, they import a lot of fertilizer ... especially the lower income countries of the world, there just isn't the availability of major sources."
Bertram said everyone wants to think they're doing enough.
"But we know often that we could do more." He said the U.S. has been "very forward leaning" with its "humanitarian assistance, the saving lives, along with key dimensions of that -- nutritional interventions, health, maternal and child health, especially water and sanitation, and, of course, food, nutritious food culturally appropriate and accepted by the populations we're trying to help." Last year, the U.S. contributed the most to the World Food Program, at $3.8 billion.
Yet, when it comes to ranking of countries in overall food security environment, the U.S. doesn't even make the top 10 list internationally. The United States came in No. 13.
Singh noted that Northern Europe made up the majority of the top 10. In order, the top countries are: Finland, Ireland, Norway, France, Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Sweden, United Kingdom and Portugal.
Meanwhile, the lowest 10, in order are: Syria, Haiti, Yemen, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Burundi, Nigeria, Venezuela, Sudan and Congo (Dem. Rep.)
Sadar Karim, a public policy analyst with Economist Impact, explained what set the top countries from the others. "If we talk about some of the strongest areas, which is driving these scores up, you will see that these food safety net programs, which are really robust in these countries, these countries have access to diversified financial products, they have really strong nutritional standards, and their food safety legislation and political commitment to adaptation are really strong as well.
"Having said that, these countries also have some areas where they can further improve on things like agricultural R&D, irrigation infrastructure, (and) access to agricultural inputs for women farmers," Karim said.
Looking at how much countries have improved in the past 11 years, one that made the biggest changes was China; while Canada and the U.S. have shown improvement, the U.S. was one of the countries showing some of the lowest improvement during that period.
"Some of the most improved countries have in fact focused on things like improving affordability, by reducing poverty, managing food costs better, and implementing better social safety nets and social protection measures. Think of countries like China, Vietnam, Oman, where we've seen significant improvements in their food environments," said Singh.
"On the other end of the spectrum, we've seen countries like Syria and Venezuela decline in their food environments. And a lot of this has to do with soaring food prices ... in these regions and markets, and of course, increasing dependency on food safety nets, but also ... chronic on food aid," said Singh.
Bertram said while we know the signs of acute hunger and severe acute malnutrition that needs emergency assistance, "There's an insidious nutrition crisis here that we don't see, and it comes from the change in the quality of people's diets.
"In other words, when rice, wheat, cassava, maize when these staples become more expensive, the irony is people actually eat more of them. So, they had to give up the eggs, the dairy, the fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and other quality foods in their diet that are critical sources of micronutrients. And we know that this can play out very rapidly in terms of negative impacts on maternal and child health, child development, so are the crisis here," Bertram explained.
This is why the U.S. and other countries are targeting rapid aid for those who are most affected by the food and fertilizer crisis such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but also aiming to achieve lasting impacts, he said.
He noted there needs to be innovations for information for farmers and others all along the food chain, to help with the types and affordability of food, especially for women, children and those of low income.
NEED FOR CONSISTENT REGULATIONS
The speakers also stressed the importance of climate-smart innovations to help it pay off economically for farmers and be of benefit to consumers.
Tim Glenn, executive vice president, seed business unit for Corteva Agriscience, touched on the global regulatory environment that also affects food security.
"A lot of the technology we (in our business) develop is highly regulated, and subjected to multiple jurisdictions of regulatory oversight, even within ... some countries. And so, you know, what we strive for, is ... predictability in the regulatory system ... I respect the fact that each country has their own approach and philosophy. So, we're not asking for it to be simplified or dumbed down, but just some level of predictability. So, we understand what we're dealing with."
He added that science-based policies are critical. "Too often, we end up with situations where regulatory oversight ends up being politicized. And it's country versus country, or, you know, maybe they're picking winners or losers within ... a sector or an industry."
He noted these regulations include the technology, but also the produce from that technology. Glenn said that sometimes it feels like the rules are constantly changing, and businesses like his are striving for open, transparent, consistent and science-based regulations.
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