The United States' Role in Combatting Global Food Insecurity: Key Findings from the 2023 SOFI Report

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on November 14, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Caitlin Welsh: Good morning, everyone. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., I’m pleased to extend a warm welcome to CSIS for today’s event on the United States’ role addressing global food insecurity, highlighting key findings of the 2023 State of Food Security and Nutrition, or SOFI, report. This marks the Washington, D.C. launch of the 2023 SOFI, and we’ve assembled an extraordinary set of leaders for this occasion.

With us to highlight the top findings of the 2023 SOFI is U.N. FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero, joining us in-person from FAO headquarters in Rome. We look forward to hearing from Maximo shortly.

Here to discuss the continued leadership necessary to bend the curve in global hunger and malnutrition are the State Department and USAID’s top leadership on global food security, Dr. Cary Fowler, U.S. special envoy for global food security, and Dina Esposito, assistant to the administrator for USAID Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security.

And Radha Muthiah is CEO and president of the Capital Area Food Bank, leading the charge against food insecurity in the Washington, D.C. region.

And we are honored to present video remarks from the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin.

In addition to this esteemed group, we would like to welcome our audience in person and online to CSIS.

I’m Caitlin Welsh, director of the CSIS Global Food and Water Security Program. And while I look forward to returning to the stage shortly for our discussion, first I have a couple of announcements. First one is that if you’ve joined us for any events recently, you must be very familiar with our emergency exits, which are behind me to the right and in the corner of the foyer behind you and to the right. Should the need arise, please follow my instructions and move toward these exits. And, second of all, following our panel discussion today, we will welcome questions from the audience in person and online. And if you’d like to ask a question, and we encourage you to do so, please submit it at the “ask questions here” button on the event page.

And now on to our program. It’s my very distinct pleasure to welcome to the stage Dr. John Hamre, president and CEO of CSIS for nearly 24 years. His expertise is in defense policy, having served as a deputy secretary of defense and on the Senate Armed Services Committee, among many other leadership positions. And he’s also a strong supporter of our work on global food security and global water security.

Dr. Hamre, thank you so much. The floor is yours. (Applause.)

John J. Hamre: Well, good morning, everybody. Welcome. So glad to have you all here in the room. And we’ve got many colleagues who are watching virtually, and I think that’s great too.

I must confess a bit of disappointment, because I think there should be 10,000 people for this conference. I mean, the topic merits that. You know, it’s just kind of a tragedy to think that 750 million people are going to go to bed tonight without food. You know, it just doesn’t – it’s scandalous in a way.

When I was much younger, I spent some time in a seminary. And I remember reading the book of Revelations. You talk about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. You know, it’s – younger people don’t have this metaphor in their mind. I think older people remember it. But, you know, what are the four horsemen? It’s – well, it’s famine, pestilence – disease – war, and conquest. That’s interesting, you know.

And, of course, sadly, the four horsemen are galloping all over the world these days, aren’t they? We don’t talk about the Rohingya anymore. They’re victimized here by these four factors. We’ve had terrible conflicts in Africa, you know, in Sudan, Ethiopia. We’ve got this terrible war in Israel. And, of course, we’ve got, you know, Ukraine. The four horsemen are just wild right now. And it’s a tragedy. And when you think about it, they all reinforce each other in all the wrong ways.

So that’s why we wanted to host this event today. It’s just to put a spotlight on global hunger. Now – and I want to say thank you to our wonderful panelists who are here. They’re going to lead this conversation today. You know, there’s enough food in the world to feed everybody, OK, but we just don’t get it around in the right ways. A lot of it gets wasted. A lot of it, economics doesn’t accommodate the expense of it. And then the very poor just suffer because we just don’t have a systematic way that we can feed the world. So we’re going to explore all of that today.

Thanks, Maximo, to you and your team for producing the SOFI report. You know, you can’t solve a problem unless you can see it and measure it. And we fortunately have this product in front of us, glaring in front of us, that we can look at it and say what are we going to do.

You know, the U.N. established a goal, you know, the Sustainable Development Goal, to eliminate hunger by 2030. We’re not going to make it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep it as our vision. So we’re going to explore all that.

Caitlin, thank you for pulling together this excellent program. And again, thank you to all of our speakers today.

I think it’s now my role to say we’re going to listen to Senator Ben Cardin, and he’s going to offer some welcoming remarks.

But thank you all for being here. I really appreciate your personal interest and commitment to this issue.

(A video presentation begins.)

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD): Hi. I’m Senator Ben Cardin, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

When the world needs reliable information about hunger and malnutrition, they turn to the Food Security and Nutrition Report. So I want to thank everyone who helped create this report, particularly the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization. And I also want to thank the Center for Strategic and International Studies for putting together this event.

Even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a world hunger crisis. Climate change and natural disasters have been intensifying. COVID led to supply-chain challenges. But Russia’s invasion of the developing world’s breadbasket made this complex problem much worse. Today more people are desperate to find their next meal. More families are choosing to migrate in search of food. More children go to sleep hungry. And the challenge of food security not only stretches from the Horn of Africa to Central America, inflation in fuel and food prices is also squeezing low-income households here in the United States.

Because of this report, however, experts better understand the problem, policymakers can design better solutions, and world leaders can better measure our progress. The United States has an important role to play fighting the global food crisis. I’m pleased that the Biden administration has made this a priority, funding projects across the globe and convening the Global Food Security Summit. This is important to me as well, and I will keep pushing for more funding from Congress. I am optimistic that we can make progress because this is not a partisan issue. This is a human issue. And it’s a national security issue.

So let’s keep gathering data in hunger hotspots. Let’s keep funding projects that responsibly build on resilience and get the help to those who need it the most. Let’s keep working together towards a foreign policy that is wrapped in our values, that seeks to feed the hungry and heal the sick. With commitment and dedication, we will have a better chance of stemming this global hunger crisis. Thank you.

(Video presentation ends.)

