We need U.S. industry to counter the next global food crisis

Economic conditions are causing food supply issues worldwide, with prices at a 40-year high and increasing still. Reasons for the constraints range from anomaly to continued COVID disruption to geopolitical maelstroms, but just the same, forecast one unmistakable outcome: Without a concerted course correction, the world will stare down a generational global food crisis before the year ends.

There are multiple tiers to hunger. The United Nations estimates more than 820 million people face food instability, and nearly 300 million are unable to meet basic sustenance — the baseline caloric intake to maintain life. Every region finds itself struggling with some degree of food insecurity, and the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization identify the most urgent shortages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Nigeria. These states have a multitude of other issues, as well, and any escalation in food scarcity will find achieving sustainable humanitarian successes even more difficult.

Famine is a catalyst for further obstacles to prosperity, security and democratic resilience. For example, according to the World Bank’s open database on the relationship between food prices and violence, since the 1980s conflict and terrorism patterns tend to correlate with food price increases. While food insecurity is exacerbated by violence, violence rates consistently rise during and immediately following periods of price spikes.

Prior to today, food prices witnessed their highest three-year increase from 2011 to 2014. Shortly thereafter, the three-year average annual number of terrorist attacks spiked to more than 14,000, easily the highest recorded number. This data correlation also holds true for total incidents and deaths from civil unrest, war and other conflicts, and demonstrates a traceable pattern for nearly 40 years.

Assessing current conditions following this history is troubling if not outright intimidating. However, a greater understanding of the root causes of food insecurity can work to see these outcomes are not altogether inevitable. This understanding should also point to tangible solutions to reinforce the worldwide supply — because to best assist humanitarian efforts overseas, the most durable countermeasures readily exist through the agriculture and energy industries here at home.

In the United States, the building blocks of food production are under immense pressure. Over the past 18 months, energy costs overall are up more than 30 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Agriculture labor costs have increased approximately 10 percent during the same period, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also finds agriculture employment just now closing in on pre-COVID participation rates.

Adding to production stress: Fertilizers are averaging a 30 percent price increase since March 2021, with key components like ammonia more than double their top marks during the past 10 years (from 2011 to 2014). Potash, urea, and other fertilizer ingredients are likewise high. Feeding the world is impossible without commercial fertilizers, so the sustained cost increases complete a perfect storm driven by energy, labor and regulatory impediments. The issue is only deepened by situations like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, considering Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter.

These are but a few of the economic factors making food production more difficult and expensive. This situation exposes threatened populations to even greater vulnerability because while agribusiness energy, labor and other costs in the U.S. have increased up to 30 percent, food prices have risen between 10 percent and 20 percent, finding a loss scenario for multiple producers nationwide and yet still creating disparity for communities abroad.  

Irrespective of politics, meeting demand on a global scale requires adjustments to foster reliable supply and the importance of U.S. energy, agribusiness, and labor in this equation cannot be understated.

Many of the immediate needs to balance this equation are manageable if but for political will, and include regulatory reform, permitting certainty, continued shipping reforms, expanded export assistance and tailored workforce training. Addressing the priorities for just one industry can advance the full supply chain, too. For example, U.S. oil and gas production remains stymied due to an inconsistent assessment and regulatory environment in federal and (some) state spaces.

Accounting for approximately 80 percent of U.S. power today, a curbed oil and gas industry hinders the agriculture, manufacturing and logistics to produce, process and transport resources worldwide. Perhaps foreign to the international aid community, these domestic policy conversations — i.e., interstate pipelines, agriculture commodity credits, or port improvements — take on new importance.

Recognizing the conditions are underway for an unequaled food supply challenge, the discussion must not only focus on cause-oriented solutions but furthermore engage and support the industry partners to maintain them. Cross-community outreach and alliances are imperative.

The common mission for countering famine is not only admirable but attainable — and more so by deliberately meeting and leveraging a U.S. private sector capable of affording the foundation toward lasting global food security.  

Ned Rauch-Mannino is s a consultant for commercial diplomacy matters. He is a former senior official having served multiple roles with the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Agency for International Development, and as co-chair for Prosper Africa.