A new roadmap for avoiding the 1918 disaster

Image: P&O The 1918 pandemic was the most devastating event of the 20th century, wiping out 20% of the world’s population. Its killing fields included food and grain crops, including the largest wheat harvest…

A new roadmap for avoiding the 1918 disaster

Image: P&O

The 1918 pandemic was the most devastating event of the 20th century, wiping out 20% of the world’s population. Its killing fields included food and grain crops, including the largest wheat harvest in history. Indeed, fears of an over-harvest was a key reason policymakers resisted a food embargo against the U.S.

Thankfully, there is a new food policy roadmap for preventing the same catastrophe from ever happening again. And while the guidance does contain the necessary provisions for keeping supplies of food and essential commodities in places where the crisis may strike, this statement needs to be matched with the appropriate policy steps to ensure that every potential cost-effective food storage site has a working mechanism for early intervention – one capable of tracking potential shortages and ensuring that countries have the food available to ensure the survival of civilians in a crisis-hit region.

This would be far less complicated and expensive than today’s situation, where unpredictable outbreaks of severe illness and even food scarcity can paralyse policy measures.

Right now, we lack a system to increase or improve policy response to food shortages in a timely fashion to prevent them. Data streams to monitor and measure food crops and distribution remain fragmented, with countries’ reliance on unreliable sample surveys. And those countries that have the resources and the will to store food are doing so with comparatively little data surveillance.

In Mexico, where the late start to the southern hemisphere’s spring and the Mayan cloudburst were disastrous for maize crops, the nation’s policymakers lacked the advice they needed to properly adapt their policy actions to a changing situation.

Moreover, the Obama administration did not sufficiently prioritize setting up and maintaining an operation for food surveillance. The unmet needs to have on hand actual electronic data in order to measure the spread of food shortages are so great that we must think outside the box, evaluating how to link the integrated data collection efforts of all governments in the region to other sectors to make smarter food policy decisions.

Given the importance of food safety and transparency to global markets and food security, and the current global multi-pronged food security framework being developed, we need to refocus our efforts on advancing the use of digital technologies and the use of data to monitor food supplies.

Most importantly, the role of information sharing must be aggressively examined and evaluated, particularly how to best reach groups that are not currently communicating with their governments on food security topics.

Too many governments and humanitarian actors continue to believe that development policies are the best answer for reducing vulnerability in crisis situations. That is simply not true. We know that governments and humanitarian actors need to move faster. The government capacity for responding to food risks must be increased. We must have the means and the will to draw from an emerging, hyper-connected network of expertise and information as well as sophisticated business-led response tools such as the growing volume of such data in the public domain.

The Global Forum, an intergovernmental, professional body for humanitarian action established by the United Nations and UNICEF in 2016 to undertake research and policy initiatives, is beginning to provide a blueprint on this change. But we know that these are just initial steps.

Every human being on the planet deserves an environment that they can call home. We need to support those who don’t have a safe and secure future. There is no denial that robust policies and responses to food problems are necessary. But we must go deeper, to the need for a mechanism to get forward-leaning, risk-aware policymakers in countries where food are in short supply to know where the likely crisis is and in order to more rapidly put these policies into action in a more effective manner.

Uganda, it is true, still suffers a cold crisis of insufficient food. And so does Burkina Faso. But these conditions do not mean, as such, that the scarcity is immediate. It does mean, however, that by focusing on supply, the proper actions to meet the needs of people can be taken much more quickly, and at a lower cost.

We can all agree on that. More quickly, far more quickly.

International food security is not just a “jargon”, nor a mere bureaucratic construct. It’s about lives. And the lives of future generations.

The architect of the latest food security guidelines is James Elliott, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics.

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