Feeding the Future
The U.S. Department of State's Caitlin Welsh discusses issues of global food security
Erie native Caitlin Welsh, Acting Director of the U.S. Department of State's Office of Global Food Security, recently presented her lecture "Feeding the World in the 21st Century" at the Jefferson Educational Society's Global Summit IX. Before stepping up to the podium, however, she stopped by the Reader offices to nurture my understanding of global hunger issues and how they pertain to both Erie and the nation at large.
Matt Swanseger: What was it that called you to this profession? Did you gradually gravitate towards it or was there a watershed moment somewhere along the line that kind of sucked you in?
Caitlin Welsh: I came to the State Department through the Presidential Management Fellowship after graduate school. Leading up to this, I had studied foreign affairs and French as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, then I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. My graduate degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs was essentially in international policy.
MS: Was there anything growing up in Erie that indicated you might want to go that direction?
CW: Well, when I was growing up here, we wouldn't have necessarily characterized it as an international city the way we do today. I knew there were a lot of immigrant communities; the Polish neighborhood would have its school and its church and its bar, and the Irish community would have the same thing, but the communities weren't representative of the whole globe. But there are some key moments I remember as a child — for example, meeting somebody visiting from South Africa or someone who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer. Through meeting those people, I received a glimpse into the broad world outside the United States. I had teachers at Mercyhurst Prep who had traveled out in the world and that inspired me, and I received the International Baccalaureate Diploma from MPS, which furthered my interest in international issues and prepared me for my future studies and work. Also, when I was growing up, my parents were internationally-minded — for example, I remember my parents reading me a book about the outcomes of the first UN climate summit. So early on, I'd attribute it to meeting people from around the world, my education, and my own parents. Later, once I went to college, most of my friends had traveled to other countries and I really hadn't yet. So I went into the Peace Corps a few years later.
MS: Global hunger is a pretty big problem; when did you realize that you should and could be part of working towards a solution?
CW: Indirectly, I was working on that issue as a Peace Corps volunteer — I lived in the "breadbasket" of Morocco. There were a lot of really obvious nutrition challenges in the country, so I did a lot of different things, like organizing educational opportunities for adults about proper nutrition. My first job out of grad school was at a place called the U.S.-African Development Foundation, and we gave small grants to co-ops in many countries in Africa, most of which were farming co-ops. All that set me up well for my current role at the State Department: I had been a Peace Corps volunteer on the ground level, I had administered grants at USADF, and I had studied quantitative analysis at Columbia, which equipped me to analyze data about global food security. I think I was well-prepared for my current role at the State Department, but it wasn't as though from age three I knew I was going to be here.
MS: What are the roots of that problem? Is the global food supply plentiful enough, and if so, why are so many people malnourished or starving?
CW: There is enough food to feed people around the world. That said, right now, there are 20 million people at risk of famine in four countries [Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen], and that constitutes the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. Essentially, it boils down to conflict and poor governance, especially when those things are exacerbated by climate challenges like drought. Two years ago the entire intelligence community published their first ever assessment of global food security and one of their top findings was that producing more food globally will not lead to more food-secure countries. Having more food is only part of the solution; you need so many other things.
MS: Describe for me, if you would, the aims of the Office of Global Food Security and how it fits into the Department of State. Why is it in America's best interest to help feed developing countries?
CW: Generosity has always been one of the reasons why we do it. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump — you hear all of them echo that we do it because it's the right thing to do. This September, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mark Green, made a pledge to address the famines in the countries that I mentioned. And with that $525 million pledge, we are still the world's largest humanitarian donor. That said, it's in our national security and economic interests as well.
It's in our national security interests because food insecurity threatens political stability in other countries, and that can affect us indirectly [e.g., a 2010 global wheat shortage that especially impacted the Middle East, where nine of the top 10 wheat importing countries are located — this played a role in the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak] or directly [e.g., ISIS using food to recruit new members, mass illegal immigration in 2014 spurred in part by hunger in Central America].
When it comes to our economic interests, it's a couple things. When we improve food security abroad, we're improving developing countries' economies and they can eventually become markets for our goods and trading partners for us. One thing people don't always acknowledge is that our investments in nutrition are important for economic growth. You don't see the return immediately, but within a generation you see it. If you think of children in a population that is very food-insecure now: their physical and cognitive development will be impaired, they're not going to learn well in school, they're not going to earn high wages, and then their GDP growth in aggregate is going to be lower. Proper nutrition, especially during the first 1,000 days from pregnancy to age two, has the reverse effect, and investing in nutrition helps spur economic growth.
