The head of the United Nations World Food Programme says while progress toward eliminating world hunger has taken a step back amid violent conflicts and climate shocks globally, the commitment of his colleagues and those working in food security initiatives give him hope.

“With all the division in America, it’s your love that will move us forward,” says Executive Director David Beasley. “People are struggling around the world, but people are also struggling here.

“Don’t underestimate what your loving hands can do for a neighbor that might be around the corner. Be willing to step out and touch them.”

The former governor of South Carolina visited Manhattan to speak as part of the 2022 Landon Lecture Series on Public Issues, which Beasley delivered Thursday in the K-State Student Union’s Forum Hall. The series is named in honor of former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, which President Richard Linton says aims to bring distinguished intellectual leaders to campus to stimulate thought and open the K-State community’s minds to diverse perspectives.

Beasley spoke of his work over the last six years with the UN WFP, a food-assistance program that boasts itself as the world’s largest humanitarian organization. In 2021, WFP supported more than 128 million people facing hunger and famine. In 2020, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to address food insecurity as well as assist with ensuring COVID supplies made it to areas with major supply chain interruptions.

Beasley’s remarks focused on a looming food insecurity crisis which he says is “beyond anything we have seen at least since World War II.

“And quite frankly, it’s going to get a whole lot worse in the next 24 months.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beasley says 80 million people were ‘marching toward starvation’ and facing acute food insecurity. That number rose to 135 million in advance of the pandemic amid wars, insurrections and climate impacts on food production. Following COVID-19 and the resulting supply chain interruptions and economic devastation, that number rose to 276 million.

“These are not numbers, folks,” Beasley says. “These are real people with real names, living in communities struggling to survive.”

Those hit the worst are the poorest of the poor, according to Beasley, who says choosing to ignore the growing food insecurity picture globally will ultimately cost more lives and dollars than investing in addressing the issue now.

“I can support a family in Guatemala, a resilience program with the World Food Programme’s experience for $1 to $2 per week,” he says. “That same child ends up on the border in the United States at a child shelter, it’s $4,000 a week – so Mr. Taxpayer, what do you think is a better investment?

“It’s not complicated, is it?”

As the world moved out of the depths of the pandemic, new conflicts have arisen in countries like Ethiopia and Afghanistan as well as in the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which adds additional strain to food security given Ukraine’s importance in grain markets globally.

“When you take a nation that grows enough food to feed 400 million people and take it out of the market, the impact is just catastrophic,” Beasley says. “I was already saying at the end of 2021, and if you go back and watch my Nobel Peace Prize speech in December, […] you’ll see us talking about 2022 pre-Ukraine would be the worst humanitarian year since world War II because of conflict, because of COVID, because of climate shocks and pricing inflation.”

One success he noted was the negotiation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which helped open up Ukrainian ports and continue vital grain and fertilizer supply chains. The agreement, though, is fragile according to Beasley. Russia had halted its participation in the initiative on Oct. 29 over a drone attack on a Russian ship, ultimately agreeing to resume Wednesday, Nov. 2.

“If the Black Seas Grain Initiative collapses and we don’t get the Russian fertilizers and [Ukrainian] grains out of that region as we need, honestly I don’t know how we don’t avert a depression by the end of next year.”

Despite the dire possibilities facing the world, Beasley was optimistic about the potential to turn the tide on hunger and starvation – though it would require commitment from world leaders.

“I honestly believe that we can truly end world hunger by 2030, which was the sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations around the world,” he says. “But we will never achieve that as long as we have man-made conflict.”

He says that’s not as hard as it might seem, saying leaders need to slow down in order to give food security and supply chain issues the depth of attention they need to be addressed – as well as put pressure on those currently in conflicts to find peaceful resolutions.

“Food is the pathway to peace,” says Beasley. “You have been building the pathway to peace, which is why food insecurity has been improving these past many decades – but we’ve got more work to do.”

Beasley says the children are what keeps him invested and fighting for progress, though providing food is just one part of what WFP is doing to meet that goal. They also work with local producers to improve their practices and grow better quality crops, rehabilitate land, create new and healthy supply chains, as well as provide cash where food may be available but not accessible due to that nation’s economic situation.

“If I want to put the World Food Programme out of business, how can we create sustainability and resilience?” Beasley says. “If we’re providing food year in and year out, when is that going to stop unless you provide a solution?”

Beasley recounted some success stories as a result of the investment by the UN, national governments and philanthropic donations – but says the private sector needs to play a role as well.

“The private sector is fundamental in ending poverty and hunger around the world,” he says. “We must do it together.”

View the lecture livestream here: