How to Fix the World’s Food Crisis

Ertharin Cousin, the former chief of the World Food Program, outlines a step-by-step plan to feed a warring—and warming—planet.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Then-United Nations World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin (left) speaks during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Dec. 16, 2014.
Then-United Nations World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin (left) speaks during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Dec. 16, 2014.
Then-United Nations World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin (left) speaks during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Dec. 16, 2014. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

The war in Ukraine has had many global ripple effects, but perhaps none as painful as the impact on the world’s food supply. Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s biggest producers of wheat, corn, and potatoes, and the war has meant that for much of this year supplies from those two countries have been taken off global markets. 

Other than a political solution in the here and now, what can be done to grow more food and distribute it more equitably? As part of the podcast Global Reboot, I caught up with Ertharin Cousin, the former head of the World Food Program. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our chat. For the full interview, listen to Global Reboot wherever you get your podcasts. 

Foreign Policy: Let’s start with the war in Ukraine. Obviously, the world already had a food problem, exacerbated by the pandemic and inflation and much else. But then comes this full-scale interstate conflict right in the middle of one of the world’s big agricultural centers. How much has the war this year hurt food supplies?

The war in Ukraine has had many global ripple effects, but perhaps none as painful as the impact on the world’s food supply. Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s biggest producers of wheat, corn, and potatoes, and the war has meant that for much of this year supplies from those two countries have been taken off global markets. 

Other than a political solution in the here and now, what can be done to grow more food and distribute it more equitably? As part of the podcast Global Reboot, I caught up with Ertharin Cousin, the former head of the World Food Program. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our chat. For the full interview, listen to Global Reboot wherever you get your podcasts. 

Foreign Policy: Let’s start with the war in Ukraine. Obviously, the world already had a food problem, exacerbated by the pandemic and inflation and much else. But then comes this full-scale interstate conflict right in the middle of one of the world’s big agricultural centers. How much has the war this year hurt food supplies?

Ertharin Cousin: What we need to remember is that some 25 to 30 percent, depending upon the year, of the wheat crop in the global food system is produced by Russia and Ukraine combined. And over 50 percent of essential oils, particularly sunflower oil, come from Russia. And then you have a number of countries like Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, several of the countries in the Horn, Somalia, for instance, who are direct net importers of commodities from Ukraine. And now those commodities are not moving.

But we are also in a situation where because of the high price of oil, the transport of food from different parts of the world is quite high. So even when you have countries like India that are significantly increasing the amount of commodities that they’re releasing into the global food system, those twin factors of the high price of wheat and the high price of oil make the commodities, some would argue, as much as 23 percent higher than they were this time last year.

FP: And is it fair to say that this was already an especially bad time? Or were there other moments in recent history, for example, 2008, where you saw similar real constraints in supplies?

EC: There are similar issues between the 2008 high food price crisis and the situation that we’re facing today.

But what makes this year even more challenging than 2008 is the fact we’re coming out of a COVID pandemic. We’ve seen supply chains that have been significantly impaired. In other words, prices were already high.

And many of the net-importing countries that in 2008 were able to subsidize the high price of food are completely cash-strapped now because they invested in the health response to COVID. 

FP: And then to add to that, you have the fact that fertilizer now is suddenly impacted by the war in Ukraine. 

EC: You’re absolutely correct. But even before the conflict in Ukraine, the international fertilizer community was warning the agriculture community that because of shortage in key commodities, that there was a shortage of fertilizer on the horizon and that we could anticipate higher costs for fertilizer. And then with the war in Ukraine, there is now the challenge that about 10 to 13 percent of the fertilizer is produced in Russia.

Just as an example, in March of 2022, the key ingredient in fertilizer, which comes from the Black Sea, was up from $350 a ton to about $900 a ton.

And why does this matter? It matters because almost half the food produced in the world today, particularly food that is produced by those 500 million smallholder farmers, about 50 percent rely upon fertilizer inputs. And what we know is that for every 1 percent drop in fertilizer, that is reducing the availability of food for as many as 30 million people.

FP: And there’s a real-life example of this from just the last couple of years in Sri Lanka, where the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa started to not import good-quality fertilizer anymore and said, “We’re going to turn to organic farming.” That in turn led to huge declines in yields, which of course led to the moment we saw earlier this year with mass protests, rising food prices, rampant inflation, and then, of course, the government in trouble. 

