Food Security During COVID-19: A Conversation With David Beasley

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Executive Director, UN World Food Program; Former Governor, South Carolina (1995–1999)


President and Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Dairy Export Council; Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (20092017)

David Beasley discusses the global food crisis and how the UN World Food Program is working to ensure food security amid the pandemic's disruption of supply chains.

VILSACK: Megan, thank you very, very much. And welcome to all. Excited to be with you today to have a conversation with David Beasley, who currently serves as the executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, and has also served with distinction as the former governor of South Carolina. Governor Beasley is currently working on issues relating to food security during COVID-19 and we look forward to the conversation with him today.

I’m Tom Vilsack. I’m the CEO and president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, also a strategic adviser to the chancellor at Colorado State University, and I’ll be presiding today. We have over three hundred members and folks registered for this conversation, so when we begin the Q&A session we’ll try to get to as many of the questions as possible during the time that we have.

So we’re excited to start this conversation. And, Governor, welcome. I want to thank you for taking the time. And you know, this is a very important job that you have, but I think we need to start with the basics, and perhaps you can help us understand the difference between terminology. We hear about global food security. We hear about hunger. We hear about acute hunger. What are you currently dealing with? And give us sort of a primer on the definitions of hunger in your world?

BEASLEY: Well, you know, Tom, Mr. Secretary, when I joined the World Food Programme kind of kicking and screaming and reluctantly because I didn’t want a job in the United Nations, didn’t want a job in Washington, but here I am three years later of taking this role on, and quite frankly it’s been probably—and I don’t think there’s a better job in America than being a United States governor. You know how that is. It’s just that’s one of the greatest jobs. But quite frankly, this has been the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had: helping people around the world, keeping people alive, and hopefully changing their lives where they don’t need outside support so they can make it on their own.

But one of the things when I joined the United Nations, quite frankly, the first few months I didn’t know what they were talking about half the time. They had this U.N. lingo, just like the military. You got all these acronyms. I’m like, what are they talking about? I just want to know, are they hungry or not? Are they starving or not? What do we need to do? And so I’ve been trying to change the vernacular in the United Nations because I do believe there are certain programs in the United Nations that does an amazing job and then there’s some that’s a whole different discussion. But I think one of the things that governments and the United Nations have got to do is talk a more practical language to the people around the world, to the taxpayer, so they can see, OK, I see what you’re talking about. Because what are you talking about, food insecure, VAM, SAM (ph), BAM (ph), all these acronyms? And so common sense, common language: Are people hungry or are they not? Do they get enough food every day or are they not? Are they on the brink of starvation or are they not? And what’s it going to take to solve these types of simple logistical nomenclature, Tom. So we’re working on that.

Thank you.

VILSACK: Well, give us a sense of the—of the situation as it occurred just before the virus hit and how the virus has impacted and affected the work that you do.

BEASLEY: Yeah. You know, before the virus hit I had given several speeches at the Munich Security Council (sic; Conference) along—and in other places, particularly in Europe and in the United States, saying that 2020 was going to be the worst humanitarian crisis year since the inception of the United Nations, since World War II. And a lot of leaders were like, well, how do you see that? And I said, well, let me break it down country by country because we’re in over eighty-something countries around the world and, of course, we’re in the most difficult, problematic countries that are at war, conflict, destabilization, you name it.

And I started walking it through. Well, let me explain Syria. What’s happening in the Lebanese economy. Let’s go to Yemen. Let’s go to the Sudan, South Sudan, the Sahel, Ethiopia, DRC, eastern Africa, western Africa, the extremist groups from Boko Haram and al-Shabaab and al-Qaida and ISIS. And I start laying it out. Leaders were like, oh my God, we haven’t really put the big picture together.

And so this was before COVID. And we had just come out with a report that was showing that the food insecurity of those that are acutely food insecure—that’s people that are marching towards starvation; I mean, they are in trouble—that number when I arrived three years ago was eighty million people on Earth. Today, that number has spiked to 135 million people. That’s pre-COVID. Now, with COVID, we are, based on our analytics and our chief economist and doing all the traditional methodologies, that number is now spiking, we anticipate by the end of the year, from 135 million to approximately 270 million people. I’m not talking about going to bed hungry; I’m talking about people that literally are marching towards starvation.

Now, Tom, between the number of eighty to 135 (million), people say, what was that driving factor? Because you got more wealth today, you got more capacity today to do so many different things. And the number-one driving force has been simply manmade conflict, whether it’s Yemen or Syria or South Sudan or Somalia, northeast Nigeria, places like that. But then you compound that with climate extremes, climate shocks, more hurricanes/cyclones, more droughts, more flooding. And then you get into countries that just don’t have strong economies, that are poverty stricken. So all that together are driving the numbers up.

VILSACK: Let’s talk about the specific areas that you are most concerned about as it relates to this growing number of hungry people marching towards starvation. What are the hotspots? What makes them so? Where are you most concerned today?

BEASLEY: Well, it’s not just one place. In fact, we believe there are about thirty-six countries that literally could be knocking on the door of famine if we don’t have the access as well as the funding necessary. But let’s just talk about a few of them.

Yemen is just a classic example, a country that’s been at war now for several years. Out of a population of about twenty-nine million people, we feed or assist about thirteen million. And this was a country before the war that was probably one of the poorest countries—no question was one of the poorest countries on Earth, and its health-care system is just very dilapidated. They have virtually nothing. They have no more coping capacity. And you can imagine what’s happening there.

Then take Syria. Syria is a country just in the last ten years at war, food basket today is now twenty times what it was before the war. An average income of a Syrian doesn’t have enough money to buy just their food alone anymore, and so—because of the economic deterioration of Lebanon. And now Lebanon’s at risk—severe risk—because of the collapse that’s taking place there. But when you put those factors together, that region is in serious trouble.

