Feast and Famine

A decade ago when droughts were severe in the United States and Russia, countries such as China, which had been a net importer of grain, began encouraging more domestic production. In stark contrast today, the U.S. is looking at its fourth straight year of record harvests, and competition from producers in Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Russia are taking advantage of export opportunities created by a strong U.S. dollar.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that global harvests will be the highest since it started keeping records in 1960. Worldwide stores of total grains following the 2017 harvest are projected (as of April) to be up 8.4% from two years ago; wheat alone has a 39% projected increase, creating a huge storage dilemma, while driving down prices. Comparable figures for the U.S. are 16% for all grains and 54% for wheat. Silos are full and farmers have taken to storing grain in plastic silo bags six feet in diameter and hundreds of feet in length, or in piles covered by tarpaulins.

Concurrent with the increasing oversupply is the mounting famine in four countries. Would it not be opportune for the United Nations to collect a portion of the oversupply and distribute to populations facing starvation? Offer a fair price to the farmers who have no choice but to store indefinitely or sell at a loss? Ah, were it only so simple.

A recent article in the New York Times detailed the complexities of the current threats. “For the first time since anyone can remember, there is a very real possibility of four famines — in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen — breaking out at once, endangering more than 20 million lives…. The famines are coming as a drought sweeps across Africa and several different wars seal off extremely needy areas.” Lack of clean water and sanitation has enabled the spread of deadly disease. Emergency food deliveries are being blocked or stolen, and aid workers are being targeted and killed. Farmers and villagers flock to displaced persons camps seeking relief, but camp conditions promote the spread of communicable disease.

Here is where agriculture, international trade, climate, water resources, disease, poor governance, human rights and armed conflict intersect. Heat and inadequate rainfall are starting to impact more African countries. The New York Times article reports “Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania parched and on the edge of a major food crisis.” Perhaps excess world grain production will yet benefit those facing famine.

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