David Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme, talked to TIME about why he is worried about 2023.
A decade ago TIME asked your predecessor whether the planet would always able to produce enough food for everyone. She said yes. Do you feel that way?
I think we will struggle with having enough food in the future. We may not have enough food for everybody in 2023. There’s no doubt we can produce enough food for the world’s population; humanity’s strategic enough to achieve that. The question is whether—because of war and conflict and corruption and destabilization—we do. Look, 200 years ago, there were 1.1 billion people on planet earth, and 95% of them lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% are in extreme poverty. But in the last five years, we’re absolutely going backwards—and it’s not just a little bit, either. That should frighten the hell out of anybody.
Why are we going backwards?
When I took this job, six years ago, there were 80 million people marching to starvation. That number went to 135 million right before COVID, [because of] man-made conflict and climate shocks. COVID comes along and the number goes to 276 million. That’s before Ethiopia. That’s before Afghanistan. That’s before Ukraine. Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people. It went from the biggest breadbasket of the world to the longest breadlines. Compounded by fertilizer pricing, droughts, supply-chain disruption, fuel costs, food costs, shipping costs, we now have 349 million people marching to starvation.
Your term expires in April 2023. What must you get done before you go?
I’ve worked to awaken the world’s leaders to the reality that food security is the crisis of modern times. If you want to know which countries over the next 12 to 18 months could have destabilization and mass migration, start with the 49 knocking on famine’s door right now. And the new numbers are coming in on wheat production, grain production, cereal production in India, Argentina, Brazil, and it’s down, down, down, down. The question now is how to move that forward. Because it’s not a quick fix.
Do you ever get annoyed that the U.S. has sent $17.5 billion to Ukraine, and not even half that to help the hundreds of millions of people who are starving?
Leaders do not have enough money to fund every need. They’ve got to prioritize what’s critical to stability on earth, things that are in their national security interest. A lot of leaders say, Why should I send money to Guatemala or Chad when I’ve got infrastructure, education, health care needs in Michigan or Bavaria? I say a child from Guatemala or Honduras who is in a shelter on the U.S. border costs $4,000 per week. With $1 to $2 a week per child, I can build a resilience program so that child has food security at home.
Would you like to see a negotiated settlement in Ukraine?
I am very upset with world leaders. They’re all running around playing Whac-a-Mole and not solving serious problems in the world. Slow down, solve Yemen, solve Ethiopia, solve Ukraine—just solve one of them.
You argue that if we ensure food security, people will stay where they are and it’s less destabilizing. Does that hold up in the face of climate change?
If you do analytics on places like Somalia and the Sahel—Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso—where we’ve been able to do resilience programs, the impact on those communities of recent shocks is less, and they require less support. We can stabilize the population. That also applies to government leaders. I’ve been trying to get donors to give development dollars to, say, Syria. If I can create food security for the smallholder farmers, they’re more self–sufficient and can make independent decisions about their futures.
Isn’t climate change still going to send Somalis off their farms?
We can’t blame the -Somalis for that, although we can blame them for a lot of other things. I tell leaders, if you honestly believe that industrialized nations have contributed to climate change, then you have a moral obligation to provide solutions on the ground for adaptation. Do you believe what you’re saying or not? And if you don’t, be prepared for mass migration that’s going to cost a thousand times more.