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The United States is suffering its worst drought in 50 years. Yes, that's bad news for Americans. But what happens in the parched fields and prairies of the Midwest can affect people, prices and political stability worldwide. In this reporting series GlobalPost correspondents and editors investigate what America's drought means for the rest of our hungry and increasingly worried planet.

Global food crisis drought
Marion Kujawa looks over a pond he uses to water the cattle on his farm on July 16, 2012 in Ashley, Illinois. Kujawa has been digging the pond deeper after it began to dry up during the current drought. According to the Illinois Farm Bureau, the state is experiencing the sixth driest year on record. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
United States

Food crisis: a new normal?

Q&A: As the climate changes and population increases, here’s what we can expect.

It’s been called the worst drought in decades. As crops wither in the parched American heartland, prices of key grains — soy, corn and wheat – are soaring. Suddenly, population and climate change are beginning to dominate the national conversation.

But is the crisis really new? What's causing it? And what’s being done to address it?

Food shortages are a chronic problem in many parts of the world. Over a billion people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger. According to Feed the Future, a child dies every six seconds from hunger — more than 3.5 million each year. Far more suffer from malnutrition.

To put the food crisis in context, GlobalPost turned to Jonathan White, an expert on food, hunger and development. White runs the German Marshall Fund’s International Development Project, and recently directed a Transatlantic Experts Group on Food Security in Africa.

The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: Droughts and crop destruction this summer are focusing attention on what is being called an urgent global food crisis. But you put out a report in April, months before the summer planting began, pointing out that, “over a billion people suffer from chronic hunger,” and that, “food production must double in the next twenty years to meet demand and stabilize food crisis.”

So what’s new about the current food shortage and how is it different from what you wrote about?

Jonathan White: What we discussed among the forty members of the experts group were the questions of commodity prices, of the energy and food market hitting new equilibrium levels that we’re expecting to be around for some time.

The drivers of this are very much the drought and climatic changes which, with the current crisis, seem to have now hit us in the United States, with an exceptionally severe drought this July. That is affecting the corn and soybean markets. Because the US is one of the largest exporters of those two commodities, it’s affecting the global price.

I would say that the current crisis isn’t necessarily new, but rather a continued trend: climate is impacting not just small holders in Africa but now impacting us at home.

What about the effect of population? The global population continues to grow and now exceeds seven billion.

The more immediate cause is the drought in the US.

More broadly, if we’re looking at the global trend, we are definitely seeing a combination of both supply side shocks—droughts and climatic changes like we’re seeing in the United States—and demand side shocks—the rising population in the emerging markets, and their diet shifting away from grains to livestock and meat. That’s putting further pressure on the production of food and land.

There are also policy issues, which get into the question of biofuels and export bans which have, in many ways, played a role in this global food crisis as well.

Let’s talk about how the crisis will affect various groups. First of all, how will the current acute crisis affect those who are already suffering from hunger, and how will it affect life in countries where food shortages are prevalent? We recall in 2008 when food prices last soared there were riots in at least thirty countries.

As you can imagine, the overall share of income from an American household going to food is much smaller compared to that of a small holder in Africa. So they are much more vulnerable.

Generally, 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas. They tend to derive their income from farming, and often do not have modern irrigation and therefore depend upon rain-fed farming, which links directly to climate change. These farmers are going to have fewer resources and less ability to respond to the climatic changes that we face.

In those parts of the world, these kind of disruptions could not just mean hunger—which we have a moral imperative to address—but also political and social tensions, which could lead to much more serious issues.

How will the problem affect Americans, and what can Americans do to alleviate it?

One thing that would help would be recognizing that what happens overseas affects us at home indirectly. These countries are in some cases very fragile states, and some of those political disruptions affect us in terms of foreign aid