Now let’s move over to central Africa, southern Africa, western Africa, and eastern Africa.

You’ve got the desert locust compounding an already very fragile area. When you look at Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, that’s devastating millions of acres of land as we speak. And a lot of people don’t even know that’s taking place today because of all the news on COVID and elections in the United States, for example. But eastern Africa, serious issues there.

Sudan is at a magic crossroads. I believe we have an opportunity in Sudan to move that country in the right direction, stabilize. It can be an anchor for the Horn. And if we miss that opportunity, then I believe the extremist groups will come back in and truly exploit the situation there. So we’re all hands on deck there.

South Sudan, because of years of conflict a very poverty-stricken country, but compounded now because oil prices have collapsed—have dropped so severely. A nation where I think about 95 to 98 percent of their export revenue is oil, so you can already imagine what that’s doing.

Take Ethiopia, for example, a country where millions—millions of people, about eighty-something million people, but millions of people literally are food insecure. You know, they’re chronically hungry, trying to make ends meet. They’re living from hand to mouth day by day by day. This is a country that’s not wealthy. They’ve got a leader there that really is doing an amazing job trying to move the country in the right direction. But 50 percent of their export revenues is tourism. Well, that’s gone, you can imagine.

Go to Nigeria. Ninety-four percent of their export revenue is oil. So compound that with the extremist groups, the corruption, many issues there.

Then go on to western Africa and particularly the Sahel area, where you’ve got ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaida that are partnering strategically, disrupting many different dynamics in that region. That’s an area that’s imploding as we speak.

And then let’s move on down to southern Africa. Now you’re in the winter season. Now you got more droughts and flooding taking place.

There’s not a lot of good news out there right now. And I could keep going and going and going. And unlike the past—when you take World War II, you didn’t have a disruption of the supply chain globally. There was a disruption only in the conflict-driven areas. But here we are today with the supply chain truly impacted globally from nations all over the Earth. So it’s a different dynamic today than it was years ago.

VILSACK: So COVID is beginning to—beginning to impact and affect Mexico, Central America, South America. Any concerns in that part of the world?

BEASLEY: Yes, Tom. I’m sorry; I meant to mention Central America and South America because the Dry Corridor, with all the issues there, you know all those problems that we’re facing down there. And we are already seeing spiking of prices of food, commodities. Then you take and add/compound the Venezuela situation. I’m very—extremely concerned about Central America and South America.

Our footprint there—I mean, we feed about—assist about a hundred million people on any given day, and our footprint primarily is in the Middle East and in Africa. And we have a small footprint—we help millions of people in Central/South America, but what we’re looking at now, we’re seeing food insecurity go up. And if we’re not going to be there to help them right now and quickly, you could have some serious migration issues knocking at the U.S. border.

VILSACK: I’m on the board of Feeding America, which is obviously dealing with the issue here in the United States, and they’ve determined that there may be as many as eight billion meals that they will need that they won’t be able to provide to folks here in the United States who are—who are troubled. So as I look at that magnitude of a problem here in the U.S., in the richest country in the world, I begin to think about the magnitude of the problems you face. What is the budget that you currently have? And how much is needed to be able to address the potentially 230—270 million people that could be food insecure and acutely hungry?

BEASLEY: You know, it’s hard to believe, but two hundred years ago when the population on Earth was 1.1 billion extreme poverty was 85 percent of the whole world. But over the last two hundred years, we the people around the world have built better systems to deliver more wealth and share more food, et cetera, around the world. So I say that because today, when you look at the population of about 7.7 billion, literally less than 8 percent’s in extreme poverty. So systems have been built. We’ve made great headway. But, having said that, we’ve still got work to do for that group that we haven’t reached yet. But compound that with now we’ve got more food insecurity because of war, conflict, climate extremes, and so the issues are compounding.

When I arrived at WP three years ago, our budget was about 5.9 billion (dollars). We were serving about eighty million, give or take, people. And one of the big phone calls I got about taking this was that you’ve got to do this because you’re one of the ones that can talk this new administration into understanding the importance of food security. And I said, well, I don’t really need a job, but let me just do what I can to change the thinking and let somebody else have the job.

But anyway, let me say this, Tom, because I say this with great pride. In Washington, where it seems like on the news all you see is D’s and R’s just fighting on everything, the friends in the Senate and the House, when it comes to food security, international—foreign aid, they step up, come together, lay aside their differences. Our budget—my budget alone has gone from 5.9 billion (dollars) to $8.4 billion of last year.

Now, back to the—the back of your question was how much more money are you going to need. For the rest of this year, we’ll need about 4.9 billion (dollars). In other words, we’ll need about $2 (billion) to $3 billion more than we did last year to reach the more food-insecure people that we know we need to reach. So the numbers that we’re assisting now, as I said earlier, is about a hundred million. We need to go up to about 130 million—140 million, 138 million exact. And now out of that, out of a hundred million that we have been assisting, thirty million of them get no food but what we provide. So you can imagine what will happen if our supply chain breaks down or if our money breaks down.

Do the math. You can’t go two, three weeks without food. If you get thirty million people that don’t get food for two to three weeks, just divide it—divide it and you’ll see you’ll have a hundred fifty (thousand) to three hundred thousand people die per day from starvation. So this is why this COVID pandemic and the hunger pandemic must be worked together to keep the economy going, to keep the supply chain moving. Otherwise, you’ll see that the cure is going to be much worse than the disease itself. This is why we’re working with leaders all over the world—doesn’t matter if they’re left or right politically speaking—what are we going to do to provide safety-net programs for people in areas that normally don’t need help, in urban areas. Like you say, if you look at the United States where people are struggling—and you know months ago when people couldn’t get toilet paper at their local grocery store—you can imagine if that’s happening in the most sophisticated supply chain system in the world, what do you think’s happening in Chad or Burkina Faso or places that are struggling to make ends meet?

