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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – As global malnutrition reaches alarming levels, the U.S. Congress has passed a bill in bipartisan fashion that could offer a lifeline in the fight against hunger, particularly on the most affected continent of Africa.

The “Global Food Security Reauthorization Act” (GFSRA), has been described as “a huge legislative win for the fight against global hunger” by Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president of Mission, Mobilization and Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the US  Catholic Bishops Conference.

“By passing this bill, Congress rightly acknowledges the negative impacts of extreme weather on food security, made worse in the era of climate change,” he said.

When signed into law, the measure will reauthorize the “Feed the Future” initiative, which brings partners together to address the root causes of hunger in vulnerable countries by boosting agricultural growth, resilience and nutrition. The new law will also increase Feed the Future’s funding authorization to $1.2 billion, up from approximately $1 billion.

In exclusive comments to Crux, O’Keefe said it will offer a lifeline to farmers, particularly in Africa where famine has reached critical levels.

“By re-authorizing Feed the Future, the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act will better enable communities to respond to the effects of climate change by improving natural resource management and by diversifying economic opportunities for people that are less dependent on changes to the climate,” he told Crux.

He said systemic problems holding farmers back must be addressed for the continent’s farmers to live up to their full productive potential.

Here are excerpts of that interview…

Crux: In very simple terms, what does this bill mean for the fight against global hunger?

O’Keefe: The passage of the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act reestablishes the U.S. government’s commitment to tackling hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, which is critical at a time when the number of people facing food insecurity has ballooned to more than 800 million people worldwide.

The law is important because it reauthorizes the Feed the Future Initiative, which increases food production in vulnerable communities by teaching farmers sustainable growing methods while connecting them to markets, which is especially vital for women farmers.

These types of programs help break the cycle of back-to-back crises by addressing the root causes of hunger and malnutrition.

According to the latest United Nations humanitarian appeal, more than 200 million people in 53 countries will face acute food insecurity by the end of 2022. Even more starkly, 45 million people in 37 countries risk starvation. Where does Africa stand in this picture?

To be sure, the food insecurity outlook in Africa is bleaker than in other parts of the world. For example, out of the six countries the World Food Program has identified as of “highest concern” for food insecurity, four are in Africa – Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia. Across each of these countries, substantial portions of the population are at risk of starvation.

While food insecurity in parts of Africa is not a new phenomenon, what is new is the scale and the speed at which it’s grown, driven by what we call the four “c’s”: rising costs, climate change, conflict, and COVID-19. It is unimaginable that communities in Somalia are already facing 5 consecutive failed rainy seasons, with no end of the drought in sight.

The countries listed by the WFP aren’t the only worry?

Countries in the Horn of Africa like Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Kenya are of highest concern. Outside of the Horn of Africa, Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also of the very high concern.

Each of these countries has segments of the population that are at risk of starvation. For the countries in the Horn of Africa, the worst drought in decades – with five consecutive failed rainy seasons – is driving unprecedented hunger, along with the impacts of conflict and the increasing costs of staple commodities like wheat and vegetable oil as well as fertilizer.

How will, or how should, Africa benefit from the new legislation?

By re-authorizing Feed the Future, the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act will better enable communities to respond to the effects of climate change by improving natural resource management and by diversifying economic opportunities for people that are less dependent on changes to the climate.

In addition, USAID unveiled a new set of target countries this year, all in Africa, which will expand the Feed the Future program from 12 to 20 countries. These new countries will be prioritized to receive development investments that support rural, smallholder farmers. The Global Food Security Reauthorization Act makes these investments possible.

Part of the hunger crisis in Africa is driven by the war in Ukraine. How is it that Africa, a continent with 60 percent of the world’s arable land, should be so food dependent?

Food insecurity in Africa is extraordinarily complex and driven by many factors. Recurring drought and other climactic events, poor governance, underdeveloped markets, conflict, and poverty hold back farmers from reaching their full potential. Until these challenges are addressed, we’ll continue to see food insecurity worsen in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

Generally, as drastic economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shown us, the global food system is incredibly fragile. If we don’t strengthen the food system by making smarter investments in the short-term, we’ll see many more prolonged food crises to come.

For example, we need to improve how food is transported, distributed, and stored. We also need to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, who form the backbone of the global food system. In Africa alone, 33 million smallholder farms feed over 70 percent of the population. We also need to address the myriad challenges associated with poor governance and to ramp up investments in climate finance so that communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis don’t sink further into poverty.

How do you think going forward, this food dependency should be addressed?

Many countries are experiencing prolonged crises – whether from climate change-related weather extremes, political instability, economic challenges, or the downstream impacts of COVID-19 on supply chains and government resources.

To address these challenges, we need holistic approaches that consider the interconnected parts of food’s journey from farm to table – a priority of Feed the Future. While laws like the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act undoubtedly take us in the right direction toward addressing these issues, we have a long way to go before the global food system is on stable footing.