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M A R C H 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
tributed to an increase in the number
of Taliban recruits.
A third coping mechanism is theft.
Amartya Sen notes that a dramatic in-
crease in criminality occurs during
famines as men, particularly those
with weapons, steal food to survive.
The North Korean famine of the mid-
1990s led to so widespread an increase
in theft and criminality that the regime instituted public
hangings as a deterrent measure. While harsh, such a re-
action bears out the reality that increased criminality that
goes unpunished and uncontrolled erodes the state’s le-
gitimacy. This is even more true in fragile and failed
Managing Food Price Volatility
To address these risks and minimize the chances that
food shortages will become famines, donor aid agencies
and developing countries should implement a four-
pronged strategy to manage future price volatility, in co-
operation with the other donor governments, World Bank
and United Nations agencies.
First, donor governments and developing countries
alike should invest in agricultural development programs.
Boosting agricultural productivity in fragile and failed
states will help insulate them from price shocks. Presi-
dent Barack Obama’s Feed the Future initiative is one ex-
ample of what donor governments can do through their
aid programs to increase food production.
Similarly, they should support World Bank President
Robert Zoellick’s $1.2 billion plan to use grants and loans
to support agricultural development in countries most af-
fected by the sharp price increases. This initiative fol-
lows in the footsteps of the Green Revolution, which a
generation ago tripled crop yields in Asia, saved more than
a billion lives and kept 16 million square miles of forest
from being cut down.
Specifically, donor governments and international in-
stitutions should invest more in improved drought-resis-
tant grain varieties, including those born of research into
genetically modified organisms and seeds that are more
resistant to insects and disease. Reducing the vulnerabil-
ity of African farmers to crop losses will help bring a new
Green Revolution to a continent that is particularly vul-
nerable to food insecurity.
Donor governments and international institutions
should also launch a concerted effort
to counter the anti-biotech cam-
paigns being conducted by advocacy
groups. Such campaigns have already
delayed, if not paralyzed, the large-
scale dissemination of genetically
modified seed varieties where they
are most needed to address crippling
food shortages.
Because these programs will take 20 years to mature
and produce sustainable results, they cannot be expected
to alleviate severe food insecurity over the short term.
The Green Revolution helped win the Cold War, but it
took three decades to implement.
Second, improve the international humanitarian re-
sponse to rapid increases in food prices.
This can be done
through new policy tools, new, market-based approaches
and improvements in existing tools.
One system that can serve as a model is the U.S.
Agency for International Development’s Famine Early
Warning Systems Network. FEWSNET collaborates with
international, regional and national partners to provide
early warning and vulnerability information on food se-
curity issues in 25 high-risk countries.
The $1.2 billion food aid budget used to address
famines and other emergencies under U.S. law should be
more flexible. Currently, the budget is used primarily to
purchase U.S. food to distribute abroad, an approach that
is inefficient and costly. More than 20 percent of food aid
is used for shipping costs, and another 45 percent goes for
logistics, overhead and distribution costs. Even at that, it
takes four months to order, purchase, ship and distribute
food aid abroad.
President George W. Bush’s 2004 proposal to reform
the U.S. government’s food aid program, which would
have dedicated 25 percent of the USAID Food for Peace
aid budget to purchase local production, was simple and
makes eminent economic sense. It would reduce delays
in the delivery of U.S. purchased food and logistical risks,
in addition to saving transport costs. But lamentably, the
idea went nowhere, as Congress continues to resist giving
USAID flexibility in allocating food aid resources because
of pressure from the farm lobby and shipping interests.
Third, employ emergency market interventions when
food prices rise too rapidly and too steeply to be managed.
This is now possible through an innovative $300 million
food intervention account run by USAID’s Food for Peace
Famine is not a single
event, but unfolds
insidiously over
months or years.