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USAID administrator says climate change is major force behind global food crisis

Facing the "greatest global food crisis of our lifetimes," countries must find a way to move beyond "lurching from food crisis to food crisis" to finding long-term solutions, even while climate change and political turmoil make it more difficult, one of the Biden administration's top foreign aid officials said in Des Moines on Wednesday.

Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2002 book on U.S. failures to prevent genocide, was the keynote speaker for the World Food Prize's Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium. The gathering, being held this week at the Iowa Events Center, culminates Thursday night with the presentation of this year´s prize to Cynthia Rosenzweig, a NASA researcher, for her work in assessing climate change’s threat to agriculture and food security.

Power emphasized the urgency of addressing the climate crisis and the growing threat of famine it poses around the world.

"Climate change is leading to ever-more disastrous shocks, and with so many of the harshest impacts falling on poor farmers, how do we break the cycle of lurching from food crisis to food crisis?" asked Power. "How we can harness the industry, the know-how and just stubborn determination of farmers around the world as well as the work of tremendous innovators ... to feed the planet without accelerating climate change even further?

"This is a tall order, but we know what's required," she said. "It starts with changing what we grow, how we grow it and who benefits. And it could not be more urgent."

Desperation grows in the Horn of Africa as drought takes its toll

Power said 828 million people go to bed hungry each night and 49 million have had a family member die from a lack of food.

The problem is especially acute in the Horn of Africa, were a drought-driven famine is ravaging Somalia, killing people and animals, Power said, adding that Ethiopia may soon follow. She said that in the already conflict-scarred region, which she visited this summer, "millions of livestock have died, and pastoralists that tended to those livestock over so many generations have lost their livelihoods, and their sources of meaning and identity."

Though it is an area accustomed to severe drought, she said, she learned of a "growing number of suicides in these communities, so desperate have conditions become.'

The causes for the food crisis are complex, Power said, but she pointed to pointed to COVID-19 pandemic "grinding economies to a halt, splintering supply chains, causing huge spikes in inflation everywhere." In addition, Russia´s invasion of Ukraine, one of the world's most productive grain-growing regions, "holding hostage global supplies of food, fertilizer and fuel, denying food to the world's poorest communities," she said.

But "more than any other force, it is climate change that threatens humankind's ability to feed itself," she said, citing a United Nations report that found the world faces three times the number of extreme weather disasters each year than it did in the 1980s.

"Those disasters hurt agriculture more than any other industry," she said, adding that from 2008 to 2018, they cost developing countries $108 billion in crop damage, lost harvests and reduced livestock herds.

"This year, there's a ubiquitousness and relentlessness to climate shocks that's causing searing pain across communities and causing ever-louder cries for climate justice," Power said.

She said the U.S. has provided "unprecedented amounts of humanitarian aid," from $10.7 billion in 2020 to $15 billion so far this year, including $865 million to address the crisis in Somalia. But she said other donor nations need to step forward.

"Climate change is wreaking havoc faster than we can respond," said Power, whose agency administered more than $35 billion in aid in the 2022 fiscal year. "There's no way to keep up through cash or food aid. The course we're on is unsustainable."

Power: Borlaug's example of 'Midwestern resolve' shows what can be accomplished

Power pointed to World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug's work in the 1960s, when, with an exploding Third World population, "many predicted the onset of global famine ... But Borlaug, with his Midwestern resolve ... embraced agricultural innovation as a way to feed the world."

The late Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his research to create drought-resistant, high-yielding wheat varieties. He is credited as the "father of the Green Revolution" that saved a billion people from hunger.

The Green Revolution showed the world that embracing "agricultural innovation, coupled with a broad public and private agricultural investment, could dramatically reduce poverty," Power said.

She noted, however, that "it also came with tradeoffs." Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides polluted water sources and expanded irrigation-depleted aquifers, she said.

"It caused some of the world's most fertile soil, in places like in India and Pakistan, to shrivel up," she said.

Often poor farmers were unable to tap into agricultural innovations, lacking money, land or education to take advantage of the new technologies, Power said. "And women were sidelined by laws and cultural norms."

"Private companies didn't think they could profit by investing in rural areas or in smallholder farmers," she said. "And a lack of government support meant there wasn't enough public funding to fill the gap.

"Despite these trade-offs, the primary lesson of the Green Revolution was clear," Power said: With investments in agricultural productivity and publicly funded research, "food supply can grow faster than demand."

To increase research and the supply of healthy food, Power said USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide $75 million to help food processors in countries struggling with hunger and poverty fortify staple foods with essential vitamins and minerals; $27 million to help smallholder farmers access satellite imagery and remote sensing technology to improve their use of costly fertilizers; and $3.8 million to African universities to expand so-called seed editing so crops are more resilient to extreme weather, pests and disease.

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