Sarah Munkar warns of the repercussions of the high level of food insecurity

sara Menker runs a private company, Gro Intelligence, that uses data and artificial intelligence to make predictions about climate change and food security, but when she appeared before the United Nations Security Council on May 19, she sounded like an advocate. Gro data found that due to rising food prices worldwide, 400 million people have become food insecure in the past five months alone. (Food insecurity, as Gro defines it, means people living on $3.59 a day or less.)

That’s the same number of people that China has pulled out of poverty in the past 20 years, which means that two decades of progress have faded away in five months.

Speaking to assembled world leaders on May 19, Menker said, “I came here today to share ideas from our statements, with the underlying hope that each of us here with the potential to change the course of history will choose to do so.”

Named one of TIME’s Most Influential People in 2021, Menker, 40, was born in Ethiopia, attended college in Mount Holyoke, worked as a commodity trader on Wall Street, and left to start Gro using technology to tackle challenges like hunger. and climate change. Today, Gro works with governments and major food companies, to analyze hundreds of trillions of data points from satellite, government and private sources, to forecast agricultural product supplies globally.

In recent months, as the war in Ukraine raged, Gro systems began to reduce problems that were putting an increasing number of people at risk of starvation. Some were exacerbated by the war, but many others continued to build longer, due to the actions of other governments banning exports or imposing tariffs. Minker spoke to TIME shortly after the UN briefing

(This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity).

Groo explains that 400 million people have become food insecure in the past five months due to skyrocketing prices of staple foods such as wheat, corn, soybeans and palm oil. Is there an easy way to explain what happened?

They are all driven by different things, but I’ve broken them down into five major crises that occur, any one of which alone would actually be considered major. The five combined are truly unprecedented.

The first is that the price of fertilizers has increased 3 times over the past two years. This is driven by a combination of factors. Obviously, war adds fuel to the fire, but there is a problem with the availability of natural gas. There are penalties, and then there are logistical bottlenecks to get out. So, although fertilizers are not sanctioned by Russia, getting anything out of Russia is rather difficult. So it is the confluence of things.

Your second is the climate. The world’s wheat-growing regions are facing the worst drought combined over the past 20 years. Thus, climate shocks continue to hamper production and productivity. Think of these two things as a kind of input.

Then from a production standpoint, you have a crunch associated with cooking oils. The price of palm oil has risen 3 times in the past two years, and this has been driven by increased demand for biofuels. This is driven by increased demand from China. Brazil and Canada experienced droughts, and therefore produced less vegetable oils. Then Russia and Ukraine used to export 75% of the world’s sunflower oil. Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has banned exports. Today they just announced that they are lifting the ban. But once it’s banned, prices don’t drop as fast as they rose.

Read more: Sarah Minker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, believes big data can preserve our climate and food supply

The fourth is a record drop in grain stocks in general. If you look at government agency estimates, we have about 33% of our annual consumption needs in stock around the world. We just need to move it. Our data tells us that number is closer to 20%, which is only 10 weeks of global inventory remaining. This is a really big problem.

Then your last fifth is logistics. You can not get anything from Ukraine. There is talk of things moving across the rails, but if you move everything you can through the rails, you can probably move 10%, so it’s just a drop in the bucket. And then you can’t move things out of Russia either, because of the maritime hazards. The seas are mined.

If the conflict between Russia and Ukraine ends tomorrow, how much of the supply problem will be resolved?

I want to make it very clear that this war did not start this crisis. It added fuel to a fire that was already burning, and another that was felt by earthquakes even before the COVID-19 crisis, exposing the fragility of our supply chains. So this was a crisis in the making. And the reason I frame it this way is because it’s really important for global leadership to understand that this doesn’t come and go [issue].

If the war is over, it is better than what we are sitting in today. But there is also a lot of infrastructure that was destroyed during the war. So you have to rebuild that, and it’s not like you’re going back to the sizes you are now.

In what way does climate change make it more difficult to deal with these crises?

Climate disruption leads to the unpredictability and stability of our food supply. It blew me away when last year we were writing about how North Dakota was experiencing a record drought, so corn and soybean yields were going to drop and it did — by 24%. This week we write about how humid it is there and how farmers are unable to plant. It is climate change, this lack of predictability, this lack of stability per se that makes our food systems so fragile.

Then you had record growth in demand. Economic growth and population growth in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where the population is still young.

You run a private company but you also spoke at the United Nations and called on the nations of the world to come together to solve the impending food crisis. Why are you entering this advocacy role and do you feel there are any solutions you can help with?

So, we are a private company, but we work with financial institutions, we work with very large and very small companies. We also work with governments to help them think about food security. Gro is starting to avoid something like this. I wish people paid attention to us when we were ringing alarm bells in 2017. Because it’s always about preventive medicine versus ending up in an emergency.

We are a mission-driven company. We created this company to help tackle the serious challenges facing humanity. We think business has a big role in that because that’s how they make it sustainable. This is how you fund it. But you know, I also think these are not normal times. Knowing this and not saying anything would be a crime

What could have been done earlier to prevent this?

Re-examining what trade in agriculture looks like is a very big part of it. No country actually has any and all of the natural resources it needs in one place. You cannot grow everything you need in a country. You actually need the world to function a certain way, but the world has become more insular in the past five years – not more connected – with the start of politics and politics. This in itself has hurt the diversification of business partnerships.

We could have invested a lot in climate adaptation. It’s only now that adaptation is kind of basic and it’s becoming a bigger part of the agenda. It was all about the risks of relocation and transmission, while we live with the consequences of the actions we took 20-30 years ago.

Were there any governments or companies that used your data to change what they were doing with regard to food insecurity?

I can give you an example without naming the countries. One country was about to ban the export of corn because the rains were not normal. But this causes all kinds of problems for people on the downstream side, people who have contractual obligations to exports are now defaulting on contracts, creating problems with their banks.

We heard about it from one of the big organizations and collected the data very quickly and looked at the rainfall and they were absolutely right. It was very dry. But we also looked at things like crop health and soil moisture and it seemed to be healthy. It started the season with sufficient soil moisture, that the crop was resilient to drought type, and had enough fuel in the tank by itself.

And if you look at the local prices in that country, and you look at them in all the different cities, the prices weren’t going up, they were going down, which is not an indication when you have a shortage of anything. So we put that together and lift the ban.

Where do we go from here if there are no major changes? Does the 400 million figure keep growing?

Where do we go from here? Lots of political instability around the world. Prices will not continue to rise. You will only start losing demand, and the destruction of demand will lead to more poverty, which means more instability and a lack of economic growth. If we do nothing about this, we are facing a real economic crisis around the world and no country will be immune.

You will see that it manifests itself in many, many different ways. I keep seeing headlines about losing subscribers to Netflix. Netflix is ​​losing subscribers because the average grocery basket in America is twice the price it was in April 2020. There’s something you’re going to get — you’ll buy fewer shoes — and that’s why I said it’s going to show quite irrelevant industries as well.

Who benefits from higher prices?

no one. There are net exporters that are clearly making more money. American farmers are certainly making more money as a result. Is America as a beneficiary country? Absolutely not, because economic shocks are global. We live in a highly interconnected global financial system, period.

So if you think about decades of economic progress and what drove it, it’s the number of people who have moved out of poverty and the number of people who have become consumers of all these different products of all these different companies of a global nature. They buy their products in Nairobi, Addis and Jakarta. It’s all starting to wane, and no one is winning. That’s why I really believe there has to be some level of hard decision making about the right actions to take.

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