Maximo Torero: OK, so thank you so much for being here. What I’m going to do today – if you can put the PowerPoint, please – is bring two reports together which I think complement each other and it’s part of the roadmap that we are trying to work. So the first one is the SOFI that has been mentioned, the food security and nutrition in the world report. And this report monitors progress towards global agri targets, especially SDG two. And it’s a joint cooperation with five agencies. It’s one of the biggest collaboration agreements that we have. So we have FAO, of course, WFP, IFAD, UNICEF, and WHO working together in this report.

And the SOFI has two parts. The first part looks at the indicators of how we are doing. And the second part looks at a topic. And this year, the topic was organization. And then after that I will move into the SOFA report that was launched last week and bring some of the insights behind the report. But before moving into the report – it’s not clicking. Sorry about that. So, before moving to the report, let me look at the – there it is. Yeah, thank you. Let me look at the price evolution, which is what matters a lot and which affects food access and sometimes food availability too.

And in this graph, where I illustrate this evolution of real prices for grains, fertilizers, and energy, it demonstrate how prices have been evolving over time in real terms and highlight some common patterns. If we focus on the last part of the – of the graph, especially from January 20th onwards, we will see that there was a significant increase in prices that started after the COVID-19 and was basically the recovery and the – and the stimulus packages that accelerate that process. And then we have this spike that was exacerbated because of the war in Ukraine. And you see that the case of the energy prices, there were as high as the previous crisis in 2008.

In the case of the food prices in real terms, we didn’t reach those levels, luckily, because there was one commodity that was out of this, which was rice. Which is what we are observing today that prices are increasing in rice. But not in that period of time. But we see that there was a significant increase, which creates significant problems to the world. And then we see after some events like the Black Sea Grain Initiative opening, that allowed to flow most of the grain from Ukraine. That allows to stabilize the markets, and that’s why the prices are falling in the last period of time. So the spike is what created a big exacerbation and some problems in food access and food availability. And not only in the case of cereals, but also in the case of the fertilizers, which are crucial for agriculture production.

Now, what is the consequence of all this? This is what I believe is one of the most important graphs of the SOFI. And what it shows is that at the global level in 2021, we have 702 to 828 million people chronically undernourished. Now, why we talk of two numbers? Because we always have to have uncertainties. We have uncertainties when we estimate those numbers. But we take normally the middle point. In 2022, the middle point of that range was 735 million people chronically undernourished. So you see that we stabilize between 2021 and 2022, but we are far higher from where we were pre COVID-19.

Now, that stabilization creates – has a lot of heterogeneity within – is basically because of significant improvements in in South America, improvements in Asia – in some countries in Asia. But there is a significant deterioration in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa and in the Caribbean, which still are suffering the problem.

But why I like this graph so much? Because we projected with our models until 2030 what will happen. And what we see is that we will have by 2030, if we continue as we are, 600 million people more or less chronically undernourished, which is unacceptable, as it was mentioned before.

But also, we are able to decompose what was the effect because of the COVID-19 and what was the effect of the war in Ukraine. When we combined both effects we are talking of a difference in 2030 of 119 million people more chronically undernourished because of those two elements, of the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 and mostly because of COVID-19. The war in Ukraine by itself is around 23 million people more chronically undernourished.

Now, understand that these two events are very uncertain. Nobody were expecting them. There are no risks. There were uncertainties. If those couldn’t have happened then we will have a negative trend again on food insecurity, which for me opens some hope. But we are still seeing that we are having more shocks coming up. But opens some hope because it will tell me that – (inaudible) – we could be turning around the trend, although the velocity will be far from what we have as a target for SDG 2. And that’s where, if we are able to turn around the trend for next year, then we need to accelerate enormously to be able to achieve that. And that’s the goal on what we are working on what we are trying to achieve.

Now, the report this year, as I said, took urbanization, which is one of the major drivers behind food and changes in food consumption patterns, and the major drivers of the changing in food demand and shifts in patterns of food supply. What we do in this report is we look at urban and rural areas as a continuum. We don’t look any more as a discrete – this is urban, this is rural. I don’t know if you are aware, but the definition of urban or rural is indigenous to the country. Many countries have very different definitions of what is urban and rural.

So the continuum based on accessibility to local markets and so on help us enormously to identify what is going on in terms of consumption patterns. The continuum in this report is comprised of 10 geographical segments starting from large cities where more than 1 million people live all the way up to rural areas located two or more hours from the city or town. And the new empirical evidence that we bring that you can see in this graph is basically working in 11 Western and Eastern and Southern African countries where most of the hunger is happening right now and where we challenge traditional thinking that rural consumers, or in the extreme more rural consumers, they will consume what they produce. And what we see and what you can see in the shades of these colors by the level of process of food that that is not the case.

The patterns are similar to the urban, of course, in lower magnitudes but similar, which means that we have to question the traditional notion that in the case of the African rural farmers largely produce their own food. Own production never becomes the main source of food and represents less than 37 percent of food consumption. So our policies also for the rural areas in terms of how we regulate, how we modify the content of foods in terms of super processed foods and so on will play a significant role also in rural areas. And as we move in the continuum, this will improve.

Now, what this tell(s) us is that we have a lot of information behind that will be central to make these policies. And that’s where we need to put a lot of focus, to open this black box in which we move in the food world in the agrifood systems – we call it a FAO – because we don’t know a lot of the details. And that’s where this SOFA comes into play, because the SOFA this year is trying to bring together and revealing what is the true cost of food.

So we know the agrifood systems – and we call it agrifood systems because it’s not only food production; it’s also nonfood production that we do in the rural areas. So we need to incorporate both, especially we are going to look at environment and externalities, because if not it will be missing a significant part of the component. We are in a big discussion with all the agencies so that we keep – in the case of FAO, agri means all the different things. It’s not only crops; it’s livestock, forestry, and so on. So it’s very important to have this broader concept of the agrifood systems.

