Hey, Elon: We Made a $6 Billion Plan to End World Hunger
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When United Nations World Food Program director David Beasley recently called for billionaires to help solve world hunger, Elon Musk took the bait — vowing to sell $6 billion in Tesla stock if Beasley could tweet “exactly how” the money would feed humanity. Predictably, the media and Twitterverse erupted, mostly in protest.
Beasley’s provocation was not only defensible, it was necessary, as are big investments from Musk and other private-sector leaders. Forty-two million people are on the brink of famine. Musk could buy each of them a 43-cent meal per person per day, which over 365 days amounts to a cost of $6.6 billion. That intervention would hardly solve world hunger, but near term it would save many lives.
What was lost in the ensuing social media fracas was the idea that investments in food security must extend well beyond emergency aid.
In his recent comments at COP26, Beasley stressed the impact of climate change. Heat and drought, along with flooding, superstorms, invasive insects, shifting seasons and bacterial blights are bearing down on farmers, who have also shouldered the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic. All told, the number of undernourished people worldwide rose from 650 million people in 2020 to 810 million people today, WFP’s chief economist, Arif Hussain, told me — a surge of 150 million in a year.
I’ve embedded with World Food Program personnel as they staved off famine in Ethiopia and understand why this organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year: It helps populations survive food-system collapse. To keep saving lives, the World Food Program must invest not just in food rations, but in more sophisticated supply-chain management, storage facilities, road and bridge-building for more efficient aid distribution, and, crucially, satellite monitoring and in-field communications technology to track levels of risk.
If Elon Musk doesn’t want to plow $6 billion into emergency aid, perhaps he’ll cash out his Tesla stock to invest in climate-smart innovations that hold tremendous longer-term promise for food security — including AI and robotics technologies that can slash the use of agrochemicals, indoor cropping systems, advances in sustainable fish farming, cellular agriculture, plant-based meats, anerobic digesters, supplements that can ratchet down methane emissions from livestock, nanotech solutions that can boost crop yields and draw down carbon. Investors also need to back natural climate solutions, including silvopasture and regenerative farming practices that can improve farmland’s capacity for storing carbon. They should also fund growing private-sector markets paying farmers to sequester carbon.
In a conversation at COP26 in Glasgow, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told me we’re entering a golden era of investment — “an extraordinary range of game-changing technologies is coming into play.” Vilsack’s USDA is planning to invest hundreds of millions in climate-smart agriculture. Figures like Musk who’ve led the way in energy and transportation investments don’t yet fully appreciate its potential.
Musk should especially consider funding two areas that are as crucial to smallholder farmers as to large-scale agribusiness: smart seeds and a drought-proof water supply. Advanced breeding and gene-editing tools like CRISPR can cut the time needed to develop new climate-resilient crop varietals to less than a year, whereas traditional breeding methods can take eight times that long. Guatemalan farmers are developing, for example, climate-resilient coffee crops; agronomists in Florida are breeding citrus trees that can endure blights; Californian farmers are scrambling to develop wine grapes and tomato plants that can tolerate heat shock.
Musk should also consider investments in “blue tech” — water innovations that include recycled wastewater, desalination plants, hyper-efficient irrigation technologies and systems in rural and drought-afflicted regions that include water ponds and solar-panel shields over canals that preserve scarce resources. These innovations along with smart seeds can help smallholder farmers survive drought — and obviate the need for food handouts.
There are good reasons for skepticism around emergency aid: If you give people fish, the adage goes, they will eat for a day. Yet it’s no longer true that if you teach people to fish, they will eat for a lifetime. In a warming world — especially in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Sudan, Yemen and other countries facing famine — there are simply fewer fish to eat along with shrinking habitats. For the foreseeable future, indisputably, we will need emergency measures.
The International Panel on Climate Change has predicted that by mid-century “the world will reach a threshold of global warming beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations.” The operative phrase here is current agricultural practices. In the coming decades, what we eat and how we grow it will change radically, and we need everyone onboard — the UN and Elon Musk alike — to fund the shift to sustainability.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University, and the author of "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."
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