USAID Administrator: On Tackling Food Crisis

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Americans spend on average 10% of their income on food, while those in the world's poorest countries spend over 50%. To talk more about food shortages, security and prices, host Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Raj Shah, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which aims to provide economic and humanitarian assistance around the world.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we want to turn to a top U.S official with a global perspective on the food security issue. Raj Shah is the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, which provides economic development and humanitarian assistance worldwide.

Administrator Shah is hosting some 300 researchers this week for a forum titled, Feed the Future. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Dr. Shah, because he is a medical doctor in addition to his other duties, welcome, thank you for joining us.

Dr. RAJ SHAH: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I wanted to pick on the question that I asked David Nabarro, which is how do you characterize the current circumstance given high food prices and so forth around the world? You've traveled constantly. Is this a food crisis? Are we in a crisis?

SHAH: It's absolutely a precarious situation. We know that food security is critical to our national security, and I will build on David's point and suggest that the food riots and famines and failed states that are the consequences of a lack of access to food are far more costly and problematic to deal with over time than making smart targeted investments and helping countries develop their agricultural systems, become real trading partners and move big huge proportions of their population out of a condition of poverty and hunger.

MARTIN: Now, you're hosting this conference this week. What do you hope to accomplish there?

SHAH: Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have launched Feed the Future. It's our administration's approach to dealing with food security in a holistic way.

We've brought together about 400 of the world's experts, many from U.S. universities that have solutions to these problems. They're inventing drought-tolerant seed varieties that can help eliminate most of famine and extraordinary hunger in Eastern Africa. They're developing new fertilizers that can protect the environment and improve crop output, and thereby deal with food insecurity.

And they're developing new strategies for making sure that poor women, mostly women who are small-scale farmers in Africa and Asia and parts of Latin America have access to better tools and technologies so they can improve their production, feed their children, send their kids to school and we can move beyond this as a challenge and a threat to our national security.

MARTIN: That's probably something most people don't think around the world most farmers are in fact women.

SHAH: Well, 70 percent, it's an extraordinary...

MARTIN: Seventy percent are - now those sound like long-term goals and projects. What about in the near term? If the situation is as dire and as serious as you described, what are the near-term projects or activities that the administration is engaged in or your agency specifically?

SHAH: Well, we've been doing a number of things. First, we have engaged in a series of policy reforms to make sure that food can move around the world faster and more efficiently than ever before.

The United States is now the fastest provider of food assistance at times of crisis and emergency. And importantly, we pre-positioned our food around the world to make it accessible. So that after the big floods in Pakistan, for example, we were able to reach poor children who were very vulnerable very quickly with higher nutrition products.

Those types of efforts are making a big difference. And we're seeing in countries around the world, like in western Guatemala, we're seeing a 30 percent reduction in child malnutrition because of core improvements we've made to be more businesslike and results-oriented in our food and agriculture policies and programs.

MARTIN: And I was talking to Mr. Nabarro about the fact that there are different views about what is contributing to this crisis. I did want to ask - or circumstance, he disagrees with the word crisis. But what about biofuels?

SHAH: Well, it's very important to understand that when food prices go up, vulnerable populations suffer dramatically. In 2008, we saw this and more than 100 million people were pushed back into hunger and poverty for the first time in three and a half decades. We're seeing that same process happen today, where an increase in food prices is moving about 44 million people, by World Bank estimate, back into a condition of poverty and hunger.

And that happens because in many places around the world, people spend 60, 70 percent of their disposable income seeking food. Here in the United States, it's closer to 10 percent. So it's a very different thing.

David did a good job of describing all the different factors that contribute to food price increases. But the basic answer is increasing production of food, particularly in those environments that are most vulnerable - in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, which ironically also have the greatest potential for rapid increases. And we can see those increases happen within 12 to 18 months. We've seen that in Haiti. We've seen that in parts of the Sahel. It's really dramatic what can be done if we put our minds to it.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, in the minute or so that we have left, I wanted to ask about, what is the U.S. interest here? Because part of your agency's responsibility is to align its work with U.S. foreign policy goals. And at a time of, you know, scarce resources in the United States, and I certainly take your point that Americans are not nearly in the area of food security facing the situation many people are around the world, but there are - this is a time of constraint in this country's life and history.

So I'd like to ask, how do you justify to Americans, you know, spending this effort on food sustainability overseas, you know, apart from the moral issues, which do exist. But, you know, apart from that, how is that aligned with U.S. interest, if I may ask?

SHAH: It is absolutely in our national interest. For starters, we know that when countries fall apart and we have to engage in failed states, they become - they harbor terrorism, they become places where violent extremism can be a challenge to us. And the basic lack of opportunity, including access to food and health and education causes people to go in a different direction. And we've seen the difference.

You can look at the Korean Peninsula and it's a stark example of the distinction. South Korea was a major development partner with the United States and with USAID for decades. Today, South Korea's a vibrant economy, a big donor, and they're - we're creating jobs in the U.S. working with them. And you can just compare that to the exact opposite in North Korea. It's very clear what's in our interest to do.

MARTIN: Dr. Raj Shah is the administrator of USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Dr. Shah, thank you so much for joining us.

SHAH: Thank you.

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