Famine, Food and the 'F' Word

Earlier this month, the ONE campaign, a leading advocate in the fight against global poverty, unveiled a new PSA titled "The F Word: Famine is the Real Obscenity." Launched with support from AOL, the Huffington Post, and other media outlets, it's a provocative ad campaign that's bringing desperately needed attention to the human tragedy that is unfolding in the Horn of Africa. Everyone who cares about global hunger should view the PSA and sign the petition.

The ad makes the important point that while a near-record drought may have precipitated the famine, the famine itself is "the result of a tragic combination of factors that are man-made, including abnormally high food prices, lack of governance and security in Somalia, and a historic lack of investment in long-term agricultural development in the Horn."

The African famine deserves all the attention it can get, particularly as donor nations have been slow to respond to the crisis, but the impact of food prices is global. The Food and Agriculture Organization's most recent index of food inflation indicates that prices for basic food commodities remain near the historical high watermark set in February, and the FAO warned this week that volatile prices could be a problem for several years to come.

After setting new highs earlier this year, wheat and corn prices have retreated, but rice prices are now surging. The causes: the drought in Texas and the near-record flooding in Thailand are lowering rice yields. The price of rice has risen about 15 percent over the past year, and could go sharply higher if Thailand's exports are severely curtailed.

The principal concern with respect to high food prices is the impact on the severely poor, those living on $1.25 a day or less. Many of them already spend 50-70 percent or more of their budget on food. When the price of a basic food commodity, like bread, goes up 50 or 100 percent, American consumers complain, but the urban poor in developing countries have no choice but to eat less. Surging food prices in Ethiopia, for example, are inflicting pain on low income households far removed from the drought-affected regions of the Horn.

But food prices are also beginning to take an economic toll on China, India and other emerging nations. Food commodity prices are boosting inflationary pressures and forcing governments to tighten credit. In India, where food inflation has reached double-digit levels again, there have been 12 such increases since March of 2010. China, too, may be forced to raise interest rates again unless food prices ease. Currently, food inflation in China is running at more than 13 percent.

It appears that high food prices are beginning to rival high oil prices as a brake on the world's economic accelerator. If the Indian and Chinese economies falter as the result of food inflation, the impact on the global economy could be as devastating as the financial crisis now gripping Europe.

So, yes, focus on the famine, but don't overlook the larger food picture.

With world population approaching 7 billion, we simply don't know how -- or even whether -- the world can feed a population of 9 billion or higher by mid-century. Nor do we know whether food will be affordable for the urban poor whose fortunes now fall when world food prices rise. Given those uncertainties, we certainly need to increase funding for Feed the Future and other agricultural assistance programs.

Boosting food production in the developing world has to be a top priority, particularly given the challenges posed by climate change and water scarcity. But we also need to increase support for international family planning assistance, because if food production in the developing world doesn't double over the next 40 years, we may be experiencing a famine without borders.