EC: Exactly. But I don’t want this to be about whether we should have chemical inputs or organic agriculture—we need a diverse agriculture system. What we need to ensure is that we provide the increased resources that are necessary to smallholder farmers, as well as to large farmers, to increase production.

FP: Is it that there are just too many mouths to feed globally?

EC: If we embrace science and innovation, we can feed every person on this planet.

In many of the countries where they’re underproducing today because of lack of access to the seeds and tools, as we’ve discussed, they also lack infrastructure. And so as a result, about 40 percent of what is produced is actually lost before it reaches consumers because of lack of access to adequate roads, lack of access to storage, lack of access to refrigeration. So we have less food produced, and then we lose 40 percent of what’s produced.

FP: OK, so how do we focus on improving systems, making them more resilient, improving supply chains, and doing all of this while still producing more?

EC: First and foremost, we need to ensure that in places where people cannot feed themselves in times of conflict, we have a humanitarian system that is resourced to meet the needs of those populations. 

We as a global community need to create the policies that are necessary to ensure that we have an appropriately functioning agriculture system at both the global, national, and local levels. And that is all about ensuring that countries do not place any kind of tariffs or export barriers that would make food unavailable or unaffordable.

And then we need to ensure that we have the enforcement tools at the local level that will ensure that farmers have access to the tools, including the seeds, the crop protection, as well as the water that is necessary. In many places, lack of access to irrigation or lack of access to water storage systems that allow for the adequate production of food is because systems are not in place.

We also need partnerships. In order for all of these systems to work, you need the public-private community partnerships that will allow for the adequate sharing of information and the sharing of resources that will make those systems most productive.

We need the private sector to invest differently. Too often what we see is that the investments that the private sector makes in new seeds, new tools, new production capacity occur again for those affluent farmers. New foods come online for affluent consumers. But we don’t see the investments that are necessary to support those 500 million smallholder farmers that I’ve talked about, even though that, too, is an opportunity not just to make an impact, but also to make a significant financial return. 

FP: How do we fund these policy recommendations? 

EC: The answer is a challenging one. What we see when there is a humanitarian crisis is that people want their governments to step up to meet the emergency needs. The outpouring of support for the humanitarian challenges in Ukraine is quite unprecedented—and many would argue because it’s European and it’s not African or it’s not Middle Eastern. Governments are providing the financial resources to support the humanitarian response we need. And then what? And even when what we call the “CNN effect” results in an outpouring of generosity from individuals and from governments, that generosity never lasts as long as the crisis.

FP: Right.

EC: And so, for example, today in Yemen, where there were significant contributions made to Yemen in the early days of what is now a six-year conflict. Today, the WFP is forced to cut rations in half, despite the fact that the population of those in acute hunger crises is increasing, not decreasing, because the ability of a family to feed itself gets worse, not better, the longer the conflict lasts.

And then on the development side, that’s even more challenging. The entire global community made a commitment to provide $100 billion per year to addressing the adaptation and mitigation needs of the developing world as a part of the Paris accord. That commitment has not been met yet.

And so the expectation is that the countries will begin to make the changes that are necessary for adaptation, because the climate crisis has already begun. The short rains don’t come, and the long rains are now short. We’re seeing an unprecedented heat wave in India. We’re seeing the locusts and other insect infestations in the Horn of Africa—and directly related to increases in climate.

And so the most vulnerable people farm on some of the most vulnerable land to climate challenges in the world. And so when we are not investing in drought-tolerant seeds, the type of precision agriculture that is necessary to ensure that the seeds need less water, so when the rains don’t come, we can still produce at the highest levels. Those financial investments are not made. And as a result, we are positioning ourselves for even more challenges. 

The last thing I’d say is that in a situation like today where we can see this looming high food price crisis, we’re not doing any type of preemptive humanitarian response work to invest in the kinds of tools that will ensure that a year from now, when the harvest is not available because the harvest was not available from Ukraine, that farmers have produced more in local communities, that work is not happening because the investments are not made.

FP: It strikes me as hopeful that you’re saying we don’t actually have a demand problem. We have a supply problem. Is that hope widely shared in the community of people who do what you do?

EC: Without a doubt. It’s impossible to perform this work on a daily basis without hope. But we recognize that that hope is only reasonable if that is coupled with the public will.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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