VILSACK: Let’s talk just a few minutes about Asia. As you went around the world and talked about where the hotspots were, you obviously focused on Africa, understandably. But what about Asia, concerns there? And also about the supply chain concerns.

BEASLEY: Yes. Well, serious concerns in Asia as well. I mean, India—India is a country that’s facing significant implications now because of COVID. Of course, they’re a country—we do a little there, but we do more strategic guidance and advising there because their status—you know, normally we don’t come into a country unless we’re asked, and it usually is poor, poor, poor countries. But Asia is definitely having significant issues as well. Supply chain—we’re seeing food pricing starting to spike in certain areas. It’s not as bad as you might—would imagine in a general perspective, but you can still find isolation.

But you know—you know, for people like us, probably all of us on this video, if your food prices increase 25 percent, well, OK, I don’t like that; but many of these people, if the food price spikes 15, 25 percent, they don’t have disposable income. I could tell you stories right now like in Lebanon, a little—a family—I just heard this this morning—they took the little girl’s dress, sold the dress so they could get food. They’re selling everything they have in houses right now just to get food to make it another day, another week. And so that coping capacity, whether it’s in the Middle East or Asia or Africa, is substantially deteriorating now.

And if you compound that with remittances—because like with the United States economy down or the European economy down, remittances is a major part of the GDP of many, many countries. Many Lebanese, many Syrians, Ethiopians depend on the remittances, which is about—in the formal remittances—about $550 (billion), $600 billion. And that’s the World Bank saying there’ll be a 20 percent reduction in remittances. So you take $100 billion out of these local economies, the families that are depending upon, you know, their loved one back in the United States who might be working at the airport or might be working in the informal economy. But they’re sending their money back through, whether it’s Mastercard, or Visa, or Venmo, or whatever the way may be. And we see it—we’re already seeing it immediately. Take Haiti, 37 percent of their GDP is remittances. That’s gone. So you can just begin to multiply the impact.

VILSACK: And many of those countries are also tourist-dependent, in addition to remittances. So the combination of those two things makes it really difficult. How many jobs—how many jobs do you think will be impacted and affected as a result of COVID? Are there any estimates on what the nature of job loss might be?

BEASLEY: Yes. It’s about—it’s a little bit less than two billion. In the informal economy, I can’t remember, it’s either 1.6 or 1.8 billion jobs impacted, or potentially impacted, because of COVID. So you can imagine taking those labor wages and what that will mean, because these are the people that are the most vulnerable who are really struggling, no matter where they are—whether they’re in the United States or whether they’re in Sudan. And you can imagine the impact. It’s not like they can jump in a car and go a lot of places. They can’t—in Niger, they can’t just jump in a car and drive somewhere else and go a see a cousin. You know, they got to go through war lines, al-Qaida or ISIS, and all these types of issues.

But we’re seeing it dramatically. And we maintained contact, not just with the major financial institutions, IMF, the World Bank, and all the other economic institutions around the world. But we also, you know, in communication with, like, Visa and Mastercard, talking about—with them, all right, what are you seeing in cash flow? Because we take all that into our consideration, evaluating what will be the assessment and the needs of people in areas that are very vulnerable, like you were saying earlier, hot spots. And if they’re not getting this outside support, and let’s just say tourism, like we said in Ethiopia, but imagine what the tourism’s like in Europe right now. Well, that’s economic activity.

And we get our $8 billion from Western—not just Western countries—but primarily from European countries, and the United States, and Japan. And so you can imagine if the economic deterioration taking place in the Western economies, coupled with they’ve got to do their own economic stimulus packages because we don’t want to see the golden goose get destroyed, that lays the golden egg, but at the same time if we ignore some of these areas, the price tag for fixing them will be a thousandfold more than addressing root cause, and coming in and stabilizing.

We saw that in Syria, for example. The world didn’t come in and resolve the Syrian crisis before it got started. And let me just give you a simple example. We can feed a Syrian in Syria for about 50 cents. That’s almost double the normal price, but it’s a war zone. We’re having to move—the logistics are more costly. That same Syrian, who does not want to leave Syria in spite of what you might read—because we—when you feed 100 million people, we survey people all the time. All the time.

We’re out there in the field with them talking to them. What are you saying? What are you thinking? And I can tell you, the average refugee is pretty much like the average refugee is pretty much like the average American. They don’t want to leave home. They’ve lived there for thousands of—hundreds if not thousands of years. But if they don’t have food security and any degree of peace, what they do—they’ll move two, three, four times inside their country. They’ll go to their aunt’s, or their uncle’s, or their grandparent’s, or their cousin’s. And then eventually they’ll leave.

And for every 1 percent increase in hunger, there’s a 2 percent increase in migration. And so that same Syrian in Damascus who ends in Berlin, the humanitarian package in Berlin is about fifty to a hundred euros per day. And they don’t want to be there. No disrespect to the hosting country, but they want to be back home. So if we can come in and provide safety nets during these troubled times, you will hopefully prevent destabilization, mass migration, as well as starvation. And so it pays to get in there early and get in there right.

VILSACK: You know, Governor, I’m sure the folks who are watching this and listening to this today are sort of struck by how many cascading complications there are as a result of food insecurity, as a result of COVID. I mean, you mentioned the remittances issue. That’s one that I’m sure isn’t at top of mind. You mentioned the supply chain disruptions. What about your own workforce? Has that been impacted by COVID? And how does that impact the ability to actually deliver aid and assistance to people who need it?