Now, but we know that there are very good things coming from the agrifood systems. That’s food, of course. Jobs that are very important in the agrifood systems. And, of course, culture. Those are the benefits.

But we also know that there are costs associated to that. And those are the environment, the society, and the health. And those costs normally are not quantified, are not measured, and that’s why they are called the hidden costs behind the production of agrifood systems. And that’s where we need to keep working.

In most cases, these costs are caused because of market, institutional, and policy failures which make that resources are not allocated properly in the proper incentives. For sure you have heard about the agenda for repurposing that we are working with the World Bank and others of agricultural support, and what you find is that a lot of the investment or support to agriculture is not oriented towards minimizing those externalities.

And why this is so relevant? Because, as FAO, we don’t only want good food for today, but we want good food for tomorrow. And if you don’t care of these externalities, we won’t be able to have the good food for tomorrow. And that’s why we are trying to attract climate investment to this sector, because it’s so important for the good food for tomorrow.

So what do we do here? So we tried to measure all the different hidden costs behind the value chains, and we go from primary production to consumers. And the model, using the analysis, was paired with the FAOSTAT. That’s another big effort at FAO, is doing – that everything we go, we put it into public. And FAOSTAT is bringing data on greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen emissions, land use, blue water, and other types of indicators. And we collect data from our partners, too.

What we can see in this sphere is that we incorporate the environmental hidden costs, which are ledgered in green. We also bring the poverty and the nourishment costs, which are the social hidden costs, in orange. And we also bring the burden of disease from dietary patterns, which is the health-related hidden costs, which are in blue. And unlike previous estimates, one important property of the analysis done for our report is that these were submitted for national agrifood systems for 154 countries. So this year we’re able to come with a global number. Next year we’re going to go country by country. So it’s two years of effort, the first time in the history of FAO and the history of SOFA.

But we need to understand that because these are monetized, we will be able to disaggregate, create different aggregations, and compare regions and countries, and that’s very important. But we also need to acknowledge that there are some hidden costs that we are not yet able to measure because we don’t have the data, and that’s where we need to put a lot of new effort to improve the data. And that’s why we argue that our indicators are preliminary and we need to keep working on that, and that’s the idea work of having a second-year SOFA that will allow us to do that.

So what are the numbers?

(As an aside.) Oh, sorry. I think I jump – OK, this one.

What are the numbers that we got? So we find that the agrifood systems generated 12.7 trillion (dollars) 2020 PPP dollars in hidden costs in 2020, 12.7 trillion (dollars). Now, that number has certain level of uncertainty. And the most secure number, which we have a 95 percent chance, is $10 trillion – 10.7 trillion (dollars), $10.8 trillion 2020 PPP. Now, the 12.7 trillion (dollars) is equivalent to about 10 percent of the global GDP. It’s equivalent to per day that these costs are accruing to 35 billion in 2020 PPP dollars, or about 4.5 PPP dollars per person every day. We found with very high degree of confidence that that $10.8 trillion of the hidden costs are 95 percent certainty, as I mentioned before.

Now, when we break this down by subcategory, environmental hidden costs amount for $2.9 trillion in 2020 PPP dollars, and these correspond to about 20 percent of the total quantified hidden costs by agrifood systems. And these are likely to be underestimated because of some missing and hidden costs that we were not able to measure. More than half of these costs are pertained to nitrogen emissions, mostly from runoff of surface waters, and ammonia emissions. And they were followed by contributions of greenhouse gas emissions to climate change, 30 percent; land-use change costs, 14 percent; and water use, 4 percent.

The second ones are the social hidden costs, and these amount to $571 billion of 2020 PPP. And these are mostly due to poverty and much – more a part to undernourishment.

And the third, which are extremely important, are the health hidden costs, which account for the majority of the hidden costs, being more than 9 trillion 2020 PPP dollars, or 73 percent. And the large majority of the hidden costs are based on losses in productivity from unhealthy dietary patterns. So the quality of the diets matter substantially in these hidden costs, and that’s something extremely important, especially when we look at the distribution.

So in the left here you see the breakdown of the total quantified hidden costs by main category and country income group. The hidden costs refer not only in the magnitude, but also in the composition. The first observation is that most of the hidden costs are generated in upper-middle-income and high-income countries. The second is that lower-middle-income countries account for 22 percent, while the low-income countries make up 3 percent. In all country groups apart from the low-income nations, productivity losses from dietary patterns are the most significant contributor to the agrifood system damages, followed by environmental costs. And this must give the impression that hidden costs are a problem only in high-income countries; but that’s not the case, because when we look at the proportion of the GDP the picture change completely, which is the picture that you have in the right-hand side.

And this figure on the right-hand side looks now at the share of quantified hidden costs to GDP, with hidden costs per capita on the right-hand side. Comparing the costs to GDP gives a sense of the burden that these hidden costs place on national economies and provides an indication as to where to prioritize resources should be to address these costs. As a share of GDP, costs are relatively much higher in low-middle-income countries, at an average of 27 percent, even though high-income countries generate the highest per person cost, which is the number that you have in the bars in the right-hand side. So in the high-income countries, the average per person is $2,800. And the ratio of hidden costs to GDP is 12 percent, and 11 percent GDP in lower- and upper-middle-income countries, respectively. So clearly, it’s a challenge also for the poorest countries, because it’s a bigger share of what they produce under GDP data.

Even if we look within countries, and we compare countries, and in this figure we show the composition of cost in relative terms for a subset of countries, low-middle-income countries, the case of Egypt and Iran, upper-middle-income countries, the case of Thailand, and high-income countries, the case of Canada and the USA. For which hidden costs represent 8 percent of the GDP, so the relative scale is minor. As we can see, both the U.S. and Egypt, the two extreme in terms of income on this graph, dietary costs represent 87 percent of the total hidden costs. Canada and the U.S. show also a different profile, with much higher environmental costs. For a country like Iran, the nitrogen leakage and fertilizer-related pollution represents 35 percent of the hidden cost.

