U.N. food expert: We must “act now” on famine

When it comes to famine, transforming interest into action has been very difficult. Here's one way to think about it.

Act now. For the last two days, our NFE editorial staff has been embedded in the cool, fluorescent embrace of a 17th-floor conference room in New York City, covering the James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) annual summit (you can revisit any of it here.)

The summit’s stated theme was “consuming power,” but the audience’s collective heart and mind seemed primarily to be wondering what, if anything, “power” actually means to those not fundamentally in possession of it—whether by virtue of gender, ethnicity, access, profession, or personal economics.

While we were busy contemplating and consuming power here in our shiny New York bubble (noted, Twitter trolls, noted), another powerhouse—the House Judiciary Committee, to be exact—was busy debating the fate of Virginia Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s Agricultural Guestworker Act, which, if passed, would make major changes to the hiring and working conditions of foreign laborers on American farms. It’s the kind of bill that whips up a bunch of froth in labor conversations, from field to Hill. But as of this writing at day’s end, the outcome was: lotta lather, little solid. Or something.

It strikes me that a mere two avenues east of where we sit today, sits another seat of power: the United Nations. And on Monday, Hilal Elver, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, (whose 2016 report on junk food as a human rights issue we wrote about) issued what is perhaps the starkest statement on how power—as it relates to food—is playing out right now, with very little froth: In her annual report to the U.N. General Assembly, she urged member states to “act now” to fulfill famine victims’ right to food.

“Contrary to popular belief, casualties resulting directly from combat usually make up only a small proportion of deaths in conflict zones, with most individuals in fact perishing from hunger and disease,” she said

If you’ve read any of our coverage since February of the unprecedented famine that persists in four countries—four—and threatens more than 20 million lives, you know that froth of the kind that transforms interest into action has been very, very hard to generate for the folks in charge of agitating our bubbles.

Why? I find myself devoid of any remotely reasonable answer to that question after these two long days spent talking and thinking about food and power. But here’s what I’ve got. If there were an alpha and omega in this conversation they would be the same: Hunger. Starvation. There is very little that comes before, and absolutely nothing that comes after.

So while we’re still deeply in discussion about food and power, let us begin and end with that.

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.