New Crisis, New Challenges, Same Mission: Reasserting U.S. Leadership in the Global Fight against Hunger

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

As we continue to grapple with the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have often thought back to the 2007-2008 global food price crisis. A perfect storm—high global oil prices, depressed productivity, and misguided government policies—drove food prices up. As food prices rose, so did food insecurity and unrest. Back then, the U.S. government—via bipartisan congressional appropriation—answered the call, providing nearly $2 billion in emergency aid to address the rapidly evolving food crisis. But today’s global food security crisis is deeper than the last, requiring the United States to adapt to a post-pandemic world and think creatively in how we will lead the next phase of the global fight against hunger and malnutrition.   

In the aftermath of the 2007-2008 crisis, it was apparent that the U.S. government needed a whole-of-government strategy to address global food security. I had the opportunity to work with the late Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) to introduce the Global Food Security Act to authorize the development and implementation of such a strategy on food security under the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Feed the Future program. Supported by consistent bipartisan congressional appropriations for the program, Feed the Future has helped more than 23,400,000 people lift themselves out of poverty, prevented 3,400,000 children from being stunted, and ensured that 5,200,000 families no longer suffer from hunger in areas where the program operates.

However, the last decade has seen immense challenges. Global unrest has been on the rise, with hundreds of millions displaced due to conflict or climate events, resulting in an unprecedented growth in need over the last decade. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. This crisis has further revealed vulnerabilities in our global food systems and supply chains. Exacerbating existing food security shocks related to environmental disasters (e.g., drought, flood, insect infestation), the pandemic and its second-order impacts are forecasted to nearly double severe global hunger to 270 million in 2020 alone. Public health measures, like the closure of certain businesses, have been necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While necessary, these measures imposed costs, like job and income loss. Remittances from that income, on which families across the developing world depend, have plummeted. The pandemic has also caused significant disruption to our supply chains and impeded humanitarian access to areas of extreme need.

“As we continue to work to contain the virus and see light at the end of the tunnel, we must think deliberately about how the United States can lead in the aftermath of this tumultuous time, just as we did following the 2007-2008 food price crisis.”

While we were ill-equipped to confront the pandemic at home, we were even less prepared to lead the world through this storm. U.S. global leadership has eroded severely in the last four years. The Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from key nuclear treaties, pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic, and alienated allies on every issue ranging from immigration to trade.

However, U.S. leadership in global food security has continued, due in large part to committed partners on the ground and career officials who have ensured that the work continues to get done as well as bipartisan leaders in Congress who maintain funding for these programs despite the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to cut the foreign aid budget. As a result of this bipartisan commitment to relieving hunger, the United States continues to be the world’s largest donor to the World Food Programme, providing $2-3 billion per year to deliver lifesaving food assistance to the world’s most vulnerable in the hardest to reach places. One emblematic manifestation of our leadership lies with American farmers who directly participate in alleviating hunger through the Food for Peace program, in which their in-kind aid reaches the world’s most needy.

As we continue to work to contain the virus and see light at the end of the tunnel, we must think deliberately about how the United States can lead in the aftermath of this tumultuous time, just as we did following the 2007-2008 food price crisis. This is a moment to reflect on what gaps exist not only in our bilateral programming, but also at the multilateral level.

In Congress, we can no doubt accomplish this in a bipartisan manner. I was proud to work with Lugar and later with Senator Isakson (R-GA) to pass the Global Food Security Act. Throughout the pandemic, I have been fortunate to work with Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Risch (R-ID), Senator Moran (R-KS), members of the bipartisan Senate Hunger Caucus, and Representatives GT Thompson (R-PA) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) to push for emergency food aid for Covid-19 relief. Looking ahead, I will be working with these same colleagues and the Biden administration to reclaim U.S. global leadership on food security, expand Feed the Future’s mandate to operate in even more countries, focus on maternal and child malnutrition, further empower women and smallholder farmers for agriculture-led economic growth, and adapt existing U.S. investments to confront and mitigate the very real threats posed by climate change.

The 2007-2008 crises created an opportunity for a new era of American leadership in eradicating hunger worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic, for all its tragedy, presents a new opportunity in an even more complicated world for the United States to reassert its role and work to ensure every child, mother and family live with the dignity of adequate nutrition and nourishment.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. He has represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate since 2007.

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