So that’s why this is so important. That’s why in the second year, we’re going to work with countries because we want to fine-tune this information. And please, understand that this does not mean that these hidden costs will be valued in the market and will increase prices. That will be the wrong perception of this report. The idea here is to open this black box that we had in terms of hidden costs so that we can use mechanisms and policies to create the proper incentives to minimize those, so that we can have food for – good food for today and for tomorrow. That’s the whole concept.

Of course, in some cases the super-processed foods, if policies are put in place, prices could rise in those commodities. But that could imply also that healthy diets could decrease prices, and we can improve access. The SOFI of this year show that 3.1 billion people don’t have access to healthy diets. So this will create a significant impact in improving and balancing the distribution of food. So we have enough cereals in the world. The problem is of distribution. We don’t necessarily have enough high-value commodities in the world to be able to achieve a low-cost healthy diet, so that we can reduce these 3.1 billion people. But, again, there is a huge distributional problem. So we need to resolve those problems at the same time. But we need to understand all these hidden costs.

So let me briefly finalize, trying to bring all together all the different SOFIs that we have been working on, and SOFAs. And here, the idea is to look at the sequences, and the importance of the topics, and how relevant they are. The first one is to integrate humanitarian development and peace building policies. That’s something that we are working today. That’s the next one that we are working. We need to predict the households and value chain during economic slowdowns. That’s the consequence of what we saw in the case of COVID-19. We need to scale up climate resilience across the agrifood systems. We need to address the specific challenges associated with water management. Water is central. And one of our SOFAs was on water.

We need to focus on value chains contributing to healthy diets. That’s also essential. We also had a SOFA that came out in terms of resilience just before COVID-19, surprising, and which was central to look at what happened in the war in Ukraine. We need to look at the financing. We need to realign the public expenditures to assure access to healthy diets in a sustainable system. And we need to look at the different mechanisms of financing. The next SOFI for next year will be on financing. So instead of organization, we’re going to look at financing for the next SOFI. That will be the topic. And finally, what I’m presenting today, is better policies and investments in more sustainable agrifood systems that can reduce hidden costs without increasing families’ expenditures on food.

So that’s the roadmap that we are moving. We are going to COP now, COP-28. FAO is presenting the roadmap to SDG 2 and 1.5 degrees exactly with this concept in mind, with its motto of better food for today and for tomorrow. And then we move into the G-20 of Brazil and the COP-30, where we finish the work in terms in terms of this roadmap.

Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Ms. Welsh: Thank you so much, Maximo, for that excellent summary of the findings of the 2023 SOFI report, and for previewing – sorry – and for the summary of the first installation of the SOFA report on the hidden cost of food, and previewing what the next installation will cover. And welcome back to the – to CSIS for the first time in four years, I believe.

Here with me to dive into many of the themes that we heard Maximo overview are, as I mentioned earlier, an extraordinary set of leaders. We have Dina Esposito, assistant to the administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security. Welcome Dina. Dr. Cary Fowler, U.S. special envoy for global food security the Department of State. And Radha Muthiah, who is not only CEO and President of the Capital Area Food Bank, but also 2021 Washingtonian of the Year. (Laughs.)

So welcome to this wonderful group. And welcome back to the stage to each of you. It is the first time that we’ve all been on the stage together, so I’m excited for today’s conversation.

I want to start with a question for both Dina and for Cary Fowler about what is constant in the U.S. government’s approach as we experience a host of new threats to global food insecurity, and also how USAID and the State Department adapt, because, as we saw Maximo’s overview, I mean, even in this decade so far, looking at the diversity of threats, it’s a swarm of locusts. It’s Russia invading Ukraine. It is China restricting fertilizer exports, India restricting rice exports, the Israel-Hamas war that threatens to increase global fuel prices. It’s El Niño, and on and on and on and on.

So Dina, let me start with you. What are you keeping constant in your approach, and then how are you leading USAID to adapt to the different nature of these threats?

Dina Esposito: First, thank you for having me. And really thank you to FAO and Maximo for that report. I think one of the reasons that the U.S. government is able to maintain its global leadership role is because we have partners who are providing sound, evidence-based information that helps to inform – first of all, it’s a call to action. And it also informs our thinking. And so thank you for that.

He had the first slide, which showed the 2008 global food-price crisis. It was at that moment that the United States created Feed the Future, the Global Hunger Initiative. That’s a whole-of-government effort that’s now in 40 countries around the world. And that initiative has been a constant. And if we didn’t have it, we would have to invent it, because it proved to be absolutely instrumental in terms of driving increased resources to shore up the agrifood system in the face of all of these different shocks that we’ve faced.

I will say that one thing that was extraordinary in recent years was that we not only had an unprecedented U.S. government response to the humanitarian crisis, with over $12 billion in humanitarian assistance, which is still just an astonishing figure for me, having been in that field for many years, but also a billion dollars to shore up the agrifood systems.

I don’t think there’s ever been a time that I’ve seen emergency supplementals where people say we need a developmental response. And so the platform was able to pivot and evolve, because it is very broadly focused on the global food system and on local food systems. And our teams on the ground are able to say what are the constraints that prevents innovation to getting to a farmer, and then what prevents that farmer from getting that food onto somebody’s plate that’s healthy, affordable and safe. And so they’re able to look strategically. They have deep partnerships on the ground, a strong private-sector orientation that allows them to pivot and adapt in response to the crisis.

A couple of things we saw was that the lack of fertilizer – suddenly people are saying, well, wait a minute. What are we going to do about that? We realize, well, actually, a lot of people aren’t using fertilizer to begin with. And those who are using it are using two to four times more than they need. So our teams really were able to sort of first surge into private-sector small and medium enterprises resources to boost access to organic fertilizer, but then also launched, in partnership with Cary’s team, a deep conversation around fertilizer use efficiency. Those who are using it are using way too much. It’s very scarce.

