Ryan Heath interviewing Lawrence Haddad
Ryan Heath: For Politico, I'm Ryan Heath and this is Global Insider. While it's hard to imagine scenes more devastating than the images of those mutilated tortured bodies coming out of Boucher and Ukrainian this week. Whatever the horrors of those deaths, whatever the horrors of the wider Ukraine conflict, there actually is something worse we need to worry about. There were millions of people around the world who might starve to death this year because of food, price spikes, and broken food supply chains resulting from Russia's invasion. So far, most of the debate has been around whether we should cut off Russian energy. There's much less debate about finding ways to keep harvesting and exporting wheat and other essential crops from both Ukraine and Russia or what we do to make sure other countries plug the gaps of what those countries can't provide.
In a world where more than 800 million people do not have enough to eat. This week's guest is particularly important to listen to: Lawrence Haddad is Executive Director of the global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and he works to mobilize resources to end hunger and to improve what people do manage to eat.
R.H: Thanks for joining us Lawrence.
Lawrence Haddad: Pleasure to be here Ron.
R.H: I thought maybe we'd start with some of the basics cause there's a lot of difficult, dramatic content we'll have to get through in this discussion. And the real fundamental question I have is, when you look at the state of hunger and food insecurity in 2022, where does that sit in your understanding of past years and past eras with that problem?
And I ask that because we know that COVID has tended to exacerbate existing inequalities. We know that the war in Ukraine is threatening food supplies, but I don't understand where it sits in historical terms.
L. H: So historically, if you look at real food prices, They are as high now as they've been since 1975. 1975 was the last time We had a full blown food crisis. We were talking about famines nonstop. The World Food Program was founded in 1975 around that time. And so we're in a pretty, pretty difficult position. Since 1975, the percentage of the population globally that is hungry has actually declined, which is remarkable, really, because population has grown a huge amount in that period of time.
So the population has grown and a smaller percentage of that population than ever before has been hungry. But about five, ten years ago, that started turning upwards. That downward trajectory of turned a corner. And I think it was probably due to climate change. Making it harder to produce food, more illness, kids getting malnourished more often.
And COVID just accelerated that and conflicts around the world. The number of hungry people increased by 20% in one year, and that's the biggest percentage increase in my lifetime. So we're in a pretty bad situation. And that was before Ukraine.
R.H: and we hear increasingly urgent and desperate calls from figures like David Beasley at the World Food Program. He's at times said if we don't get X number of billion, usually in the low billions in the next few months, you know, we can be in a situation with literally tens of millions of people face the prospect of starvation. Do you think we have the capacity to deal with the underlying problems in the food system and the immediate threats? Or is it a case that we're just going to have to throw all our resources at the immediate threats for the time being, because they themselves are so great?
L.H: I do think we have the capacity to do it and the resources. I mean, David Beasley is right. These are not just numbers. There's not statistics there's people, right. So we need to help them make it through this crisis.
But you're quite right. It'd be very easy to therefore not deal with the underlying problems. But the reason I say we can do both, I think is that there's so many resources in the food system and it's just about getting them properly aligned. So it's not about new resources, really it's directing existing resources towards the kind of food choices that make our food systems more resilient and better able to deal with climate change and less likely to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and less likely to ferment conflict. You know, food systems are a victim of all these crisis, but they're also contributed to these crisis. So we have to do both of those things.
R.H: And is that about changing what we farm? So crops rather than cows, for example? Or ensuring that, you know, I look at the situation right now with Ukraine and it would be a disaster for American farmers to go big on cotton to make clothes that can't be worn by people who haven't been fed properly. Is it about those sort of incentives or is it another level that I’m missing?
L.H: There's some pretty deep level incentives that are very resistant to change, but we have to change them. You've seen The Matrix, right? That movie. And you've seen that scene with the red pill and the blue pill? I forget which way around it is. I think it's the red pill you see reality, and the blue pill, you don't? With the blue pill you just get to be blissfully ignorant about everything, but then you eventually end up in a state where you have no control over your existence. And I feel that's kind of where we are now with food systems. So food system choices, choices about what to grow, where to grow it, how to process it, how to store it, how to prepare it, how to cook it, how to eat it: these choices are based on market prices. Market prices don't incorporate any of the positive or negative health consequences or environmental consequences of those choices.
So foods that are damaging to health and damaging to the environment. On average, globally, such as red meat, those costs and are not priced in.
So the very metrics that we use, the very currency we use to make these choices is wrong. And so, I'm working with a whole group of people who are trying to, first of all, consolidate the true value of food; figure out exactly what different foods trying to incorporate those economists: call them externalities into the prices to get the real price. The real price of the scarcity of those foods. And then more importantly, begin to make choices based on those prices.
For example, New York State Government is going to try to use these real prices, these true cost prices to decide what to purchase, what foods to purchase for its school system. If it does that, that could be absolutely revolutionary.
