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The Leading Voices in Food

E84: COVID Highlights Need to Change Food Security Strategy

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
August 18, 2020

This podcast is part of a series focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our food system. We’re interviewing Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington DC. Caitlin is a leading expert on global and US food security and particularly on the relationship between food security, urbanization, climate change, and conflict.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where she provides insights and policy solutions to global and U.S. food security challenges. She brings over one decade of U.S. government experience to this role. She served most recently in the National Security Council and National Economic Council as director of global economic engagement, where she coordinated U.S. policy in the G7 and G20. Prior to the White House, Ms. Welsh spent over seven years in the Department of State’s Office of Global Food Security, including as acting director, offering guidance to the secretary of state on global food security and its relationship to urbanization, climate change, and conflict. Ms. Welsh served as a presidential management fellow at the U.S. African Development Foundation, and as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Her analysis on global and U.S. food security has been featured in The Economist, Foreign Policy, BBC, and other outlets. Ms. Welsh received her B.A. from the University of Virginia and M.P.A. from Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. She hails from Erie, Pennsylvania, and speaks Arabic and French.

Interview Summary

How is the COVID-19 food security crisis different from others, let’s say the 2007, 2008 food crisis that was caused by the great recession?

What we’re experiencing right now is a crisis that’s not related to production levels, whether you’re talking about food insecurity in our own country or around the world. The last global food crisis that we experienced was the crisis of 2007 and 2008 and the crisis was caused by low production levels and high prices. The crisis we’re experiencing right now is not a crisis that is rooted in low production levels. Instead, it’s rooted in disruptions across food systems writ large.

In my analysis, I’ve seen at least six different types of disruptions. (1) The first being reductions in wages and job losses, which has widespread effects on food insecurity. (2) In some countries, you’re seeing that lockdowns threaten the transportation of ag inputs, like seeds and fertilizer to farms. (3) The third type of disruption I’m seeing is that lockdowns threaten the movement of labor to farms. As one example, in Europe there may be an estimated shortfall of about a million seasonal ag workers because of lockdown related to COVID. (4) The fourth type of disruptive that lockdowns may threaten the transportation of food from farms to markets. And in the United States, I think that we’ve done a very good job of preventing this from happening. Early on to the pandemic back in March, the Department of Homeland Security included truck stops as part of our critical infrastructure in part to make sure that food could be transported from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed. (5) The fifth type of destruction I’ve seen is when social distancing measures result in reduced access to urban markets on which many consumers rely to meet their food needs. It’s oftentimes urban consumers who are hit first by disruptions at the market level. (6) And the sixth type of disruption are trade disruptions, and these happened early on in the pandemic. In some cases, you saw labor shortages and slowed operations at ports, which hindered the trade of food from producers to markets. So I’ve seen disruptions at many points in food systems and not a crisis of production as we saw the last time.

Caitlin, you spent a decade working in US government positions, including seven years in the Department of State’s Office of Global Food Security, so you know an awful lot about this issue. Can you describe what you see globally relative to food insecurity?

We don’t yet have a global assessment that’s given us a very clear picture of food insecurity. But, we have estimates that are done by a few different organizations. The World Food Programme has estimated that the number of people who could experience acute food insecurity this year could reach 270 million. They think that COVID will push an extra 120 million people into acute food insecurity. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) provides its estimate. The numbers are different but complementary. The FAO looking at best mid and worst-case scenarios, even in the best-case scenario, COVID-19 could increase the number of food-insecure people worldwide by 83 million people.

Those are startling numbers. Should the global approach leaders take to improve global food security change in response to COVID-19? And if so, how would you suggest things be done?

That’s a great question, and I think that because of COVID-19, we should be taking a different approach than the approach that we took in response to the last crisis. But I also think that even if this pandemic had not happened, we should be shifting our approach anyway, based on new data that we’re seeing so I’ll address both things.

Because COVID-19 is causing disruptions across food systems writ large. I think that the global food security community should renew its focus on food systems post-production. And on the importance of transportation mechanisms to get inputs and labor to farms, on transportation to get food from farms to markets, on the importance of markets, particularly in urban areas, on global trade. So I think that COVID-19 is underscoring for us the importance of all of these elements to global food security, all of these elements that happen post-production. I do think though, again, that even if this pandemic hadn’t happened, data that we’re seeing now is showing us that the approach that we were taking in response to the last crisis, again that was a crisis that had to do with production levels, isn’t necessarily improving global food security.

So in response to that last crisis, the global food security community coalesced around an approach that generally focused on increasing agricultural productivity of staple crops in developing countries. And for many years we were following that approach that had some positive benefits among some populations in some countries around the world. But just last month, the UN put out its annual report on the status of hunger and malnutrition around the world. And this is the annual report that measures progress against the sustainable development goal on hunger, that is, SDG 2 with targets to end hunger and targets to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030. And the findings of this report were shocking to me. One of the main findings was that combining numbers, people experiencing moderate food insecurity and severe food insecurity have an estimated quarter of the world’s population.