BEASLEY: You know, it’s like you have an emergency, and you’re the fire station, and there’s a bunch of fires. And the fire truck people say, oh, you know, we got an emergency. We’re all taking a break. We got to deal with our own home. We’re emergency operations in these times. And so we have to be all hands on deck. And it’s a very difficult time. Our people out in the field—and I’ll say this out of great respect and admiration. You know, when everybody’s running out, our teams are running in. Not many people realize it, but we’re also the logistics hub, the backbone for the entire United Nations and the NGO system on massive operations. So we don’t deliver just the food. Whether it’s UNICEF, WHO, you know, I could keep going on and on, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, et cetera, et cetera. That we provide that logistics background.

Like on COVID right now, you know, with the airline industry shutdown how do you move people and supplies? COVID supplies, testing kits, PPE, ventilators, whatever the case may be? And that’s us. We’ve now done over five hundred passenger flights and cargo flights just in the past couple of months. We’re supplying to about 130-something countries. And moving, I mean, ambassadors, to health care workers, to nurses, as well as COVID-type people. So it’s a critical, critical time, as you can imagine. And our people are out there.

I’ve lost four people from COVID on my team in the past few weeks. And they’re in the vulnerable areas, like Yemen. You know, the death rate in Yemen—you might actually see the death rate in the U.S. is actually below, because you got a healthier population. And in places like Yemen, or South Sudan, where the nutrition system is so poor. If you have a poor nutrition system, you got a poor health care system, then you have a poor immunity system. And you’re not going to get the internal pressure and the external public support you need. And so as you can imagine—but our people, they’re out there, they’re getting it done.

We’re probably the number-one advisor to countries on supply chains, as well as while we’re delivering food. We’re running into obstacles every hour on the hour right now, from a port being shut down, to a distribution point, to quarantining our pilots, to quarantining a ship. And so we’re working through all these issues. And, I mean, I’ve had to pick up the phone and call a president or prime minister and say: Look, you know, you might be concerned about this particular—these particular crew having COVID, but you’re going to have a million people who are going to die from starvation if I don’t get that food in. So work with us here. Let us figure out a solution because people can’t sit and wait for food. They got to get the food.

And particularly we’ve not faced this before as well, and that’s in urban—in a lot of these poor countries, in urban areas. They are having food security issues unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. But if we can come in there with safety net programs like cash-based transfer assistance, using credit cards, then there’s a lot that we can do to minimize the risk of death and the hopelessness in a lot of these places.

VILSACK: Let’s talk about another issue that may not be front of mind. And that is a number of countries, people within the United States and other countries, have suggested that there’s no need for us to export food when we have shortages or inadequate food supplies here in the U.S. Is that an issue that’s cropping up that’s also making it complicated for you, this whole notion of food nationalism?

BEASLEY: It really is an issue. And we deal with this issue every day. And a few countries have actually put some export bans. And we talk with the leadership: Please, please consider this a very difficult time, if you put a ban on the ripple effect that it has can create extraordinary issues and problems. So we advise countries, please don’t do that if you can avoid it, with all costs. So when we talk it through with them usually they’ll see it, get it, say we get it, or we’ll try to come up with a solution for them. If there’s a supply chain issue they’re running into, because a lot of countries they have to import their food. And you know, they’re dependent on United States commodities. And, you know, we can get through this if we all work together and don’t panic.

And I’m confident we can do that. We’ve got the experience and the expertise supply chain and wealth to feed everybody on Earth. And we just don’t need to panic. We need to maintain a good course of action. And that’s what we’re trying to do, working with the leaders in all the countries that we’re engaged in. We’ve set up, by the way, eight hubs globally just in the past two months to move logistically not just food but also in a much faster way COVID supplies and the medical needs, and things like that. And then we take advantage of that in talking with leaders of keeping the supply chain open, keeping the import/export bans down to a minimum—hopefully none at all, but that’s the best thing for us.

VILSACK: We’ve got just about a minute or so left of the conversation between the two of us before we open up to the member questions. But I wanted to ask you, you sort of mentioned the responsibilities of government to provide funding and to keep the supply chains open, and so forth. What about the responsibilities of the private sector, the NGOs, the foundations? What would you like to see from them as you try to deal with this mounting issue of food insecurity?

BEASLEY: Well, Tom, you’ve been a United States governor. You know the private sector’s critical. And you know charity is—philanthropy is extremely important too. But the long-term solution to ending hunger is not philanthropy and charity, as much as you want to keep that engagement. But the answer is private sector. Yeah, so people don’t have to depend upon outside help. But today’s environment with COVID, the private sector is critical. I’ve had more major companies—and I’ve been, I don’t want to say hard, but I’ve been pretty brass with a lot of the big companies who have not been negatively impacted but so much, that this is time for you to step up. So social responsibility. If you can’t give us financial support, but I need your help on supply chain.

And I can start talking about several major worldwide companies that have stepped up with us, that have provided us with aircraft, and pilots, logistics support, substantially millions and millions of dollars. We’re getting more companies also stepping up financially, but the financial needs. You know, it’s one thing to go to the private sector and say: Give me $500 million every year. You know, that’s a difficult request, as you well know. It’s another thing to go one time and say: Hey, we need a few hundred million dollars this one time, help us out here. And so I’m hoping that we can get enough of these billionaires to come off the pocket and help on this one-time pandemic, this one-time human catastrophe that we’re facing right now.