I'm not a massive fan of the idea of a meat tax because there's so many types of meat and they don't all have the same environmental footprint. And even with red meat, there are different types of red meat and different types of processing and different types of growing. Practices that, some are very damaging, some are not. So very difficult. It's not like texting sugar.
R.H: And how would transparency measures compared to those tax ideas? Could consumers, for example, really make better choices on a big scale. If they have more information?
L.H: There are supermarkets in the Netherlands, I'm told, I haven't seen them myself, where they display two prices for every item, the market price and the true price.
And sometimes the true price is lower than the market price because that food vegetables, fruits have lots of positive health externalities. But most often the prices are higher and of course, consumers don't have to pay the true price, but at least they see what the true price is. ESG standards, environmental, social, and governance standards don't really incorporate food and health issues as much.
So again, we're working with places like B Corp and others to incorporate health more into ESG standards. And if we could do that, then that would give a guide to big investors about which companies to invest in and which not.
R.H: Then to bring it back to the concrete, devastating news of the moment, which is the war that Russia has started in Ukraine. You know, I wonder how much those sort of seismic events act as a jolt for some other set of system change. That's the background thought. And then I guess my question as well is how damaging do you think the knock on effects of war in Ukraine could be, in terms of lives lost or lives derailed elsewhere, particularly in Africa? Because we know that the majority of trade that Africa does with Russia and Ukraine is with food, is with wheat imports in particular. As we get horrified by the thousands of deaths in Ukraine, my fear is that we end up with the hundreds of thousands or the millions of deaths in Africa because the food supply chain breaks down.
L.H: Yeah, so first of all, I don't like calling it the war on Ukraine. It's the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Second, when I look at the estimates from the UN food and agriculture organization of the impact of the current crisis on food prices; It feels to me that they're being very, very conservative. I think the impact on food prices and the impact on hunger numbers is going to be in the tens of millions. So I think tens of millions of lives will be derailed by what's going on.
And I think that's partly because our food systems are so fragile. So for me, that in every crisis is an opportunity kind of thing, right? So for me, this crisis it's really crisis upon crisis upon crisis. So these crises, the big takeaway for me is that our food systems are very fragile. And what's opposite of fragility is diversification.
They're not diversified because there’s this massive conflict in one of the biggest bread baskets in the world, Ukraine and the neighboring parts of Russia. So we need to diversify the breadbaskets and by bread baskets. You know what I mean? I don't mean places that just produce wheat. I mean the big food producing areas.
And Africa is a case in point that’s got such incredible potential. African leaders themselves have set themselves these target, these African targets called the Malabo targets. You know, it's the percentage of our GDP invested in agriculture and they're falling woefully short except for a handful of countries. They're falling woefully short of these targets.
The first thing is diversify where food is grown. I'm not a big fan of food sovereignty. That is every country has to meet its own food needs, but we have to diversify our breadbaskets. There's only about five or six of them in the world, and there needs to be twenty-five or thirty of these bread baskets.
Second thing is diversified crops. We rely on for 75% of our calories on 12 different crops. That's crazy.
Third diversification is energy sources. We need to diversify energy sources. This is a massive wake-up call. Invest in renewables.
And fourth thing is diversify your funding source. Governments are strapped for cash. So they need to somehow use the cash they have to catalyze private sector, private investment. And the way to do that is to invest more in blended financing mechanisms. So to me, the story of these three [four] crises, one on top of the other is, it's a house of cards, our food system. They need to be much more diverse.
R.H: And how much can we rely on regional or global institutions to help unlock the financing of that? I'm not sure the African union is at the point where it is well-resourced and organized enough to step in. And then you have the question of whether the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank can act as support mechanisms. How does it look to you? Someone who floats between all of these different actors?
L.H: I look at the numbers required to end hunger. We've got the scientific evidence now to say, if you invest in these 10 areas, if you double the investment we're currently making and that's $33 billion a year for the next 10 years, we can get hunger numbers from 700, 800 million down to below 200 million.
That's effectively ending hunger, still 200 million to many, but it's effectively ending hunger. That number is tiny. Elon Musk lost $33 billion of the value of his company in one day in November of last year. So an extra $33 billion a year is nothing. So I think the resources are locked up in the system and the political will is the critical thing.
And it's political will. I think institutions like the G7 and the G20 that are much more important than the IMF and the WTO and the World Bank and the African Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It's G7 and G20 that can make things happen. And so we're targeting the G7 quite strongly, which is hosted by Germany to up its game on hunger reduction, because we're saying: If you don't reduce hunger, not only through emergency, emergency stuff is really important, as I said before, but the real game is the medium term. If you don't invest in food production, remember food production is also income generation. So we do need more food production to generate more income so people can actually buy the food.