On top of that, it’s very interesting that it calculated the average price of healthy diets around the world, a good healthy diet and the best healthy diet. And for both of those diets, the average costs around the world is greater than international poverty line. So essentially if you’re living in poverty, you can’t even afford the minimally healthy diet around the world. And people are saying as a result of that, should we be thinking of the international poverty line differently if it can’t even buy you the cheapest healthy meal?

The WFPC saw the same numbers that you did and were startled by them just as you are. And it makes me wonder, and I’d be curious to see what you think, is there any hope at all of meeting that 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 2 of having no hunger around the world? I mean, that would have been a tall order even if things had been getting steadily better but they’re getting steadily worse.

Yes, again, the targets are to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition. And as of this year’s report, the UN is saying that that hunger continues to increase and that when it comes to malnutrition, the current level of effort is not anywhere near enough to end malnutrition in the next decade. I also see less attention to this issue politically. It’s not high on US development agenda, I don’t see it as high on the UN agenda around the world. We’ll see what the G7 do about it. I’d like to put some color around the approach that we devised in response to the last crisis, which was to increase the production of staple crops. In 2015, the entire intelligence community put together an assessment of global food security. And their bottom line judgment was that simply growing more food globally will not lead to more food secure countries. And I think that that’s what we see around the world. It’s very important to be investing in agricultural production of staple crops, but simply growing more food is not going to lead to more food security and that’s what we’re seeing today.

Turning our focus to the US, how is COVID-19 affected food systems in America?

Happy to talk about that. When it comes to the United States, again, I think it’s analogous to what we’re seeing around the world, where we have relatively high and stable production of many different types of food around our country. At the same time, you see spikes in food insecurity by many different measures and you can look at the number of people who are utilizing food banks, and you can look at the level of food insecurity among children, all these numbers are spiking. I’ll describe these disruptions that I’ve observed across US food systems. When it comes to food banks, we’re seeing that in the pandemic, demand that US food banks has increased by an average of 70% compared to this time last year. A big spike across the board, about 40% of customers at food banks had never gone to food bank before the pandemic kicked, grocery store prices are increasing. You have had small upticks in prices of cereals and fruits and vegetables, but the biggest increase is in the price of beef. The beef index increased 20% in the three months of April, May, and June, and that’s the largest increase in history.

Given what you’ve just said about food banks in particular, how would you characterize the state of food security overall in the United States?

Yes, the last nationwide assessment of food insecurity in the United States was in 2018. They haven’t produced an assessment yet of this year that captures the effects of the pandemic. But we do have surveys that are done by the US Census Bureau, and their data is showing that we have historic levels of food insecurity among households with children, but they’ve updated the survey such that data is now showing that it’s children’s specifically. Highest levels on record in the United States is 14 million children around the country experiencing food insecurity.

I would like to ask you about COVID food security and racial justice. Well, what is the relationship that you see among these, and what are your thoughts about how to best move forward?

Yes, that is an incredibly important question right now. I just mentioned that there were historical rates of food insecurity among children. But the rate is far higher among black and Hispanic households than white households. About three in 10 black households with children are experiencing food insecurity. It’s about 30% of black households. About 25% of Hispanic households with children compared to the rate of only 10% for white households. And my experience in this community is that I think that before the pandemic and before the racial reckoning that we’re experiencing right now, people used to take for granted that you would experience higher rates of poverty and food insecurity among communities of color in the United States. And I’m seeing a really important and much-needed shift where we’re not accepting that as given. And instead, people are saying, why is this happening? And what can we do about it? I look forward to those conversations, and I look forward to those solutions. There’s no silver bullet to these things.

I’d like to switch to something related to this, which is the relationship of the pandemic to food insecurity and inter-race in the United States. I think that we’ve all heard that Black and Latino Americans have died of COVID-19 at two to three times the rate of white Americans. I think that it’s important to note that among the factors that lead to morbidity and mortality rates from COVID, the second most important factor to age is obesity. And nationwide, the rate of obesity is higher among black and Hispanic adults than it is among white adults. I think that obesity, which is a manifestation of malnutrition, plays an important role in the impact of COVID-19 on people of color in the United States. I think it’s important to look at the interplay of race, COVID-19, and food insecurity in the United States.

And then to get to your question about what to do about food insecurity among people of color, I think that there are a number of things for us to look at. It’s not only about food access. The conversation often goes directly to a lack of full-service markets in communities of color. I think that it should go beyond that. It’s strongly linked to income, so increasing wages, the importance of investments in infrastructure like public transportation. And I think there are other conversations that we need to be having as well. Right now, headlines are being made around the increase in evictions because of the lapse of federal benefits at the end of July. There are strong links between eviction rates and food insecurity. So I’ve been reading studies about the correlation between food insecurity at age five and eviction rates for children. So there are connections between being evicted and having high rates of food insecurity. So communities of color are hit hardest, and I think that the policy community needs to coalesce.


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