But having said that, I’ve been very proud of how a lot of the private sector is truly trying to step up. The NGOs, oh my gosh, amazing what they’re trying to do. They need our help. They need our logistical support. But now is the time that the American people dig a little bit deeper into your pocket. I know you got to take care of your own family, your own children, your own neighborhood. But there are a lot of people in America who need help, and there are a lot of people around the world that I think will help stabilize—because, as I’ve said, if we don’t do it, Tom, the price is going to be a thousandfold months down the road. And I’m very concerned about months down the road, this fall and 2021.

VILSACK: Well, Governor, we’ve covered a lot of territory. I want to invite members to join the conversation with their questions. This is—this virtual meeting is on the record. I want to remind folks of that. And I’m going to ask Meaghan to sort of outline for folks how they might be able to join the question queue at this point in time.

Meaghan, if you would let us know how to do that.

STAFF: Sure. Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from David Rockefeller. Please—yeah, that’s right. Thank you.

Oh, excuse me. Forgive me. It’s actually coming from Joanna Weschler.

Q: Oh, thank you. I’m Joanna Weschler with Security Council Report, which is an NGO not part of the U.N.

And I have a question about Syria. Mr. Beasley, as you probably know, China and Russia yesterday vetoed a resolution authorizing cross-border aid delivery to Syria. It was a draft that would allow for two crossings for twelve months. Today, there is a draft resolution presented by Russia which probably will be rejected with only one crossing and only for six months. I wanted to ask you how this—if the crossings are not reauthorized, will WFP work in Syria be affected, and how? Thank you.

BEASLEY: I think I picked up the question, but this Syria border crossing is an extremely important issue. We feed, assist about 4.5 million people today. And that number needs to be—needs to go up quite a bit. Out of that 4.5 million people that we support—and, by the way, the number of food-insecure people has gone from about six million to now 9.3 million just in the last two years, to show you how—the deterioration that’s taken place. And so the border crossing area, we feed about one-third of the population is through that border crossing right there on the Turkey border. And so we need that crossing. It’s vital. If we don’t have that border crossing, then all of our food for that area will have to go through across land.

And so just in the past twenty-four hours, I can assure you, I’ve been talking with leaders in several countries, from Russia, to Syria, to the United States, and other countries, expressing our concern that if we don’t have access through the cross border we’ve got to have access to the cross-land. Please understand the implications of these decisions that are being made because they will be serious. We have prepositioned food already in that area for about two months, but hopefully the issue will get resolved. I keep hearing that there will be some solution in the next few days, but I’m not sure it’s going to be anything that we all are happy about. But hopefully it will allow us to continue to provide the lifesaving food that we provide now in the Idlib area, for about 1.5 million people. And we support about another three million outside that northeast area, for the rest of Syria.

STAFF: Now we will take a question from Mr. Rockefeller.

Q: Yes. Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary and Governor. I’m David Rockefeller, Jr., associated with Rockefeller Capital Management.

I have a somewhat different question. Do you think the increasing focus on global food insecurity with mean less pressure on big ag companies, like Monsanto Bayer, to reduce their reliance on toxic pesticides, such as Roundup and glyphosate, even after a $10 billion-plus settlement of a class action suit connecting glyphosate directly to cancer in humans? Thank you.

BEASLEY: Yeah, David, in fact Bayer—I’ve had some conversations with Bayer, not necessarily on this issue. But these are very, very important issues. As not many people realize, and with the one hundred million people that we support, what are we doing in a lot of these areas is greening up. In fact, we have a food for asset type programs. Literally we are rehabilitating the land. Beneficiaries—you know, a talk to a lot of my conservative friends about the debate on climate change. I say, look, you might debate all day long what’s causing the climate to change. I say, but let me just tell you in a lot of these countries you might have the same average annual temperature, but the temperature is different in this fall season and this spring season. The rains might be the same on average per year, but there’s more flash flooding this part of the year and there’s more droughts this part of the year. And it’s having dramatic impact.

And so we’re planting billions of trees, rehabilitating millions of acres of land. And so one of the things, back to your question, is I’m talking to the big, big companies and saying: Look, we’re never going to solve this food security issue without your engagement. And we need for you to be environmentally sensitive. We need for you to respect the local culture, the local customs. And so what I want to ask you—because I know in the stock market investors want a return on their investment.

But I say, please, work with us in some of these developing countries so that you may have a less return on your investment over a certain time period working with small-holder farmers, respecting the local environment, respecting the local culture. But if you’ll do that and have a little bit less return on your investment, you’ll provide stability over a longer period and there will then be greater economic opportunity in the future as you’ll have a more robust economy that doesn’t require outside humanitarian and development support. And so I’m having some very practical conversations.

But this issue of chemicals, obviously that’s a worldwide debate. And of course, you know, I’m asking everybody to respect the environment, do what we can. But that’s a—as you can imagine—a debate that needs to continue.

STAFF: Our next question will be from Franklin Moore.

Q: Thank you, Governor, for your time.

Mine is a question asking you about some of your promising programs that affect both supply chain as well as the transition of small farmers to commercial activities. And that’s the P4P, Purchase for Progress, program. And it was a program that was instituted by both you in conjunction with several foundations and some NGOs. It was very promising, but I haven’t heard anything about it in the past probably year and a half.

BEASLEY: When I arrived at WFP, it’s really a—you know, it’s obviously the world’s largest humanitarian operation, with eight-point-some billion dollars with feeding over one hundred million people. But one of the things that I believed—and I asked this—some very difficult questions. And this is not a left or a right-wing kind of issue. It’s just like—and I asked this with some U.N. operations to some NGOs. I said: You’ve been in this country now for thirty years, and it hasn’t improved. Don’t you think that we ought to step back and reevaluate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it? Because I came in with a mindset of: How do I put the World Food Programme out of business? What’s our exit strategy in every country? In other words, we create sustainability and resilience so that they no longer need our help.

