More than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northeast Nigeria are now facing extreme hunger, with the potential for not just widespread death, but also the deepening of long-term political and military crises in East Africa. United Nations humanitarian coordinator Stephen O’Brien has called this food crisis the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945. Observers are asking, given all the progress that has been made since the end of World War II in international assistance and development, how can the world be faced again with a large-scale food crisis?
The answer is complex, as food crises arise from a number of causes, including poverty, war, politics, and disease. Yet one of the key reasons the world community has a hard time responding to famine lies in the structure of global food relations. Policymakers and people often talk about a global food system, but we are living in a time where food relations, rather than being a system—an integrated and governed whole—are instead a “partially self-organized collection of interacting parts,” to use the words of the UK’s Foresight Group.
Another way to describe the structure that stretches from farms to forks around the world would be to call it a network. This food network encompasses activities involved in producing, gathering, harvesting, processing, transporting, preparing, and consuming food. Why is this distinction between a system and a network important? It matters because the food network is, in comparison to a food system, less responsive to straightforward policy or market-based solutions.
There were efforts following World War II to create a unified international food system. John Boyd Orr, a Scottish nutritionist who became the first Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, proposed the creation of a World Food Board to manage the global food supply, harmonizing global production and consumption of food. He was responding to a sense that food insecurity contributed to causing World War II and was a central experience for soldiers and civilians during and after the war. Boyd Orr’s plan failed because nations were unwilling to cede authority over food production to an international body. As a result, while international organizations like FAO play important coordinating functions in world food, production and distribution activities remain under the control of national governments and increasingly private actors like multinational corporations.
The resulting food network has critical implications for international responses to food crises, because those responses are dependent on national choices. For countries such as the United States, food aid emerged in the post-war years as a critical component of diplomatic efforts to promote peace and stability. President Eisenhower formalized the use of what has been called “food power” when he signed the 1954 Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act (most often called PL-480 or Public Law 480), which created America’s first permanent program to provide food as foreign assistance. While PL-480 was initially intended to reduce the cost of storing surplus food, in the 1960s Presidents Kennedy and Johnson emphasized the humanitarian aspects of providing food aid both at home and overseas. Since the 1960s, the name and structure of government food assistance programs has changed, but the idea of food aid has been supported by both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.
As a result, international food assistance depends on the actions and politics of individual nations. This means that when a food crisis like the current one in North Africa and the Middle East develops, the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations must raise funds from individuals and member nations rather than just focusing on assisting people who urgently and desperately need aid.
Boyd Orr’s idea of a world food system would have tried to bring food supply and demand into balance to avoid food crisis. In contrast, the current world food network is locked in a reactive posture, waiting for food crises to arise and then struggling to raise funds and gather supplies while people suffer and die from hunger. Beyond causing death and illness, food insecurity can undercut progress on development goals like education and improving the status of women, which can have effects that linger long after a food crisis has ended.
There is an unfortunate tendency for food to gain attention during crisis and then fade into the background until a new crisis arises. Food is too critical a component in global peace and prosperity to be left to brief spans of attention. Commitments can be made to develop a food network that is more sustainable, adaptable, and resilient, one that is able to anticipate and respond to food problems. The cultivation of such a network however, will take years and likely even decades, requiring sustained allocations of resources.
There is good reason to expect that world food problems will become more rather than less challenging in the future. While historians like myself are hesitant to use the past to predict the future and forecasting the future is always a tricky business, a range of recent assessments have concluded that future impacts on agriculture and food production from sources such as change and variability in global climate and environmental systems are highly probable. Combined with ongoing population growth, demographic changes, and linkages between global food, energy, and water networks, simply hoping that food production will keep up with demand seems a dangerous bet to make.
Given the range of global challenges we face, people and policymakers would be wise to reconsider the lessons about food and war learned by postwar policymakers like President Eisenhower and Sir John Boyd Orr and recognize that there are practical as well as moral reasons to address world food problems.
Featured image credit: United Nations Economic and Social Council chamber in New York City by MusikAnimal. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.