Suddenly people are getting serious about a longstanding issue. And we were able, with supplemental funds, to scale and are scaling a fertilizer use efficiency agenda that combines less fertilizer with integrated soil fertility management practices. It’s the improved soil health that Feed the Future is able to sort of drill down on in partnership with our State Department colleagues.

So those are a few things.

Ms. Welsh: Great. Thank you.

Dr. Fowler, same question for you. What’s constant and what’s adapting?

Cary Fowler: Well, I think what’s constant is the caring that we have about this issue, both from a humanitarian perspective but also from a national security perspective. But first let me thank you for convening this meeting. CSIS has been such a wonderful partner and stalwart in its support of these efforts.

And Maximo, my congratulations to you and your team at FAO on this report.

One of the things that really leapt out at me from this report had to do with the number of people in the world that were food-insecure. We often talk about there being more than 700 million, sometimes we say more than 800 million, that are food-insecure. And I’ve found myself not using that statistic very much, because it’s hard for me to really understand at a personal level what that means. What the SOFI report did was to put it in a perspective that I could understand. And that was to say that there are – that 83 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford a nutritious diet – 83 percent. Now, I have a better feel for what that means, that you can’t afford to pay for a nutritious diet.

And in the low-income groups, to pay for it – to afford a nutritious diet, you would have to spend more than twice the amount of money that you spend on food. So clearly, that’s impossible. And when you look at the number of children that are stunted in Africa, 31 percent of the children under five in sub-Saharan Africa, this is really a moral outrage. So what do we do in the United States government and other governments? I think we focus not on providing more Band-Aids, though Band-Aids have their – have their role. But what we do is to – is to focus on what are the essentials. And I think what we have done in the last couple of years at the State Department is to emphasize the issues in Africa, focus on Africa, focus on smallholder farmers, focus on women, and focus on nutrition. Because women are really controlling nutrition in Africa.

That’s the origin of the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils initiative that we have. But it’s also what’s behind a lot of the diplomatic efforts in the State Department, as the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government. So what do we do there? Well, just this year we had had side events and a lot of discussions bilaterally at the U.N. General Assembly. The month before that, when the U.S. was – had the presidency of the Security Council, Secretary Blinken called a special meeting of the Security Council on food security. We’ve been really active in the G-7 meetings. And we’ve forged partnerships with organizations like FAO, and IFAD, in the CGIAR, so that we can leverage the kind of leadership I think that that the State Department’s providing.

Ms. Welsh: Yeah, thank you. I do want to return to the topic of the secretary of state’s leadership, and also the AID administrator, her leadership as well. But, first, very happy to turn to Radha Muthiah to talk about achieving SDG two here in the United States. Of course, it’s a global goal aiming for zero hunger by 2030. Just last month, USDA announced that we saw the largest year-on-year increase in food insecurity in the United States since the Great Recession. And you’re doing an extraordinary job providing 45 million meals per year in our area. Talk about the nature of food insecurity here, and also what you’re leading the Capital Area Food Bank to do to address it.

Radha Muthiah: All right. Well, thank you so much for this conversation and for making the global to local bridge here possible. Just as we’ve heard, you know, it’s important to put the numbers in our region in context as well. So in the greater Washington region, one in three people needed support putting food on the table this last year. So Washington is the seat of great power and great abilities, but it’s also an area with great disparities as well. Just a 10-mile difference or radius across Washington, D.C. sees a difference in lifespan of 30 years. We’re used to these numbers in the international development space, but it occurs and it exists right here in the greater Washington area as well.

And so just as we’ve heard, the importance of, yes, the provision of food – and we’ve seen actually 53 million meals just this last 12 months that needed to be distributed in our area. But the provision of food alone is not enough. And I was fascinated to see the global trends in the report, because they mirror the trends that we’re seeing almost to the statistic here in the greater Washington region. So when you showed the graph, Maximo, of sort of the height – at the height of the pandemic, and the three lines in terms of the projections for where we are today, we are seeing exactly those numbers play out in the greater Washington area. We distributed 30 million meals a year prior to the pandemic. At the height, it was 78 million meals a year. And now it’s at the 53. So we have seen exactly the same trend that you are seeing globally.

What is important to us here, is that this is a region that is growing coming out of the pandemic. There’s no question about that. But there is a great misalignment in the jobs and the skillsets that are available and the skillsets of those who are living at the poverty line or even up to 200 percent of the poverty line. So in addition to ensuring that there are good, nutritious meals for those who need it today, our focus is in bundling food with health-care services, with education and skill development that others provide, but are all necessities of the same group of individuals who are looking to move from a place there they’re just focused on survival to a place where they can be stable and to a place where they can thrive.

Ms. Welsh: Yeah. It’s clear that your background in international development issues informs your approach here and in the region, and I want to return to that question momentarily.

But actually, Dina, I want to touch on something that you had referenced, which is your background responding to humanitarian situations. So I think that uniquely positions you to address food insecurity in the long term in your role as head of the new REFS Bureau. So can you talk a little bit about how your experience in the humanitarian context informs what you’re doing right now?

Ms. Esposito: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think, sadly, the world is looking pretty fragile. (Laughs.) Those of us who come out of humanitarian contexts can really appreciate what we’re seeing – the fragility of it, the uncertainty, and the need to build resilience, which has been an area of focus for many years of me in area of chronic poverty and recurrent shocks.

But it’s not just in those contexts that you need to hand out stuff. Sometimes people do need a hand up, but increasingly – well, always – people will say, you know: We need a job. We need health care. We need security. We need access to food. We need to be able to grow more and buy more. And I think that those experiences in fragile contexts are completely relevant to the way we think about Feed the Future and how we think about sustainable agrifood systems, right? We need to now incorporate risk, which has always been an issue for humanitarians, but increasingly through the lens of resilience we know that people not only need to grow more food but they need access to a social safety net. They need access to insurance and other kinds of risk-mitigation measures. They need multidisciplinary integrated approaches. This is true – very true in humanitarian settings and it’s very true for our food systems. We need to focus on the most vulnerable. No matter humanitarian or the world over, they’re the ones who lose. And we need to inject urgency. You know, we need to move quickly. And I think those are kind of things that, working in conflict and crisis-affected settings, you come into this agenda with those – with those, I think, really truisms that are really relevant for this.