And you will not believe, when I talked particularly—and I will get to the depth of your question—when I talked, and especially the women. The women in these very depressed countries, they are amazing. They don’t want outside help. They want to be resilient, and sustainable. They want to be independent. And so when we come and just hand out food—now, it’s understandable, you know, war, you have a cyclone, a hurricane, a natural disaster, you come in and support people just for a few months. But what’s our exit-strategy in countries where we’re in there for decades? And so how do we rehabilitate the land? How do we rehabilitate the programs? And this is what I’m asking the donor countries: Is please, how do you take every humanitarian dollar and turn it into a community development project? Whether it’s building roads for—feeder roads market supply, or water lines, irrigation, holding ponds, reservoirs, whatever it may be?

And that’s what we’ve been really pushing hard for. And it amazing to see the response. Let me give you an example. And I think this will—Tom, you’ll love this. But Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, it was just to bring food, bring food, bring food. It’s never going to end. You could be there thirty-forty years, just bringing food, bringing food, bringing food, because you’re not solving the problem. So we came in and said: All right. We’re going to go to the other part of the country where they can grow the commodity. We’re going to meet with the farmers, and meet with the milling operations, that say: All right, we will buy—we were working with USAID for example. And said: We’ll come in and we’ll help train the farmers. We need this quantity and this quality of grain. And so the farmers were able to go buy more trucks, more tractors, hire more people. And the milling operations, obviously they did the same thing. They scaled up.

Well, we’re taking the same dollar and now investing it in—in this case—in Afghanistan. And this is just a typical example. Then we took the commodity, took it over to Mazar-i-Sharif and said: All right. Because this is an area where you have flashfloods and droughts. If you know that area at all, the water just comes out of the mountains, just wipes out the valley if there are any crops there. And if that doesn’t happen, the drought gets it. And so what we did with the leaders in Mazar-i-Sharif, and I met with the tribal elders. And I said: All right, we will provide this food for you on these conditions: Let’s rehabilitate the landscape, going up to the mountains, the hillside. Let’s do holding ponds, diversion canals. And then when you have the drought, you’re going to have the water with the irrigation lines coming down to the valley. And when you have the flash floods, you’re going to have the diversion canals.

And I was standing at the top of the hill with one of the elders. And said: Tell me what’s it like now? He said, number one, we don’t need your support anymore. We are independent. Number two, he said, our children are no longer leaving, joining anti-government rebel forces, Taliban, et cetera. They’re now proudly bringing their friends over to the area saying: Look at what’s happening here. These are the type programs. And so also ten years ago the World Food Programme was 99 percent commodity. Now we’re 40 percent cash-based transfer and about 60 percent commodity. And now we’re buying billions of dollars’ worth of commodities, goods and services. I think about 1.6 billion in Africa alone.

So you can imagine what we’re trying to do is stimulate the local economy, as you were saying, whether it’s food for peace, or purchasing, whatever it might be type programs. And so with the cash-based transfer system—and this is where we’re using supply chain—not supply chain—but blockchain technology, biometrics, the internet, a whole new world, and the digital world, so we know who’s getting the food, make sure it’s in the community. And that stimulates the local economy. Let me give you an example there: Lebanon. We’re feeding about a million refugees in Lebanon alone. You could imagine if we came in with just commodities what it would do to the commodity pricing for the population in Lebanon. So what we do there, because there’s available food, well, there was. It’s getting a little more complicated now.

But we identified 500 small stores that would sell, you know, your basic convenience story, little small grocery store, mom and pop stores. And so we set up shop with 500 of them and gave credit cards, so to speak, digitization et cetera. And now the refugees go into that store, buy locally, help stimulate the local economy, puts liquidity into the local economy, which keeps—you know, helps the Lebanese dollar, so to speak, which is very important. And so we’re doing a variety of different modalities depending upon the situation.

But still, our goal is to put the World Food Programme out of business, where we’re no longer needed because the local people are taking care of themselves. And small-holder farmers are critical to this success. And that’s why the program you’re talking about, we’re pushing that. I want to carry it up even more. And I could say more about this, but I probably spoke too long already, so let me throw it back.

STAFF: Our next question will come from Katherine Hagen.

Q: Thank you very much, Governor Beasley. And this has been a marvelous program, to hear you speak about your initiatives at the World Food Programme.

I was very much involved for many years with promoting multi-stakeholder engagement through the scaling up nutrition movement. And of course, nutrition is one of the concerns that takes a backseat when you’re talking about food to deliver to people but is still a very important one. And does involve working very closely with the other U.N. agencies in the work that they are doing. And in particular, I was curious in terms of the work you’re doing on supply chain coordination, how do you interact effectively with the World Health Organization and with the Food Agricultural Organization, particularly now in the context of the U.S.-China frictions that are spilling over into the way the U.S. is treating the WHO, and the way that the FAO now has a director-general who’s from China?

BEASLEY: Yeah. And I tend to be sort of a practical kind of operator. And so when FAO new director was from China, I literally sat down with him and I sat down with U.S., and a lot of the major donors. And I said: Look, let’s try to take advantage of the relationships that we have from our perspective countries. We try to use food as a weapon of peace. You know, some try to use it as a weapon of war and, as you well know, like ISIS and al-Qaida use it to recruit. And a lot of places—a lot of people—poor, bad leaders will use food and weaponize it. And so I try to use food as a weapon of bringing people together, tribes together, nations together.

