Skip to main content
opinion

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on his Twitter account that, if the World Food Programme can describe how $6-billion would solve world hunger, he would sell Tesla stock to donate to the cause.Mike Blake/Reuters

Elon Musk and David Beasley are two globally powerful alpha males who relish a good fight, especially in the full public glare of Twitter. The two Americans have now got one – with each other. Here’s betting that the far lesser-known and poorer of the two – Mr. Beasley – will come out on top.

Mr. Musk is virtually a household name. He is the founder and chief executive of Tesla , the world’s leading electric car maker, and SpaceX, the rocket company Mr. Musk wants to use to colonize Mars, since he is all in favour of planet hedging as humanity trashes Earth (Note to Mr. Musk: Maybe your goal of stuffing every road with EVs is part of the problem. Like, the world needs more cars?).

He is also the richest man on Earth, now that Tesla’s stock market value has vaulted to US$1.2-trillion. Mr. Musk’s 17-per-cent stake is worth about US$208-billion at last Friday’s closing share price. But Mr. Musk is rather cash poor and doesn’t pay much in tax. He resolved to solve both problems the other day by asking his 63 million Twitter followers whether he should sell 10 per cent of his Tesla shares. They answered with a resounding yes.

Elon Musk offers $6-billion if UN shows how it will solve world hunger

Mr. Beasley is the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, based in Rome. It is one of the world’s largest humanitarian-assistance organizations, and last year fed 115.5 million people in 84 countries and regions, from Palestine to Madagascar – a record high for the agency.

Mr. Beasley also has some street cred: The WFP won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. What he and the WFP lack is Mr. Musk’s extraordinary wealth, which has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year alone, Tesla shares have climbed 175 per cent, making the company worth more than all rival automakers combined.

Mr. Musk’s worth can rise US$10-billion to US$20-billion on any day. Contributions to the WFP in all of 2020 were US$8.5-billion (Canada is typically among the agency’s top five donors).

The vast financial firepower differential gave Beasley an idea: Why not ask Musk and the other billionaires whose wealth has reached the heavens during the pandemic to help feed the 42 million people who, as the WFP put it, “are at famine’s door”? To the WFP’s delight, Mr. Musk took the bait – then he hedged. The question now is whether he will actually stump up.

Acute food insecurity

Millions of people by International Food Security Phase

Classification, 2021

 

Phase 3

Phase 4

Phase 5

30

25

47,000

401,000

20

15

108,000

10

28,000

5

0

Afghan-

istan

DR

Congo

Yemen

Ethiopia

Sudan

South

Sudan

Mada-

gascar

IPC phases

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

Phase 4

Phase 5

 

More than

four in five

households

are able to

meet es-

sential and

non-food

needs with-

out assist-

ance

Even with

assistance

at least one

in four house-

holds have

minimally ad-

equate food

consumption

but unable to

afford some

non-food

essentials

Even with

assistance at

least one in

five house-

holds have

food con-

sumption

gaps with

high or

above usual

acute mal-

nutrition

Even with

assistance at

least one in

five house-

holds have

large food

consump-

tion gaps

and very

high acute

malnutrition

and excess

mortality

Even with as-

sistance at least

one in five

households

have extreme

lack of food and

other basic

needs where

starvation,

death and des-

titution are

evident

the globe and mail, source: ipc

Acute food insecurity

Millions of people by International Food Security Phase

Classification, 2021

 

Phase 3

Phase 4

Phase 5

30

25

47,000

401,000

20

15

108,000

10

28,000

5

0

Afghan-

istan

DR

Congo

Yemen

Ethiopia

Sudan

South

Sudan

Mada-

gascar

IPC phases

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

Phase 4

Phase 5

 