Ms. Welsh: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for that.

Dr. Fowler, I’d like to turn to you – and then to you, Dina – to talk about your leadership and their vision for food security. I think that it’s fair to say that the secretary of state is more invested in this issue than most secretaries of state – (laughs) – in recent memory. It used to be exceptional that the secretary would speak on food security; now it seems to be pretty much something he speaks about regularly, in addition to that announced $100 million for the vax initiative this summer. So I’d like you to speak about that.

And then, Dina, we’ll turn to you because the USAID administrator, likewise, is very invested in this issue. She joined us at CSIS last year to announce an historic level of funding to address malnutrition among children. She was in Ukraine the day after Russia terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative to announce $250 million in support of Ukraine’s agriculture sector. So let’s speak about leadership and how you’re helping to carry forward the visions of your leadership.

So, Dr. Fowler, we’ll start with you first.

Dr. Fowler: Yeah. Well, I think part of leadership has to do with focusing. It has to do with being pragmatic. It has to be – it has to do with being really committed for the long haul and, frankly, to have your heart in the right place.

One of the things that I’ve been most impressed by – and I would almost say surprised by because I couldn’t have counted on it coming into the State Department – was, in fact, the leadership and the support of Secretary Blinken. It’s been quite, quite extraordinary, and I think those of us who work in the State Department are privileged to work with a person like that.

You’re right, he speaks about it quite publicly when he has briefing notes. He speaks about it publicly and privately when he doesn’t. (Laughter.) So that’s – and he’s given us quite a long leash to do our work.

I think one of the things that we’ve realized is that we need to help communities deal with the kind of shocks that are coming up. Maximo mentioned the numbers. Some are – some we can anticipate; some are unplanned and not to be anticipated. And I think that means, if you look at local communities in African countries, for example, you can’t expect resilience or the ability to really deal with these kinds of shocks to take place when you have agricultural systems that are themselves marginal, exposed, and vulnerable to every shock that comes along.

So how do you work with that? And I guess our approach has been to focus, and it’s been to focus on the fundamentals, by saying that you’re not going to have resilience and you’re not going to be able to deal with shocks that come along if you have an agricultural system that’s based on poor soils and on crops that are not adapted to climate.

So what we’re seeing now – and I think the report that Maximo highlighted today will show you – is that so many of the really acute food problems that we have in the world are happening in countries that either are victims of conflict or climate or both. They’re related. Those kinds of things can’t be solved – those issues cannot be solved quickly. But I think they can be solved if we have a commitment and we have a focus on what the underlying problems are. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do, I think, at the State Department, and using our voice and our leverage to accomplish that globally.

Ms. Welsh: Thank you. Thank you, Cary Fowler.


Ms. Esposito: I think if Administrator Power were here, she would say that she sees herself as a catalyst for change and that she’s used her platform as a call to action and to bring others along, recognizing that the U.S. is a leader but doesn’t go anywhere alone, whether it’s the AGRI-Ukraine platform or just recently at UNGA announcing, in partnership with the government of Norway, a fund for small and medium enterprises in Africa, agribusinesses that are vital to keeping the supply chains going.

And increasingly what you see is a significant increase in public-private partnerships in USAID, recognizing that the ODA – that official development assistance is really a catalyst that has to leverage many more dollars in order to solve the global food crisis.

I was in Kenya not too long ago, and a colleague who works on private-sector partnerships says, you know, at AID we used to generate, you know, for every dollar we spent, maybe 50 cents contribution from private sector. Today, when we put out in a dollar, we’re looking for three to five times that amount, and increasingly recognizing that sustainable approaches to agrifood systems are going to be commercial ones. And organizations, companies, seeking sustainable supply chains become increasingly important partners for us.

So I would say that, you know, when I meet with her, it’s very much about how do I serve as a catalyst for public-private partnerships, bringing in other donors. You know, we’re looking to grow our fund for small and medium enterprises to 200 million (dollars). But the ambition was that would unlock a billion dollars across Africa for these small and medium enterprises, which actually Maximo’s report talks about become increasingly important as supply chains become longer. More and more people are buying food in markets, and that has to get from urban to peri-urban to rural, peri-urban to urban. And there’s a real opportunity there for job creation as well as getting healthy foods onto shelves.

The second area, I think, that she really emphasizes is that, you know, we know that working with women is important, but another FAO report in the spring told us how sobering our impacts have been. There’s much, much more we need to do. She asked us and really challenged us to do more than doubling of our investments in food security and water security to be driving towards change for women, improving their productivity on farms, improving their off-farm job opportunities.

Getting parity in access to finance in all of our finance programs is the challenge that she’s put to us. And we have our teams meeting with our chief economist and, I think, 160 people from around USAID gathering in Ghana to sit down and take a hard look at what works and what more we need to do to invest.

So those two areas, and then, of course, the Climate Adaptation Agenda, which is featured so centrally in her creation of the Bureau for Resilience, Environment and Food Security. She wanted our two – these two professional areas of work, those who tend to focus on the environment and saving the planet and those who are focused on saving the people and hungry people, that we need solutions that are positive for people and planet. And that is why the Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security was created and why we’re going to be increasingly, I think, investing in kind of circular economy approaches that the report calls for.

Ms. Welsh: Congratulations on the expansion of your bureau and we look forward to exploring that more with you.

Last question for the panel and then we’ll open it up to questions from the audience. We have a couple good questions that were submitted online but welcome further questions including from our in-person audience.

So my last question is for you, Radha, exploring U.S. leadership but maybe from a different angle. U.S. leadership is necessary to improve global food security, improve food security here at home, and also the decisions of our leaders can make food security worse.