And so same thing here with FAO and WFP. Here I am a United States figure. I’m a United Nations, you know, senior leader. And I have a responsibility globally. But I’ve got all these relationships in the United States, of course. And the same thing with the new DG. I said, let’s take advantage of our relationships. We’re both here. Let’s do what we can to make the system better, no matter what. So what can we do to help make sure China and the U.S. try to collaborate in these very impoverished, difficult countries? And it’s not always so easy, but we’ve made some headway. But let me also comment on FAO. FAO’s about a $1.2 billion operation. We’re about 8.4 (billion dollars).

They have an expertise that we need. They don’t have the scaling capacity. And so I always tell them—and I’ve told Chu—I said, look, if you have a good idea, I don’t care, you can get all the credit for it you want. We’ll scale it up for you because we need your expertise. You need our scaling capacity. And as to supply chain, whether that’s WHO or UNICEF, I can go from country, to country, to country, because we do—we work with not just those two but, you know, UNHCR, and IOM, and I can go on and on and on, as well as NGOs around the world, MSF, and et cetera, et cetera. Red Cross. And so we provide a major supply chain support system for a lot of these operations. And we collaborate.

I mean, right now, even though there’s differences, of course, with the United States and WHO, you know, we play with whoever is available to us to work with. And we don’t get into the politics of that. And WHO’s there. We’re going to do what we can to be strategically effective, the same thing with UNICEF and any other organization. And I’ll leave the politics up to the politicians. And whatever happens, we’ll deal with it and figure out a way to move forward.

STAFF: Our next question will come from Jeffrey Laurenti.

Q: Thank you, Meaghan. Thank you, Secretary Vilsack and Governor Beasley.

I was almost amused at the beginning at your bewilderment at the U.N. lingo. And I’m sure that Secretary Vilsack from the Ag Department days had to try to figure out which of these agencies does what? But let me ask, because you just noted that commodity donations are down to 40 of your annual voluntary contributions.


Q: Sixty percent are cash, or the reverse?

BEASLEY: Yeah, 60 percent commodity, 40 percent cash.

Q: OK. And that 40 percent cash allows you to do local procurement, as you example of Afghanistan indicates. What extent, though, do the donor countries also kind of expect that a fair share of those dollars, or euros, or whatever that they contribute, cash, are going to be plowed back to their agriculture sector to do additional purchases beyond whatever commodities that they provide? And which, besides the United States, are major commodity donors, and which are your major donors just of cash?

BEASLEY: Well, we’ve got a lot of donors, as you can imagine. But, gosh, I don’t know the exact number off the top of my head, but about ten or twelve donors are about 85 percent of our money. And so the United States is clearly—number one, was about—as I was saying earlier, the United States funding went from 1.9 billion to 3.4 billion (dollars), since I’ve arrived. And the Ds and the Rs, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have actually been incredible to work with on these issues. But I spend a lot of time at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, as Tom can imagine, for this—to the White House, State Department, Security Council, as well as in the House and the Senate.

And so our numbers in the U.S. have gone up on cash, as well as in commodity. Because you know the history of the commodity program and what it meant to the World Bank back when, when the United States had excess commodities. And so anyway, we’ve made tremendous headway in that regard because now the U.S. is doing both. And it gives us the flexibility. We buy locally in the United States, but we also buy where the best market price may be. In the U.S. and working with our major donors, we ask them to give us flexibility.

So sometimes there’s an exception because the better price we can get, the more people we can feed. But sometimes if we can stimulate the local economy, we might have to pay maybe a percent more. And if we can pay a percent more, which we would like not to do, but if we can buy locally then that does so much in the local economy. Now, the United States is about 3.4 billion out of 8.4 billion (dollars). Germany’s about a billion. They’ve got from about sixty-five million six, seven years ago now to a billion. The U.K. is our third-largest donor. They’re now about $6(00 million) to $700 million. The EU is $6(00 million) to $700 million, give or take, depending upon the year. Now it’s the Saudis, and the UAE that’s been stepping up with a lot more than they have in the past. The Nordic countries, Scandinavian countries.

Most of those countries, though—I’d say most—about all is cash. And they give us the flexibility to the degree we desire. And we’re always desiring more flexibility. And that is to buy locally where we can, to stimulate the economy. As I was saying earlier, we’re now spending about—not money, but in terms of buying, acquiring—in Africa about 1.6 billion (dollars). And a lot of that’s food. And so if we can help, like in Tanzania, buy corn or maize and ship I somewhere else—or, in Sudan we’re now buying a lot more sorghum in Sudan. And we work swap-style to do everything we can to help stimulate the local economy. And we’re also working with the United States Department of Agriculture. Tom understands this completely. What flexibility can the United States help in providing support with programs in many of these—in many of these countries.

And this is a lot of—we could talk about this probably for about a week but thank you for your question.

STAFF: Our next question will be from Kellie Meiman Hock.

Q: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And thank you, Governor.

You know, I think that we found, particularly at the beginning of the COVID crisis, that there were a couple of surprises that came up that had an impact on food security. One of them being the inconsistent delineation of essential versus nonessential industries and workers. I know that had an impact on concerns about seasonal farm workers. We also saw some instances where food processing was considered essential or non-essential inconsistently in other countries. And even in one case in Central America where supermarkets for a short period of time, luckily only, were deemed nonessential and closed, which led to some food panics. I would love your view on that, and if there is a role that the World Food Programme can play on this essential/nonessential question. Thank you.

BEASLEY: Kellie, this is a really important question because we face this every day, because a lot of times a minister in a government will make a decision and not thinking through the long-term implications, because they’ve not had to deal with this before. And so we’ll have to come in quickly and say: whoa, whoa, whoa. If you do this, the farmers aren’t going to be able to plant right now, or they’re not going to be able to get the seeds, or they’re not going to be able to harvest. And let me explain to you, that doesn’t just impact our program, but this will impact the entire food security for your entire population.

