Where Bacon Is Just the Beginning

Bacon made headlines this week when it was announced there will be a global shortage of pork next year. New data from the National Pig Association of Britain shows that pig herds are declining significantly after the worst drought in 56 years in the United States' breadbasket made staple crops -- corn, wheat, and soy -- more expensive and therefore pigs more costly to feed.

As the CEO of the international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide, the fact that bacon will be harder and more expensive to come by in 2013 just begins to scratch the surface on the wide-reaching and potentially devastating effects that a drought in one part of the world can have on food prices in another, and what that means for the people living there.

For you and me, it likely means that our favorite breakfast sandwich has a higher price tag. But for the world's poorest people, who spend up to 80 percent of their income on basic foods, even the slightest price increase can force families to sell the few assets that they have to get by and pull their children out school to contribute to the household income. It can also make more nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables an unaffordable luxury, a sacrifice that can irreversibly stunt the physical and mental development of children, particularly those younger than two years old, and lead to 2-3 percent GDP loss in developing countries.

The tragic reality is that poor harvests due to erratic weather patterns -- and the food price spikes that come with them -- are becoming increasingly common. In 2008, higher global food prices triggered riots in more than 30 countries and added 75 million people to the number of chronically hungry people in the world, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Increased food costs in 2011 fueled violence that later evolved into the Arab Spring. This makes the latest spike, which peaked in July with global food prices up 10 percent, the third in five years.

Developing countries are dangerously exposed to hunger, food insecurity, and slower economic growth when key harvests fail because they largely rely on high-production countries for their food supply. Consecutive jumps in food prices -- like we have seen in the past five years -- make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for developing countries to fully recover from the last crisis, driving the poorest people further into poverty if we do not provide basic social safety nets.

For example, in 2011, when warning signs indicated that a food crisis was emerging the Sahel, a belt of land south of the Sahara Desert, Concern launched an early intervention program in Niger to safeguard those who would be most affected. With food prices up by as much as 71 percent compared to the same period last year, Concern focused on getting the poorest people cash so that they could continue to access food in their local markets without selling their assets, pulling their children out of school, or depleting their grain stores.

We found that, when combined with community nutrition services, villages that received cash transfers had a three percent lower malnutrition rate than villages that did not. We also found recipients were more likely to purchase livestock -- an investment that builds their household wealth and food security -- and women were more likely to be involved in household decision-making about agriculture and education. What we should all take from this is that early intervention is critical when it comes to saving lives and protecting families from the effects of rising food prices. Because we responded before the crisis reached its peak, people could use the cash to meet their families' needs without digging themselves deeper into poverty.

While safety nets are essential, they will never reduce poor countries' vulnerability to global food prices. Long-term investments in agriculture that help communities grow food more efficiently and give them greater access to local markets are essential to increasing local food production and lessening the demand for imports. Women are particularly essential to a country's agricultural infrastructure. Despite growing up to 80 percent of staples foods in many developing countries, women are often marginalized and do not have equal access to gain legal entitlement to land and other services. According to FAO, if women were given equal access to productive resources, farm yields could increase by 20-30 percent.

In many of the countries in which we work, Concern trains farmers in techniques that can improve crop yields by as much as 70 percent. For example, in Zimbabwe, farmers who used to be on food aid were able to increase their productivity -- so much so that they were able to sell grain to neighboring villages. The ripple effects were wide-reaching. With the new income, people were able to send their children to school, cover medical expenses, and rebuild their assets, such as cattle.

While the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that this year's food price spike may have peaked, it cannot make society safety nets, long-term agricultural investments, and effective market policies any less of critical. The fact is we still do not understand the full implications of this year's drought in the United States -- with the corn harvest less than a quarter complete, we will not know the total crop loss likely until October. Similarly, global demand in the wake of reduced supply could still be strong enough to drive food prices up once again.

If this happens, the world's poorest people will undoubtedly pay the highest price.

This week, Tom Arnold is participating in a meeting in New York City that brings together civil society, government, and business leaders as part of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, which works to secure more global resources for nutrition. As members of SUN, countries like Malawi, Ethiopia, and Kenya are prioritizing nutrition with support from international governments, businesses, donors, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) like Concern.