I’ve heard you say before that in cases of federal government shutdowns food insecurity spikes in our region, that you notice more clients at food banks and food pantries when that happens.

So can you speak to us about that phenomenon and also what you’re doing to prepare in the eventuality, which we hope doesn’t happen, of a government shutdown in the next few days?

Ms. Muthiah: Absolutely. I’ll just take 30 seconds, if you don’t mind, to make the connection with what was just stated, sort of internationally and locally.

I could use all the same phrases that my colleagues have just used in terms of public-private partnerships, client centricity, integrated approaches, really helping people out of poverty, you know, and in order to ensure food and security. So much of that that happens globally and is necessary is also exactly how we work locally.

So when you talk about farmers, supply chains, integration, in our case smallholder farmers, minority farmers, including them as part of the region to enable resilience of our local economy in the face of external shocks, these are all things that the food bank is engaged in as well.

So the approaches are not that different when you think about how one looks at international issues on food security and ones that are domestic and local.

So speaking of domestic and local, with the federal government shutdown in our area we feel it particularly acutely. There about 350,000 federal government employees in the greater Washington area. A third of them make $84,000 or less, and assuming that is their household income, missing a paycheck really does impact their cash flow and their ability to meet their needs.

So we saw in the last extended government shutdown three or four years ago thousands of federal government workers who stood in line to get food, and so we gear up in the event of a shutdown to have special distributions and we had people from over 20 different agencies – the White House, FBI, you know, the EPA, you name it – saying that they’ve usually been on the other end of the spectrum supporting us to support others coming to volunteer at our many facilities to distribute food.

But missing one paycheck and then two puts them at a real bind in how to put food on the table. They can’t negotiate their rent, they can’t negotiate now student loan payments that have resumed as well, and so what they can squeeze and get extra support for is the food budget.

So with this potentially a few days away, although we’re hopeful it won’t happen and there will be some resolution, we have to gear up in every instance to be able to have two to three special distributions a week that will reach thousands of federal government workers in our area.

And then there’s another group which is impacted by not receiving food stamps and things like that, other government supplementary programs, and so there are hundreds of thousands of those individuals in our area who might be receiving 50 (dollars) to $150 less a month if there is a shutdown and so they too come to the food bank and its network of 400 different community organizations to be able to receive food in the interim.

So that’s an additional part of the work that we never budget for and never – (laughs) and never quite think about. But it’s a reality that –

Ms. Welsh: Yeah. Thank you for handling that important issue.

Turning to questions from the audience now. And again, welcome questions from those of you who are in the room with us.

But I’ll start with a question that was submitted online for both Dina and Cary specifically and it’s about the health-related costs in agrifood systems. And it’s from Julie Howard, who was part of the early leadership of Feed the Future. And she said, actually looking – sorry, looking at the both SOFI and, I guess, the SOFA, the magnitude of the health-related hidden costs in global agrifood systems, what do you think the U.S. government should do more of and do less of to reduce the hidden costs to human health of agrifood systems? Would you like to start?

Ms. Esposito: Such an easy question, Julie. (Laughter.) Thank you.

You know, I did talk a little bit about how our approach to nutrition is evolving in Feed the Future. And it is this idea of constancy, a focus on how do we deal with this difficult situation of improving nutrition. And what we find is that we’re moving not only from crop diversification and behavior change, which remains central, but adding things like food fortification, large-scale food fortification, to improve nutrition and to sort of counter that – if you’re going to consume a processed food, let us at least have it be fortified, right? So improving flour, grains, milled foods, and vegetable oils, and things like that. We’re shifting into a food fortification agenda, which I think is very important to the question she asks.

We are also focusing on food safety for probably one of the first times. You know, recognizing the cost to the economy, to human health, of unsafe food. We’re doing research with GAIN and others on how do you both raise awareness to consumers and create demand by consumers that they expect their food to be safe? As those value chains get longer, it’s going to become increasingly important to think about food safety.

And then the food loss and waste dimension I think is another one. I was in Kenya just last week. And I met with an enterprise we’re working with that’s collecting organic waste and human waste and converting it into organic fertilizer and animal feed. So you have kind of a triple win. You have a human health dimension by removing waste. You have an emissions reduction dimension by removing rotting food and waste – human waste. And you have a potential ag productivity improvement with access to feed and – animal feed and fertilizer.

So those are the kinds of things that I think we need to think about, those hidden costs. And when we come together as, you know, REFS, environment and food security coming together, I think we’ll hopefully be able to expand on those kinds of approaches.

Ms. Welsh: Thank you.

Cary, I welcome you to answer that question. And also, if you’re interested in addressing another question that we received about land and nitrogen loss. With nitrogen loss being a high proportion of the hidden costs and the report findings, nitrogen loss in soils, in specific, and how we’re addressing that challenge.

Dr. Fowler: Yeah, OK. Sure. Well, you know, I mentioned a few minutes ago that the SOFI report points out that 83 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford a nutritious diet, and 31 percent of the children under five are stunted. When you think about that in development terms, both economically, nationally, and even personally, how can you develop? How can economies develop? How can you have the kind of growth and prosperity that we all want for those countries on the back of 83 percent of the people not being able to afford a nutritious diet? It’s just incomprehensible.

One of the other things, though, that the SOFI report points out is that that more than half of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa is being purchased. Which means there’s a market out there. And it means, I think, that farmers are going to – and perhaps increasingly – try to meet that market demand. One other fact that Sophie points out is – and since Julie asked this question I’m going to play to the audience and give an answer that I know Julie will appreciate –and that is that there’s an undersupply of vegetables. There’s a problem with availability of vegetables.

So one of the things that we need to do, including an organization that I know she’s associated with, the World Vegetable Center, is to ramp up production of those traditional and indigenous vegetables, so that they become more common in the marketplace and more available, and so that they contribute to the nutritional needs of people there.

