Can Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos solve global food security issues?

Involving billionaires in the food aid business may lead to a paradigm shift in helping the less fortunate

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Sylvain CharleboisA recent Twitter conversation between United Nations World Food Program (WFP) executive director David Beasley and one of the world’s richest people, Elon Musk, turned a lot of heads.

Beasley invited Musk to give two per cent of his wealth to help WFP save 42 million people from almost certain starvation and death in the next year.

The Tesla magnate replied by stating he’s willing to sell off US$6 billion worth of Telsa shares if a comprehensive plan is provided to “solve world hunger.”

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, chimed in with a US$2-billion proposition.

Beasley replied that world hunger can never be “solved” but it can be controlled through the much-needed support of others to help as many people as possible, especially in times of crisis.

There’s obviously some truth to Beasley’s remarks. Famines are almost always generated by climate change and/or geopolitical unrest. To think that one or both will end would be nothing short of a fantasy, especially now.

Hunger and famine will never really disappear, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing anything about it. Global co-ordination to execute and deliver programs to help is almost always required.

Click here to downloadOver the years, WFP has done wonders to alleviate world hunger. In fact, last year it won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work. As the world’s largest humanitarian organization, it has done a great deal to save lives and build a more egalitarian global society. Created in 1961, it’s one of the most respected charities in the world.

Last year alone, WFP received almost US$10 billion in funding, allowing it to help about 116 million people in more than 80 countries. This year, given the pandemic, it’s trying to raise at least US$18 billion in funding.

COVID-19 has complicated our world food surety landscape in more ways than one. According to WFP, the number of people worldwide facing famine increased by 56 per cent from 27 million in 2019.

The organization also says that 40 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2020 due to extreme weather patterns or socio-political conflicts.

But WFP has received its fair share of criticism over the years from skeptics who wonder if the work can be done more efficiently.

One key criticism is related to food-aid dependence and capacity building. Food aid from abroad depressed the prices of local commodities produced by impoverished farmers, undercutting their income. Local production will often be discouraged.

WFP has made some limited inroads in enticing local farmers to grow more food domestically, according to some analysts. Food-aid programs will often disproportionally hurt rural communities and create problems that include corruption, reliance and limitations on exports. Many have argued that rebuilding an economy becomes more challenging when you know that food aid is available.

Musk’s message to WFP clearly had an undertone of both doubt and suspicion. Without saying it, Musk likely believes WFP’s design and approach have reached a critical point and the organization is limited by virtue of its imposing bureaucracy.

His message is likely less about how we can support WFP in its quest to alleviate world hunger than how we look at new models backed by a different way of thinking.

Before the pandemic, fewer people suffered from hunger than just ten years ago. But with the pandemic and climate change combined, we expect numbers to go up significantly.

Musk, Bezos and others would likely focus on economic development and capacity building domestically to ensure hunger-stricken regions see the end of their starvation cycles. Building infrastructure while fostering research for new technologies will be critical.

In turn, of course, more wealth in certain challenged regions will develop new markets. This is very much what Musk did with the electric car, a technology most gave no hope to less than a decade ago. And think of Amazon’s distribution genius – one of our Canadian North’s best food suppliers right now is Amazon.

For those who don’t believe global food security can be privatized, here’s one daring example. For many years, many believed space exploration and travel required the involvement of nations and government. Science-intensive projects like aeronautics warrant a sober scheme, free of profits and risk-taking gambles.

But with the Apollos, Challenger and Columbia disasters, public authorities started to pay more attention to private enterprises. And now? We just saw Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Canadian actor William Shatner, go into orbit. Space travel is being privatized right under our noses, and our march toward a more democratic path to the unknown is led by a group of billionaires.

Privatizing global food security is likely achievable and it can happen within a decade. But food aid needs to be seen as a business and an opportunity that shouldn’t be left to charities exclusively.

It’s the same situation as with space travel and governments, which has resulted in quite the paradigm shift.

Whether you agree with it or not, what’s becoming quite clear is that WFP and other charities need all the help they can get. And since over 700 million people around the world suffer from hunger, it’s worth a try.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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