More than

four in five

households

are able to

meet es-

sential and

non-food

needs with-

out assist-

ance

Even with

assistance

at least one

in four house-

holds have

minimally ad-

equate food

consumption

but unable to

afford some

non-food

essentials

Even with

assistance at

least one in

five house-

holds have

food con-

sumption

gaps with

high or

above usual

acute mal-

nutrition

Even with

assistance at

least one in

five house-

holds have

large food

consump-

tion gaps

and very

high acute

malnutrition

and excess

mortality

Even with as-

sistance at least

one in five

households

have extreme

lack of food and

other basic

needs where

starvation,

death and des-

titution are

evident

the globe and mail, source: ipc

Acute food insecurity

Millions of people by International Food Security Phase Classification, 2021

 

Phase 3

Phase 4

Phase 5

30

25

47,000

401,000

20

15

108,000

10

28,000

5

0

Afghan-

istan

DR

Congo

Yemen

Ethiopia

Sudan

South

Sudan

Mada-

gascar

IPC phases

Phase 4

Phase 5

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

 

More than

four in five

households

are able to

meet essent-

ial and non-

food needs

without as-

sistance

Even with

assistance

at least one

in four house-

holds have

minimally ad-

equate food

consumption

but unable to

afford some

non-food

essentials

Even with

assistance at

least one in

five house-

holds have

food con-

sumption

gaps with

high or above

usual acute

malnutrition

Even with

assistance at

least one in

five house-

holds have

large food

consumption

gaps and very

high acute

malnutrition

and excess

mortality

Even with assist-

ance at least one

in five households

have extreme lack

of food and other

basic needs where

starvation, death

and destitution

are evident

the globe and mail, source: ipc

To recap, Mr. Beasley set his trap in late October when, in a CNN interview, he said that a mere 2 per cent of Musk’s total wealth (not just Tesla) – about US$6-billion – was needed to prevent starvation. “Six billion to help 42 million people who are literally going to die if we don’t reach them,” he said. “It’s not complicated.”

Mr. Musk apparently found the hunger analysis either simplistic or not credible. “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it,” he wrote on his Twitter account, where he now bills himself as “Lorde Edge.”

The game was on and Mr. Beasley did not have to open the WFP books to justify the figure – they were already open and plainly available on the WFP website.

The 42 million is the estimated number of people at the IPC level 4 or 5. IPC is short for Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which is put together by various UN agencies, research centres and relief charities. The system is considered the global standard to measure acute food insecurity. Level 4 means food “emergency” – one step before Level 5, which is “famine.”

The hardest-hit Level 4 countries are Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and Ethiopia. The countries in which Level 5 famine can be found are Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen and Madagascar. Collectively, 584,000 people in those four countries are in famine conditions.

Nor was the US$6-billion (actually US$6.6-billion) pulled out of thin air. The figure represents the 42 million people in Levels 4 and 5 multiplied by the cost of one meal a day (43 US cents) over 365 days.

In an interview, WFP chief economist Arif Husain said the hunger numbers are bound to rise because of what the agency calls the four Cs – conflict, cost, climate and COVID. “You have more conflict, more climate crises, more inequality caused by COVID,” he said. “At the same time, food and fuel prices have increased a lot, making it harder for us to feed people in need. Last year, it cost us US$1,000 to deliver a container of food by ship. This year, it’s US$4,000.”

Afghanistan, where the Taliban have taken control after the American military withdrew at the end of August, and Ethiopia, where the civil war is intensifying at an alarming rate, face a very high risk of rising malnutrition and an extreme lack of food.

So far, Mr. Musk has not responded to the WFP’s defence of its hunger numbers and the price required to prevent famine. The agency has no idea whether he will come up with all, some or none of the US$6-billion that was on offer if Mr. Beasley could back up his numbers. Maybe Mr. Musk was just trolling the WFP, hoping that Mr. Beasley would fold. Instead, Mr. Beasley did the opposite.

Even if Mr. Musk signs no cheque, the WFP has already won. The Twitter sparring between perhaps the world’s most famous businessman and Mr. Beasley has shone the spotlight on the food emergencies that are erupting in Africa and elsewhere. That publicity may generate more private donations and show the world that food for the poor is more important than electric cars for the rich.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.