So we worked through these issues trying to help leaders understand quickly the implications for some of these decisions. You can imagine, if you shut a port down, or part of a port, even if it’s just for a few days, if that’s the few days when you were bringing in the for a million people for the next thirty to sixty days, you can imagine the impact that that will have. And so we try to really be on the ground as quickly as we can, responding to the leaders with regards to these issues.

But essential versus nonessential, when it comes to food security everybody’s essential. It is—that’s just an area you cannot play with. In fact, we work to maximize that supply chain system, minimize that disruption. Because when you have it disrupted the complications, implications, the ripple effect, it can be quite devastating. I mean, when I say devastating I’m talking about people dying as a result of it. Because, as you know, you go a week, two weeks without food, particularly people that are already vulnerable they won’t make it.

STAFF: Our next question is from Ken Cutshaw.

Q: Hello, David, and hope you’re doing well.

Anyway, my question’s more on the personal level. I know, as most of us listening to this, we worry about going to the grocery store during these COVID times. But you’ve got a staff that have to go into hot spots of the world. And you personally have already dealt with COVID-19. And I’m wondering how you motivate these people, and also protect the safety of these people that are delivering the food into Syria and other places, in the hot spots of the world?

BEASLEY: Yeah. Ken, it’s good to hear you. And it’s been a long time but thank you. But, gosh, Ken, I could talk about this issue for a long, long, long time. I did have COVID. I got it back on March 18. And it never got so bad that I needed to go to the hospital. But it just lingered, and it was just an annoying thing. But it gets back to the simplicity of this, is that we can’t shut down the economy, but we got to use common sense. You got to practice distancing. Wear the mask. Use your brain in this thing. And if you do—but also, if you’re elderly or if you have preexisting conditions, you can’t play with this thing. This is extremely contagious disease.

Now, having said that, Ken, because we’re out there in the field. And we’re having significant issues, as you can imagine, out in the field, because people are being quarantined, people are getting sick, this and that and the other. And so yesterday at headquarters—and we’ve got about twenty thousand, give or take, direct employees, and we probably subcontract out with another seventy-five thousand, you know, through the World Visions, the Red Crosses, the Red Crescents and the Samaritan’s Purses, et cetera. But out in the field we’ve got some serious issues of personnel. And so yesterday we sent an email to all our headquarters staff, which is about 1,800 to 2,000 people, and 650 of them responded literally saying: We’re ready to go to the field. That’s so touching.

Now, for those in the field, because we’ve got to deliver food. And so we’re practicing distancing ourselves, but also the way we do our distribution now, we modify it on a case-by-case basis. If it’s an urban area, how do we distance the people? How do we maybe take one distribution center and turn it into two to three, because you minimize the number of people in one location? But also now we’ll now get, where we can, if we have the distribution allowing this, so that we’ll no longer give food out every two weeks or every four weeks. We’ll try to give it out for two months so that we minimize, you know, people having to come back out to the market.

And I can go on and on with all the things that we’re doing there. But it’s—our people are used to putting their lives on the line in war zones and conflict areas, of Ebola. Not many people realize it, but we were the containment mechanism, part of the containment mechanism, for Ebola. And so how we use food, and housing, and containment—and the same thing here with this disease. You know, when everybody—a lot of people are leaving the countries, our people were going in and saying: All right, what we going to do to—because it’s a catch-22. If people don’t have the amount of food they need, their immune system is going to go down, which means they’re going to be more vulnerable not just to COVID, but also the measles, and diphtheria, and typhoid, malaria, and cholera, and many other diseases.

So this is a time where we step up, we do what we need to do, but we do it safely. And we’ve set up medical systems, medevac systems, for our people. And I can get into that, because I’ve had to chew pretty hard on a couple of prime minister that I said, you know, if you’re not going to let my people go to your hospital, then you better let me get my plane in there so I can get my people out there. Because we’re sitting here supporting your folks, your country, stabilizing it, and keeping millions of people alive. Don’t jeopardize my operations and my people. I’ve got to take care of my people. And I’m proud of our team. I’ll tell you, it’s remarkable what the World Food Programme people do. They are amazing, amazing people.

Tom, I was thinking—I know we’re probably ramping down—but I was doing a story with Scott Pelley at 60 Minutes, and Scott—it was a story on Yemen, a very difficult story. And Scott said at the end, we were—the mic was off—and he says: Governor, you’ve got the greatest job on Earth, you know, saving people, keeping people alive. And I said, Scott, I do. But I’m going to tell you something you haven’t thought about and it’s going to bother you. And he looked at me kind of bewildered, like what could that be? And I said, Scott, I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the people save. I said, I go to bed at night weeping over the people we couldn’t get to.

So when I don’t have enough money or access, my teams, we have to choose which children eat, which children don’t eat. Which children live and which children die. I said, now, how would you like that job, Scott? And Scott was like, oh my God. I never thought about that. I said, well, we don’t have a choice. We have to think about it every day. And that’s what we’re facing out there. There are unprecedented times. People need our support. They need our help. And, Tom, if we step up—and there’s enough wealth in the world. We’ve had the access. We can get it done and save lives around the world, and have children be healthier, stronger, and a better place. And so thank you.

VILSACK: Well, Governor, thank you very, very much for your work, and thanks for your time today. Thanks to all who attended.

Our next general meeting will be this afternoon, CFR at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time, “The Future of Civil-Military Relations.” There will be an audio and transcription of this important interview posted on the CFR website. So with that, again, thank you, Governor Beasley, for a very insightful and informative conversation today You all take care.

BEASLEY: Well, Governor—Mr. Secretary—(laughs)—thank you very much. It was most enjoyable. Thank you.

VILSACK: All right. You bet.


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