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Opinion | The United States must step up to prevent a global famine

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Bakeries in Tunisia close for days because they do not have enough supplies to make bread, part of the Tunisian diet. In Peru and Sri Lanka, there are protests over food and fuel shortages. These are early red flags for what may soon become a global food tragedy, leaving tens of thousands of millions without enough to eat this year. Food costs have risen to the highest level ever since the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations began keeping track of them in 1990.

“This is much worse than what we saw in 2008 or 2011,” warned Arif Husain, chief economist at the UN World Food Program. His organization says 44 million people in 38 countries are “vibrating on the brink of starvation,” and 276 million are food insecure, double the number of people from the year before the pandemic began.

Whether this precarious situation turns into a real global famine depends to a large extent on what the United States, the European Union, China and other large and prosperous nations are doing now. The United States must lead by example.

The war in Ukraine triggers a global food crisis. Here’s how the United States can help.

Food supplies are running out due to Russia’s unwarranted war in Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat, corn, sunflower seeds and fertilizers, among other agricultural products. Many of their exports went to parts of Africa and the Middle East, and there are simply not many other extra food supplies to compensate for the losses. It takes months to increase crop production elsewhere in the world. It does not help that China hoards important foods, stores corn and wheat to protect its own people.

Food prices were high, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as demand rose sharply when the pandemic came out. Prices have only become more exorbitant now that there is less supply. People in developing countries do not have enough money to pay the high costs and their governments are struggling to find funds to help. Many poor nations spent heavily before and during the pandemic and already have massive debt burdens. It’s a scenario with perfect storm in the textbook.

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In the short term, richer countries need to stop hoarding and give more money to help developing countries and organizations such as the World Food Program.

U.S. leaders, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, have in recent days spoken out strongly about the need to step up with more aid. Congress needs to back that up. Unfortunately, President Biden made things worse with his recent pressure to get more ethanol in gasoline this summer. It is taking even more crops out of the global food supply. The World Resources Institute estimates that if the United States and Europe halved grain used for ethanol, “it would compensate for all the lost exports of Ukrainian wheat, corn, barley and rye.”

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The United States and other major world powers have the ability to prevent a global famine. This is as urgent and morally necessary as sending tanks to Ukraine.

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