Before leaving the University of Notre Dame for a two-week trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, I was concerned about the rising food prices worldwide. Having grown up in Hong Kong eating rice each day, I was particularly worried by the threefold increase in the price of rice - the staple food for about 3 billion people worldwide.
My concern took on a new intensity when I arrived in East Africa and began touring projects supported by Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. In Africa, the rise in global food prices doesn't mean forgoing a night out on the town or passing up a pair of shoes on sale. It means middle-class families stop buying milk for their children and morning coffee, poor families start eating a bowl of porridge just once or twice a day, and the poorest of the poor regularly go hungry and may even face starvation.
It's hard to believe that in our modern world, people can die of hunger. But it happens every day, and sadly is starting to happen again in Ethiopia. Short rains that come each spring failed to arrive this year, leaving millions of people without a harvest - without food. The government and aid agencies are stepping in to provide critical assistance, especially for vulnerable children, but the next harvest won't come until at least September. That's a long time to survive without any food in the cupboard and no savings to afford increasingly expensive staples.
Ethiopia, like so many other countries, needs distributions of emergency food and innovative, long-term initiatives that give poor people the skills and leg up they need to feed their families well into the future.
During my travels, I visited a beekeeper who is making a nice profit producing honey. I met a farmer who received three sheep at a livestock fair and later traded nine of their progeny for 20 sheets of tin to build a better home. And I learned how farmers are coming together to leverage cell phones and collective bargaining to check current market prices and negotiate better terms of sale.
These types of sustainable interventions are well worth the investments made. For example, a low-cost irrigation system I saw is enabling farmers to earn more revenue from one-eighth of a hectare than what 2.25 hectares previously brought in. Year-round watering allows for two or three harvests a year instead of one, and farmers can grow vegetables that can be sold at a premium. The income gains are truly staggering.
Over the years, Americans have been very generous with overseas food assistance. I am deeply moved whenever I see the hefty bags of grain marked "USA" on these trips. For so many people, they are the bridge between starvation and a chance at another day. But this year, in light of the global food crisis, we need to increase both the amount of emergency food delivered and our commitment to long-term agriculture production.
Congress is working on a supplemental appropriations bill that includes emergency food and cash in response to the crisis. The humanitarian provisions in the House and Senate versions of the bill look promising, but political wrangling could delay funding availability until well into next year. Such a delay could have enormous consequences, literally being the difference between life and death for too many starving children and hungry families around the globe. Action is needed now to ensure emergency assistance is provided as quickly as possible.
I know Americans are also struggling as food prices rise. But if the United States and other donors don't make critical investments immediately, the current food crisis threatens to continue indefinitely - a risk none of us can afford.
Carolyn Woo is dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and serves as a board member for Catholic Relief Services.