Solving the Global Food Crisis: The Case for a "Poverty Czar"

This week, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) convened an international panel on food security at which FAO chief Jacques Diouf argued that global food production will have to double by 2050 simply to prevent another billion people from starving. At the same time, two new scientific reports -- one from the hunger relief charity Oxfam International and one from international affairs think-tank Chatham House -- predicted that global food prices will rise sharply over the next 20 years. And in 2008 alone, the number of people in dire poverty -- individuals not consuming enough calories for their basic sustenance -- increased by 4 percent (that's an additional 40 million starving individuals) to a staggering 973 million, according to the U.N.

Already, there have been riots over food in Haiti, Bangladesh, and Egypt as well as unrest in dozens of other countries. And as Obama has rightly noted--as has his transition team chief, John Podesta, in his must-read book The Power of Progress--global poverty is at the root of global security: Dire poverty breeds war, failed states, and terrorism. This is an uncontroversial though strangely neglected fact. It happened in Afghanistan. It happened in Iraq. It's happening in the Horn of Africa. Even beyond the moral imperative of preventing a billion people from starving, for basic security reasons, we can't afford to ignore a billion starving human beings.

But what is the reason for this festering crisis? And more critically, can we solve it?

One obvious reason for this problem is that the U.S. government spends well under one-quarter of 1 percent of our gross national income on aid, placing us dead last among the 22 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most Americans believe that we should spend about 10 times more on aid than we do, and 60 percent of Americans want to triple aid immediately, from about $25 billion to $75 billion. Simply convincing Congress to do what its constituents already desire would move us from the bottom to the top and would encourage other countries to follow our lead. For an idea of how much money we're talking about, remember that the justly lauded Gates Foundation--the world's largest private charity -- spent $3.3 billion last year on all its programs.

Increasing aid from the U.S. is just one part of the solution, and it must be coupled with improved aid allocation, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof discussed in his devastating case-in-point, "Year After Year, Grave After Grave" (please read the article).

The Obama administration is off to a good start on this issue. It has pledged to double development aid, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a commitment at the U.N. conference in Madrid this week to "[build] a new partnership among donor states, developing nations, U.N. agencies, NGOs, the private sector and others to better coordinate policies to achieve the Millennium Development Goals [of halving global poverty by 2015]."

But more must be done. In his book, Podesta proposes the appointment of a cabinet-level "poverty czar"; such a move could not come too soon. With nearly a billion people starving worldwide, having one person dedicated to overseeing the allocation of U.S. aid makes perfect sense. Obama and Clinton have laid out their priorities with the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. How about a George Mitchell or Richard Holbrooke to deal with global poverty?

In addition to overseeing U.S. aid, a new poverty czar could also work to address global poverty at its roots. This means digging past the superficial reason conventionally offered for why there is growing poverty ("food costs are rising") and recognizing that the most significant factors driving up food costs are the diversion of crops to biofuels and the growing demand for meat in developing countries, especially China and India.

Last year's Nobel laureate in economics, Paul Krugman, lays out the problem: "Over the past few years the prices of wheat, corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled .... High food prices dismay even relatively well-off Americans -- but they're truly devastating in poor countries, where food often accounts for more than half a family's spending." And the causes for the price spike? Some of the most important causes Krugman identifies are also the most obvious (and correctable): "the march of the meat-eating Chinese -- that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners" and biofuels, because "land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis." He adds, "We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake."

World Bank president Robert Zoellick backed Krugman's analysis in a National Public Radio interview in which he explained, "You have some of those countries moving to a different diet. So more meats require more grains. You have the biofuels expansion, which is a big source of demand." He added, "Biofuels is no doubt a significant contributor. It is clearly the case that programs in Europe and the United States that have increased biofuel production have contributed to the added demand for food."

Indeed, according to a World Bank report released last year, biofuel production has driven global food prices up 75 percent, dwarfing the effect of weather changes, drought, and other factors. The impact is so severe that the U.N. special rapporteur on food policy called the diversion of crops to biofuels "a crime against humanity."

According to a U.N. report last April, about 100 million tons of grain and corn were turned into biofuels last year, and 758 million tons were fed to chickens, pigs, and other farmed animals. So obviously, an increase in either of those uses will drive up food costs, as noted by Krugman, Zoellick, and others. And if diverting 100 million tons of grain and corn to biofuels is a crime against humanity, how should we characterize the diversion of 758 million tons to feed chickens and other farmed animals, considering the vast inefficiency of cycling crops through animals, compared to eating those crops directly?

It is important for those of us in the West to remember that although we can't do much to stop the Chinese and Indians from eating more meat, we can do a lot about our own diets. Eating less meat would push food prices down, just as growing consumption in developing countries pushes them up. As Krugman and Zoellick suggest, we should be worried about the increase in meat consumption in China and India. We should be more worried, however, about what is on our own plates.

A poverty czar could and should use the position to rally the American public to support greater food aid, more efficient food aid, and a change in policies away from the promotion of biofuels and the highly inefficient meat industry. She or he could also use the bully pulpit of the position to encourage Americans to donate more to private charities and to lead by example on the issue of meat consumption.

Yes, we can solve the global food crisis -- if we have the will.