'Knocking on famine's door': UN food chief wants action now
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. food chief warned Thursday that the world is facing “a perfect storm on top of a perfect storm” and urged donors, particularly Gulf nations and billionaires, to give a few days of profits to tackle a crisis with the fertilizer supply right now and prevent widespread food shortages next year.
“Otherwise, there’s gonna be chaos all over the world,” World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley said in an Associated Press interview.
Beasley said that when he took the helm of WFP 5 1/2 years ago, only 80 million people around the world were headed toward starvation. “And I’m thinking, `Well, I can put the World Food Program out of business,'” he said.
But climate problems increased that number to 135 million. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in early 2020, doubled it to 276 million people not knowing where their next meal was coming from. Finally, Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, sparking a war and a food, fertilizer and energy crisis that has pushed the number to 345 million.
“Within that are 50 million people in 45 countries knocking on famine’s door,” Beasley said. “If we don’t reach these people, you will have famine, starvation, destabilization of nations unlike anything we saw in 2007-2008 and 2011, and you will have mass migration.”
“We’ve got to respond now."
Beasley has been meeting world leaders and speaking at events during this week’s General Assembly gathering of leaders to warn about the food crisis.
General Assembly President Csaba Korosi noted in his opening address Tuesday that “we live, it seems, in a permanent state of humanitarian emergency." U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that conflicts and humanitarian crises are spreading, and the funding gap for the U.N.’s humanitarian appeals stands at $32 billion -- "the widest gap ever.”
This year, Beasley said, the war shut down grain shipments from Ukraine — a nation that produces enough food to feed 400 million people — and sharply curtailed shipments from Russia, the world’s second-largest exporter of fertilizer and a major food producer.
Beasley said donor fatigue often undermines aid, particularly in countries in ongoing crisis like Haiti. Inflation is also a serious issue, raising prices and hitting poor people who have no coping capacity because COVID-19 “just economically devastated them.”
So mothers, he said, are forced to decide: Do they buy cooking oil and feed their children, or do they buy heating oil so they don’t freeze? Because there's not enough money to buy both.
“It’s a perfect storm on top of a perfect storm,” Beasley said. “And with the fertilizer crisis we’re facing right now, with droughts, we’re facing a food pricing problem in 2022. This created havoc around the world.”
“If we don’t get on top of this quickly — and I don’t mean next year, I mean this year — you will have a food availability problem in 2023," he said. “And that’s gonna be hell.”
Beasley explained that the world now produces enough food to feed the more than 7.7 billion people in the world, but 50% of that food is because farmers used fertilizer. They can’t get those high yields without it. China, the world’s top fertilizer producer, has banned its export; Russia, which is number two, is struggling to get it to world markets.
“We’ve got to get those fertilizers moving, and we’ve got to move it quickly,” he said. “Asian rice production is at a critical state right now. Seeds are in the ground."
In Africa, 33 million small farms feed over 70% of the population, and right now “we’re several billion dollars short of what we need for fertilizers." He said Central and South America also faced drought and India was buffeted by heat and drought. “It could go on and on,” he said.
He said the July deal to ship Ukrainian grain from three Black Sea ports is a start, but “we’ve got to get the grains moving, we’ve got to get the fertilizer out there for everybody, and we need to end the wars.”
Beasley said the United States contributed an additional $5 billion for food security, and Germany, France and the European Union are also stepping up. But he called on Gulf states to “step up more" with oil prices so high, particularly to help countries in their region like Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
“We’re not talking about asking for a trillion dollars here," Beasley said. "We’re just talking about asking for a few days' worth of your profits to stabilize the world,” he said.
The WFP chief said he also met with a group of billionaires on Wednesday night. He said he told them they had “a moral obligation” and “need to care.”
“Even if you don’t give it to me, even if you don’t give it to the World Food Program, get in the game. Get in the game of loving your neighbor and helping your neighbor,” Beasley said. “People are suffering and dying around the world. When a child dies every five seconds from hunger, shame on us.”
Edith M. Lederer is chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press and has been covering international affairs for more than half a century. For more AP coverage of the U.N. General Assembly, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly
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