So we're trying to say to the G7 invest more in agriculture, invest more in social safety nets. It’s really critical if you do, you'll attempt the short term through safety nets and you'll attempt the medium term. So you won't need the safety net so much in the future, but it's really small amounts of money. And, it's just really pressure from civil society. People like you and me and others that will make it happen.
R.H: Well my next question was going to be around how far off track you think the world is in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, or agreed at the United Nations to create zero hunger.
But it sounds from what you just said, that this is a salvageable situation that we can buy our way out of this situation?
L.H: We can invest our way out of it. Yes. On hunger. Yes. If we don't reach the hunger goal, it was because of choices we made. And in the next eight years. the other dimension, which we haven't talked much about is really about healthy diets. So you can have enough calories to stave off hunger, but if you're not getting enough protein and vitamins and minerals in your diets, then, especially for very young children and adolescents, their central nervous system is compromised. Their immune systems are compromised. Their brain development's compromised.
All sorts of things are compromised. Their life can be compromised as well. The number of people that cannot afford a healthy diet, it's astonishing, it's 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. That's extraordinary. We're not going to meet that SDG target. That's going to require the kinds of things I was talking about earlier.
It's going to require income growth. And it's going to require healthier foods that are better for the environment to become cheaper because we're pricing them properly and it's going to require unhealthy foods taht have a big environmental footprint to become more expensive. There are many populations in lower income contexts where they need to eat more animal sourced foods, not less.
Because they're hardly eating any, and they're getting incredibly monotonous cereal based diets that are terrible for their nutrition status. And then in places like North America and South America and Europe, most of us are eating way too many animal sourced foods. We need to eat less for our own health and to some extent for the environment. And that's the kind of thing you can't buy your way out of, you have to create different incentives.
R. H: And does that mean at some point we need to fundamentally reassess those global goals, or are you saying really we do have the right goal, but we haven't done the work when it comes to all of our food systems?
L.H: Well, I think the Global Goals run from 2015 to 2030, and they were sort of developed in 2013, 2014 and they missed some things. They missed obesity, they missed food safety, they missed junk food. And they missed
R.H: ~ that's a lot of misses. I mean, I don't want to sound mean, but ~
L.H: but that's a very valid criticism. So we're working very hard. I was, GAIN was, one of the lead organizations of one of the Action Tracks and the UN Food Systems Summit and we're working together with the other organizations that led the four Action Tracks to develop a new consortium that will begin to deal with some of these really tough issues. I've talked about the true value of food, getting environmental, social, and governance to incorporate health, these kinds of things, and feeding all of that into the next generation of Global Goals, which need to be different. If there is one from 2030 to 2045, they need to be very different.
R.H: So we've spoken about the effects of the invasion of Ukraine. But if we speak about other conflicts around the world, it seems clear that we're approaching levels of conflict that we haven't seen since the 1940s and Yemen is a very good example of where there are severe hunger impacts from that civil conflict. I'm wondering whether you have any views on what we can do to mitigate the hunger effects?
L.H: The insider jargon, it's social protection, but it's basically cash transfers, cash transfers to people in crisis. So they don't have to sell off their productive assets. Once you sell off your productive assets - you're kind of okay, in the short run, but you're even worse off in the long run. So these cash transfers are really important to get people through and also to help them thrive post-crisis. And they really scaled up during COVID or they went from globally about 0.6 billion people covered pre-COVID to about 1.8 billion people covered in one form or another and that was fantastic. I think it's scaled back down to about 1.2 billion, but these kinds of programs that can scale up and scale down in a counter-cyclical way are absolutely invaluable.
You would expect me to say it wouldn't you, but I think anything that protects the very young children. Children, literally from conception through to two years of age: which is called the first thousand days period. Anything you can do there to protect them by maintaining high impact nutrition, interventions, like breastfeeding promotion, Vitamin A supplementation, multiple micronutrient supplements for pregnant lactating women, that kind of thing. Anything you can do there that protects the first thousand days of life is really valuable because kids brains and immune systems, I like, you know, the like wet cement, really anything that disrupts them, that solidifies them, that that stays with them for the rest of their lives.
The other thing I would like to say really is, we have this horrible divide between the so-called development and so-called humanitarian world. They're almost like two different cultures and two different tribes and two different sets of interventions, two different sets of institutions. We have to tear down this crazy artificial war between development and the humanitarian world and that's going to take leadership from the UN.
R.H So what is it that keeps them sort of in this silos instead of working together?
L.H: It’s path dependency to different cultures. Vested interests, you know, the usual things that create and perpetuate silos. A fear of losing funding. You know, when your boss is saying, how much money have you raised this year humanitarian work? And you're like, well, I decided to spend some of that humanitarian money working with my development partners. So it's hard for people to work themselves out of jobs.
R.H: Thank you so much for being a Global Insider.