First District Food Production Plays Critical Role in Hunger Crisis

On first glance, Arkansas has little in common with West Africa. They sit roughly 4,000 miles apart as the crow flies, separated by both land and sea. West Africa has more than 100 times the population of Arkansas, and the cultures, wildlife, climate, and landscapes between the two regions are radically different. Finally, West African countries have histories of kingdoms and empires dating back thousands of years, whereas Arkansas has yet to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its statehood within the United States.

Amid these stark contrasts, it can be difficult to find any similarities present in this geographical and cultural divide. But they do exist.

Those similarities start with agriculture.

Arkansas and West Africa both rely upon their agricultural producers — including the commonality of rice and cotton growers — to help feed and clothe their residents. Both regions rely upon good transportation, including cargo, freight, and rail, to ship those products to their intended destinations. But while Arkansas agricultural production has seen huge strides in recent decades in terms of productivity and efficiency, agriculture in West Africa has struggled to soar beyond subsistence levels.

Consequently, all disasters — including weather-related, political turmoil, or rampant disease — can threaten the food supply of West Africa. The region currently sits in the middle of a rampant food crisis that sharply affects as many as 18 million people. In addition, the region’s last severe food crisis was just four years ago, and it has not had ample time to recover. It’s as if all of Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and an additional million people faced a severe hunger crisis.

One of the major triggers of this hunger crisis has dealt directly with the Ebola epidemic, creating farmers deaths, labor shortages, rising transportation costs, and rising food prices. During the epidemic, rice and cassava, two of West Africa’s food staples, have seen rising prices with abandoned crops and labor shortages. And as the food supply has dried up, one representative with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said more West Africans have a fear of starvation rather than Ebola.

But I believe a bright spot for West Africa lies directly with Arkansas’ ability to feed and clothe more than just itself.

In 2013, Arkansas’ row crop agricultural producers — many of whom farm within the First District — produced more than 140 million bushels of soybeans, 160 million bushels of corn, 80 million hundredweight of rice, and 700,000 bales of cotton. As evidenced by export numbers from last year, those yields provide more than enough food and fiber to sustain our state’s three million residents while also providing for other states and beyond, including West Africa.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Norman Borlaug, who saved “a billion lives” with his contributions to agriculture, once said, “Almost certainly, however, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.” So, as news about the hunger crisis in West Africa continues to spread — some analysts say it may last for decades — let’s remember the critical role our First District producers play in providing that justice by feeding and clothing the world.

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