EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 2. Deteriorating Oil and Food Security: Food Insecurity and Failing States

During the concluding half of the last century, the world was making steady progress in reducing hunger, but during the transition into the new century, the tide began to turn. In February 2007, James Morris, head of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), announced that 18,000 children are now dying each day from hunger and related causes. For perspective, this loss of young lives in one day is almost five times U.S. combat deaths in Iraq through four years of fighting. Although these huge numbers of dying children may be an abstraction, each represents a young life ended far too soon. 75

There are many ways of measuring hunger. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates the number of hungry people based on food intake. FAO data say the long-term trend in reducing hunger is encouraging, but not the recent trend. The number of people in developing countries who are hungry and malnourished, which declined from 960 million in 1970 to 800 million in 1996, has turned upward, reaching 830 million in 2003. 76

Projections by Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer of the University of Minnesota four years ago showed the number of hungry and malnourished people decreasing to 625 million by 2025. But an update of these projections in early 2007 that took into account the effect of the massive diversion of grain to ethanol distilleries on world food prices shows the number of hungry people climbing instead of decreasing—to 1.2 billion by 2025. 77

One of the manifestations of a sharp rise in grain prices is a correspondingly sharp drop in food assistance. Since the budgets of food aid agencies are set a year or more ahead, a rise in food prices shrinks food assistance. For example, the United States, by far the largest food aid donor, saw the price of a ton of food aid in 2007 climb to $611, up from $363 per ton in 2004. In the absence of supplemental appropriations, food aid will drop by 40 percent. Key recipients, like Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and the Sudan, will be hit hard. 78

Working together, the FAO and WFP each year release an assessment of crop and food conditions that lists the countries in dire need of food assistance. In May 2007, a total of 33 countries with a combined population of 763 million were on this list. Of these, 17 were in need of external food assistance because of recent civil strife and conflict. Many of these countries are on the top 20 list of failing states, including Afghanistan, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. The bottom line is that political insecurity and food insecurity often go hand-in-hand. 79

The countries on WFP’s food emergency lists are mostly societies trapped between lowered mortality and continuing high-levels of fertility. In this situation, which leads to state failure if permitted to continue indefinitely, agricultural development is often interrupted by a decline in personal security that makes it difficult to maintain technical support for farmers and to sustain timely flows of seed and fertilizer.

With failing states and declining personal security, it is difficult even to operate food relief programs. WFP head James Morris, discussing the food relief operation in early 2007 in Sudan’s Darfur region, where violence and insecurity are rampant, says, “Our convoys are attacked almost daily. We had a driver killed there at the end of last year. Our convoys coming through Chad from Libya are always at risk.” In failed and failing states, food relief, however sorely needed, is not always assured. And sometimes even though people are starving, it is simply not possible to reach them with food. 80

There are many threats to future food security, including falling water tables and rising temperatures, but the most immediate threat may be the diversion of an ever-larger share of the U.S. grain harvest into the production of fuel for cars. Only the U.S. government can intervene to restrict this diversion and avoid life-threatening rises in world grain prices.

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75. Edith M. Lederer, “U.N.: Hunger Kills 18,000 Kids Each Day,” Associated Press, 17 February 2007; Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, icasualties.org/oif, updated 31 July 2007.

76. Loganaden Naiken, “Keynote Paper: FAO Methodology for Estimating the Prevalence of Undernourishment,” at www.fao.org/docrep/ 005/y4249e/y4249e06.htm, viewed 1 August 2007; FAO, op. cit. note 41.

77. C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007.

78. Missy Ryan, “Commodity Boom Eats into Aid for World’s Hungry,” Reuters, 5 September 2007.

79. FAO, Crop Prospects and Food Situation, no. 3, May 2007; Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Failed States Index 2007,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2007; U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects, op. cit. note 2.

80. Lederer, op. cit. note 75.


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