Just before Thanksgiving 2020, the United Nations World Food Program warned world leaders that without a major and sustained investment of billions of dollars, there will be famines of “biblical proportions” in 2021 because of Covid-19.
Such an explosion of hunger could not come at a worse time. Uninterested in nurturing cooperation with allies, suspicious of international organizations, and disdainful toward developing nations, President Donald Trump spent the last four years shredding decades of US-led advances in global security and development, including America’s historic role in alleviating widespread food insecurity.
His actions provide the incoming Biden-Harris administration with an opportunity to tackle this problem head-on. Aggressively addressing global hunger is one of the most important things the Biden-Harris administration could do to rebuild America’s global leadership and restore our standing in the world. We have the capacity, the knowledge, and the spirit to do it. Now is the time for us to think big.
Such a move would be smart politics. President Trump’s attacks on programs to feed the hungry run counter to decades of American leadership in lifting people out of hunger, improving agricultural production, and combatting malnutrition, especially among the world’s most vulnerable children. No matter who sat in the Oval Office or which party held the majority in Congress, these initiatives have been successful because they enjoy broad bipartisan support. Many key programs survived the Trump years because strong bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill was matched by the integrity and dedication of public servants in places like the US Agency for International Development, the State Department, and the US Department of Agriculture.
Just a few years ago, President Obama launched Feed the Future and mobilized the international community to help lift small-scale farmers—especially women—out of hunger and extreme poverty. He also strengthened emergency humanitarian programs like Food for Peace and expanded the capacity of the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which helps local communities provide meals for school-age children. His focus on ensuring adequate nutrition during the “first 1,000 days” of a child’s life to prevent permanent physical and cognitive damage was smart and innovative.
A comprehensive approach by the Biden administration that prioritizes hunger could restore the mantle of America’s leadership and return us to the days of addressing both the immediate needs and underlying causes of global poverty.
This kind of holistic leadership is desperately needed. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the fragility of our national, regional, and global food systems. A preliminary July assessment by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization suggests that Covid-19 could add between 83 million and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world.
Simply put, when local markets are disrupted, supply chains break down. If small farmers can’t sell their products, they can’t buy seeds and fertilizer; they can’t plant, can’t harvest, and can’t get crops to market, creating a vicious and hard-to-break cycle. This is not a “Band-Aid” moment—we need major, transformational solutions. We should not only respond to the urgent, immediate need created by the pandemic; we should work to build a more stable and viable food system for the long haul. That means uplifting small farmers, especially women, and demanding a renewed international commitment to creating a “whole of society” approach that confronts the devastating economic impact of coronavirus, worsening hunger due to conflict and war, and the impacts of climate change.
These challenges are urgent and important, but they are not new or unique.
In the aftermath of World War II, Europe lay in ruins. Factories were destroyed, millions were in danger of starvation, and like today, Americans yearned for a return to normalcy. Yet a generation of visionary leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, driven by strategic interest as well as heartfelt empathy, came together to craft the Marshall Plan and lift millions out of hunger and poverty.
They knew then what we know now: Food insecurity is a root cause of desperation, migration, and destabilization. They understood that we not only have a moral obligation to end hunger, but that compassion and cooperation are among the strongest weapons in our arsenal. They recognized that global poverty and food insecurity are not problems that time alone will solve—they require an active and focused commitment.
The Biden-Harris administration can and must once again provide the principled American leadership and fresh thinking so vital to any international campaign that tackles these existential challenges.
The world, literally, hungers for it.