Ms. Welsh: Yeah, great. Thank you. Thanks for giving that plug for the World Vegetable Center.

One last question is from someone who’s in person with us, Toshiro Baum. Welcome you to ask your question. Great. Thank you. And I believe this is directed to the State Department and USAID, but I’d like to – like to extend it to Radha as well.

Q: Yes. Oh, is this on? All right. Thank you. Toshiro Baum from IBM.

Increasingly, we see data being very central to food systems and agrifood systems in high-income countries, whether that’s climate weather data, pricing distributional sourcing data, and, of course, you know, any number of things that that apply to those actors. Specifically for State Department and USAID, what are you considering in your approach to help move that availability of data and the use of data to especially smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries, to help with some of those production and distribution issues?

Ms. Welsh: Thank you. And, again, once you’re done, Dina and Cary, then, Radha, I’ll ask you to speak to that same challenge in your local operations. But, Cary, would you like to start? Cary?

Dr. Fowler: Sure. Well, I forgot to address the previous question about nitrogen. (Laughter.) So I’ll wrap that into your question, if you don’t mind. And I think the example there is that that we need – you know, Africa only consumes about 3 to 4 percent of the global fertilizer supplies. Obviously, that’s insufficient in terms of need. Why is that the case? Well, there are a reasons, but how can we start to improve that? And I think one of the reasons is through data and information. So one of the things that we’re partnering with at USAID is to – is a program that they have called Space to Place. Dina can speak about that.

But it’s essentially an effort to provide, to generate more information and – for starters – and then to provide that data and information in a usable form with recommendations through modeling. Both to government, so that they can help plan where they should plant and what they should be planting in certain regions of the country, but all the way down to the farmer level. Because one of the real problems that farmers have in developing countries is that lack of information that would enable them to be better managers of their farm and their lands.

If they’re better managers, then I think we began to deal with the question of nitrogen. We don’t have too much nitrogen use in Africa. We actually have too little. But the real problem is the efficiency, right? If it’s used inefficiently, then it causes problems. And that’s what we need to improve. And I think through better soil management techniques – and also, by the way, through having more legumes and crop rotation – we begin to deal with the issues that you raised on data and information, and also the previous questioner raised about nitrogen use.

Ms. Welsh: (Laughs.) Thank you for weaving those things together.


Ms. Esposito: Well, thank you for the question. We just finished last week an ICT for Agriculture virtual conference. So I don’t know if you participated, but we launched a new – a new report that kind of gives you a state of play on use of digital technologies. And I think increasingly, of course, it’s central to the kind of acceleration of change that that we’re going to want to see. I was visiting a company in Nairobi last week, which is trying to increase the use of solar-powered, small-scale irrigation for farmers. And they’re able to track – the farmers are able to use their phones, and the company is able to track how much – when they turn on their water. If they’re not turning on their water, they call and say, hey, what’s going on? Do you need some support?

That technology, where they’re able to track – they’re now creating bundled services. It turns out a lot of people don’t turn on the water because they’re sick? And suddenly, they need health insurance, right? So they’re trying to figure out, how do I drive a health insurance product onto my platform when I know that people need it? Or actually, you know, I couldn’t afford those improved seeds, or I didn’t have this, or I didn’t have that. So bundled – digital platforms that are bundling services are very much central, I think, to the evolution of our – of our programming approach.

And then on the sort of larger issues of data, we’ve got a global partnership with NASA. And we’re trying to make data – weather services and climate change data – available so that governments can make better decisions about, you know, flood management, drought management, and communities have earlier warning so that they can prepare. Those are just a few – I think, a few examples of how – of how we’re doing it. And then I would just say, it’s really important for governments to collect their own data.

And there’s insufficient data in countries. And so we have a – I think, with the U.N. – a partnership called – I’m going to get it wrong – 50 by 2030, which is trying to get 50 countries by 2030 improving their agricultural, agribusiness data collection, and ag data collection, so that they can make informed decisions. Because without the data, we’re really working in the dark. And we don’t want to collect it. It’s their data. They need to have it first and foremost. And then we can use it for our own planning purposes as we think about what the role of donors is.

Ms. Muthiah: And I’ll just add that data is central to everything that we do. We publish a report called the Hunger and Equity Report, which is the only general population survey for the greater Washington area that really allows us to understand the state of food insecurity, who needs what, what channels are most effective, et cetera. So we use that to inform our own work, but it is also something that informs all the local jurisdictions. The counties use that as part of their strategic planning when it comes to addressing food insecurity. And our three state governments – Maryland, D.C., and Virginia – use that report as well. So that’s central.

Just one quick example. What we saw this year was that those who are food insecure suffer from chronic disease at twice the rate of those who are food secure. Many chronic disease conditions can be addressed with better nutrition. And so we’re working with Medicaid, Medicare, with private health insurers to look at how the social determinant of health – namely, nutritious food – can help improve health outcomes, as well as potentially reduce the cost of those improvements in health outcomes. So these are ways in which we are really extending beyond what one traditionally thinks of what a food bank does, but really looking at ways to ensure not just better nutritional outcomes but better health outcomes. And without data, of course, we’re unable to do any of that, so it’s really central to our work as well.

Ms. Welsh: Thank you. Perfect place to conclude our conversation.

Dina Esposito, Cary Fowler, Radha Muthiah, thank you so much for being with us for this excellent conversation. Also thank you to Dr. Hamre, to Senator Ben Cardin, and to Maximo Torero for joining us in person and from Rome. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful conversation.

Like to thank the FAO for your partnership for today’s event, especially Jocelyn Brown Hall and David Laborde in Rome right now; to my team, especially Anita Kirschenbaum, Lucy Terry, Emma Dodd, and Zane Swanson; and to the excellent CSIS External Relations team which is regularly producing multiple events like this at the same time, so thank you to the ER team as well. And to our audience in person and online, thank you so much for joining us. This concludes our event. (Applause.)