Hunger and malnutrition often destroy silently. They stunt the development of the young and steal health, energy, and productivity from all ages. They also rob from the future as families look no further than their next meal. These depredations produce starvation and other types of disruption within communities, and occasionally explode outward in the form of political instability and violence.
Few issues are more critical to both local and global stability than food security. Energy markets, supply chains, trade and transportation networks, and international finance shape the production, movement, price, and consumption of food. Turmoil in any one of these domains can unsettle the others. This year, for example, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has disrupted the export of grain and affected food security in countries as far away as Indonesia.
This weekend, on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty (G20) Summit in Bali, Indonesia, leaders from government, industry, and civil society came together to discuss these and other pressing global issues at the Atlantic Council’s first Global Food Security Forum.
The conference concluded with an appearance by Indonesian President Joko Widodo—who accepted the Atlantic Council Global Citizen Award bestowed upon him earlier this year, noting the responsibility he felt to be “part of the solution for the global world”—and a concert featuring a performance from superstar John Legend, who has tackled hunger with his philanthropic efforts. “We have everything we need in the world to make sure everyone gets fed. We just have to have the will, the generosity, and the love to do it,” Legend said. “It’s so important that the Atlantic Council, the Indonesian government, the Srivastava Family Foundation have all convened this forum tonight during the G20, because it’s a conversation we all need to have.”
Added Legend: Hunger is “something we can fix. So we’re going to fix it together, right?”
Below are just some of the many other highlights and insights from the conference.
The scope of the crisis
- “The numbers are staggering,” said Gaurav Srivastava, founder of the Gaurav & Sharon Srivastava Family Foundation, which co-hosted the event. The number most repeated at the conference was 828 million, an estimate by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) of the number of people who go to bed hungry every night. The number at risk of famine is as many as fifty million people worldwide.
- Another way to understand the current crisis is to look at the scale of the resources being marshaled to address it. Here, too, the numbers are staggering. Arif Husain, chief economist and director at the WFP, explained that his organization fed 115 million people in 2020 and 128 million in 2021. This year, the organization will feed more than 150 million—a new record. “When the World Food Programme is setting records, it is not necessarily a good thing for the world,” he said.
- And these numbers are not evenly distributed: Food insecurity hits poor countries hardest. Cindy McCain, the US permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) agencies in Rome, said “throughout my travels, I’ve seen the effects of conflict, increasing water scarcity, and extreme weather conditions from Kenya and Madagascar to Guatemala, Honduras, and Sri Lanka.”
- But food insecurity strikes rich countries, too. “How can it be that in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, one in every eight children still go to bed hungry every single night?” asked Gaurav Srivastava. “In my own home city of Los Angeles every one in five people experience food insecurity, unsure of when or from where their next meal will be.” Added Sharon Srivastava: “So many mothers and fathers are forced to make the impossible choice every day of buying food or letting their kids go hungry so that they can afford other basic necessities—food or health care, food or transportation to work.”
- In Indonesia, the population grows by about five million people a year—or “a new Singapore” annually, as Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto put it: “What government in the world, what expert in the world can consider feeding five million more mouths a normal and an easy challenge?”
The origins of the crisis
- The “war in Ukraine” is often identified as the root of the current crisis, but that is not quite right. As Ukraine’s Ambassador to Indonesia Vasyl Hamianin explained, “This is Russian aggression against Ukraine. So, we are not dealing with the ‘war in Ukraine.’ We’re not dealing with Ukraine, basically. The subject is Russia.”
- Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, and its ability to get those grains to global markets has been disrupted by the war. Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and vice president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, said Western leaders can aid that effort on several fronts—including help with de-mining, rebuilding critical infrastructure, and solidifying a tenuous deal Russia and Ukraine struck with the UN and Turkey to allow food transports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
- “We want to make sure that we continue being a breadbasket for the whole world,” Rudik said. “Part of my family are farmers. It’s sacred. It’s almost religious for us to be able to provide life, to create life instead of death.”
- Ukraine is not the only conflict driving the current food crisis. As US Representative Patrick Ryan explained, “Food security is important not only for its humanitarian consequences, but also because it is inextricably connected to national security. We’ve seen this in Russia’s illegal and reprehensible war in Ukraine, but also in conflicts around the world from Nigeria and Syria to where I served in Iraq. And there is a direct linkage between food insecurity and these hostilities.”
- But conflict is only one piece of the puzzle. “In the past, such global crises have typically been caused by one or two major drivers. This one has four or five,” said US Special Envoy for Global Food Security Cary Fowler. He cited climate change, severe drought, disruptions caused by COVID-19, high fertilizer and fuel prices, recent trade restrictions, and ongoing conflicts. “All of these factors are contributing to the kind of crisis that we have today, and that makes this particular world food crisis a unique one.”
- Climate change is already reshaping Indonesia. Prabowo spoke of a recent visit to the coastal area of Tanjung Priok. “The water is in their living room,” he said. “They are sleeping in their bedroom with the seawater in their bedroom.”
Top of the agenda
- As world leaders descend on Bali for the G20 summit, retired US General Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, said “what COVID has taught us, what the Ukraine war has taught us, is this must be a higher priority in all international discussions.”
- “In my opinion,” Prabowo added, “the main topic of the whole G20 summit should be about food security.”
- Steps taken by individual countries outside of international gatherings can nonetheless help other nations. Seth Meyer, chief economist at the US Department of Agriculture, spoke about what he saw as the principle behind the US approach to agriculture going forward: “I think it is to continue to be productive, to be productive in a sustainable way, and to share all those experiences about how we did it with the rest of the world.” That includes advanced technology such as gene editing but also lower-tech solutions and capital financing for small farmers, Meyer said.
- In a closely divided US Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the conference that food security can break through party lines. “I believe Congress has to play a role in fighting this crisis and the issue should transcend partisan politics because it’s about basic justice for all human beings,” Schumer said. “So we need government leaders, the private sector, and advocates working together.”
- To that end, Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the agriculture committee, said she will work closely with the panel’s top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, on a new Farm Bill “that protects and enhances” global food aid programs.
- Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands, but the popular image of the country’s white-sand beaches belies the fact more than half of Indonesia’s population lives in cities. Encouraging young people to live in rural areas and work in agriculture is a challenge, but also necessary to sustain Indonesian agriculture.
- Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs of Indonesia Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan spoke about programs to boost interest in farming in the younger generation. Luhut discussed the development of pilot programs to help with financing for expensive up-front costs as well as formal and informal education opportunities.
- On the first day of the conference on Saturday, Widjajanto, who manages an agriculture pilot program for Indonesia’s defense ministry, pointed out that younger people “do the farming with their phone,” using internet connections to control their equipment. “So we make it sexy. We make it more hype for the TikTok generation.”
- Prabowo, Indonesia’s minister of defense, proclaimed that he believes “cassava will prove to be the savior crop of the world.” He showcased how a new industry was emerging around the root vegetable, a development that has become all the more urgent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent prices soaring.
- Atlantic Council CEO Frederick Kempe said the work to find solutions will continue beyond this forum—including with another food security forum alongside next year’s G20 summit in India. “What’s clear for me from the last two days is how many of us in this room and joining online stand united in our commitment to combating food insecurity and hunger and serving as catalysts for change of the G20 and beyond,” Kempe said. “This is about building more sustainable food systems to better protect the planet we live on, the planet that nourishes us all.”
John Cookson is the Atlantic Council’s social media editor.
Daniel Malloy is the Atlantic Council’s deputy managing editor.
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