MS: Do you find that most foreign countries are cooperative in your efforts, or is there some resistance to what they may perceive as imperialism?
CW: I would say that countries themselves are not resistant, because they acknowledge that the United States has the world's expertise on many elements of food security. What can often be confused with imperialism is large, multinational corporations investing in food and agricultural systems in developing countries. The way we come at it is, there's no developed country whose agricultural system is still small-scale. Agriculture has to become more productive and efficient if it is going to improve the food security of developing countries. The U.S. government supports businesses of all sizes — family farms, small and medium enterprises, and large companies from all countries — to invest responsibly in sustainable food systems.
MS: How do you prioritize foreign aid? Is there any area of the world where you are particularly concentrating your efforts and why?
CW: I work really closely on an initiative called Feed the Future. It had its roots in the George W. Bush administration, but was launched by President Obama. Congress last summer passed the Global Food Security Act that largely wrote Feed the Future's approach into legislation. (The bill's lead sponsor in the Senate was Pennsylvania's Senator Casey.) The legislation required us to develop the U.S. Global Food Security Strategy and focuses our work on 12 target countries across Latin America, Asia and Africa. We chose those countries for a number of different reasons, including their level of need and their ability to partner with us, meaning that country's willingness to improve their own policies and implement their own programs to improve food security.
MS: What indicators do you use to determine that a country is on the path to self-sufficiency? What factors have to be present before you can say, "Okay, you got this?"
CW: Two things: food self-sufficiency is different from food security. When a country talks about being food self-sufficient, that means the country produces enough food to feed its own population. We don't think that's a reasonable aspiration for all countries; for countries that have a lot of natural resources, it certainly is. For many countries, it's not. They don't have the ability to produce the food they need so their population can be nourished, and for that reason, food security includes the element of trade as well. If you cannot produce what you need, you must have the ability to trade so you can obtain what you need.
Regarding food security, the act requires us to develop criteria for a country to "graduate" from Feed the Future. The idea being that target countries should be progressing like so many other countries have — like Brazil, South Korea, and Japan after World War II. The new administrator of the United States Agency for International Development talks about that often, about how the USAID should not be in existence forever, that "Each of our programs should look forward to the day when it can end and, around the world, we should measure our work by how far each investment moves us closer to that day."
MS: Despite America's global presence, I feel like the average American sadly does not think much beyond our borders. Citizens of smaller towns or cities like Erie can be especially susceptible to "living in a bubble." What does it take to transcend this mindset and look outward? How do you convince people who have never truly been hungry to care about and empathize with those who are suffering a world away?
CW: I think to get people to care about this issue, they have to recognize it's in everybody's interest for us to eliminate global hunger and malnutrition. Because when countries remain food insecure, economies don't grow and conflict can breed, and that challenges global stability. People don't always make that direct link, but there is a direct link between food security, economic growth, and global stability.
MS: It seems vitally important to fund agricultural research in the face of ongoing climate and environmental changes. Have there been any barriers to pushing the resources behind this that ought to be pushed behind it, and if so, how can we best navigate those challenges?
CW: According to the Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Food Security, of all the money that is spent on agricultural research worldwide, only 5 percent is spent on researching ways to reduce food loss and waste. Food loss and waste is an enormous problem, but the vast majority of research goes toward how to increase production. Not "wait a second, we produce as much as we need right now. How do we lose and waste less?"
In developing countries, most of the problem occurs between the farm and the market. Across the African continent, about $48 billion worth of food is lost annually because of post-harvest loss. In developed countries, most of the problem occurs between the marketplace and final points of consumption, including homes and restaurants. According to the U.S. intelligence community, approximately one-third of the food produced globally does not get consumed due to losses and waste. Food loss and waste causes economic losses for producers and consumers, it's a drain on natural resources, and it's a contributor to climate change for multiple reasons.
MS: To those who may have missed your lecture at the Jefferson Educational Society, what is your message to Erieites and what can we do as a part of both a local and global community?
CW: At JES, I'm going to talk about my work on global hunger and malnutrition for the State Department. It's important to remember that my work is our work: I help execute our government's foreign policies and international development programs, using our taxpayer dollars. Also, I'll explain that global hunger includes hunger in Erie. We are part of the world. In Erie, I was really surprised to learn that almost 40 percent of children were living in poverty in 2015… Think about what that means for the future of this city if half Erie's kids are living in poverty. There is a lot to be done — and a lot we should be doing — right here at home.
For more information, visit the Office of Global Food Security website at state.gov/s/globalfoodsecurity.
Matt Swanseger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.