The Food Security Solution
May 20, 2016
In a world that has become increasingly interconnected and chaotic, with more displaced persons since World War II, and with an array of humanitarian disasters that has outstripped the international community’s budgets and capacity to respond, why should global food security remain an imperative development priority? Why has the United States invested so heavily, to the tune of $5.6 billion over the past five years, in agricultural development and nutrition to reduce extreme poverty?
Agriculture’s Economic Power
Agriculture is the primary source of employment and income for 70 percent of the world’s rural poor, and it contributes more than a third of gross domestic product (GDP) in many of the least developed countries. In light of evidence that GDP growth originating in agriculture can be four times more effective than growth in other sectors in raising incomes of the extremely poor, the economic leverage of agriculture for development is hard to dispute.
Aligning foreign assistance with country-led strategies for agricultural growth is the most effective approach to achieving results for vulnerable smallholder farmers, their families, and their communities. Government ownership is critical to sustaining development investments and to ensuring a sound policy environment for private-sector engagement. In order for agriculture to reach its potential to generate employment, raise smallholder incomes, and catalyze markets, both the will of country leadership to dedicate resources and the ability of local and international private companies to invest along the value chain are required. In some cases, this translates into tough policy reforms that take time to understand, to implement, and to enforce.
National Security Risks
There is a causal relationship between food insecurity and political instability, as escalating and volatile food prices have resulted in urban riots, toppled governments, and regional unrest from the Caribbean to the Middle East. A paper released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in April 2016 reminds us that “food price shocks can act as a catalyst for both nonviolent and armed conflict.” Global food security undergirds economic security, national security, and human security; it goes well beyond a moral obligation or humanitarian response.
The intelligence community recognizes this nexus and the increasing security risk in the face of dwindling resources. Last October, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence produced a report stating that “the overall risk of food insecurity in many countries of strategic importance to the United States will increase during the next 10 years because of production, transport, and market disruptions to local food availability, declining purchasing power, and counterproductive government policies.” One of the greatest global development challenges that wealthy and poor countries face together is increasing agricultural production to meet shifting consumer preferences and a growing population while using less water and fewer hectares and managing the unpredictable effects of climate change.
A Changing Global Climate
Erratic weather patterns, emerging pests and diseases, and extreme natural disasters are among the overwhelming obstacles to ensuring that all people have access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food. The U.S. Global Research Program, which is a consortium of 13 federal agencies, published a report in December 2015 that said “climate change is very likely to affect global, regional, and local food security by disrupting food availability, decreasing access to food, and making utilization more difficult.”
A changing global climate poses a unique set of interwoven challenges to agricultural growth in developed and developing countries alike. Shifting and increasingly variable temperatures and modified rainfall and humidity throughout the growing season impact not only crop maturation, but also the array of weeds, pests, and diseases that farmers must contend with. Increasingly arid conditions across the Sahel and soil salinity in South Asia both highlight the need for improved seed varieties, irrigation techniques, and other inputs to help smallholders adapt to new conditions. It is also a reminder of the importance of investing in and scaling up innovative technological solutions from transgenic crops to mobile solutions. Without strategic interventions directed at mitigating climate change–induced agricultural productivity losses, the consistency and predictability of staple crop supplies and prices in local markets is far less assured. Because households in many developing countries spend over 60 percent of their budgets on food, even modest price fluctuations mean that many will go hungry.
Volatility as the New Norm
According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016’s El Niño is one of the most extreme weather patterns on record, worsening the existing impacts of climate change in many places in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In Ethiopia, the government estimates that 10.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2016 due to a drought severely exacerbated by the effects of El Niño. Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen will be quickly resolved; the protracted unrest has disrupted agricultural production and market activity and damaged critical infrastructure, causing billions of dollars in losses that will take decades to recover from.
The Malnutrition Continuum
The irreversible effects of childhood malnutrition are not limited to conflict environments but may contribute to their instability. Poor nutrition causes about 3.1 million deaths among children under five each year, and one in three children in developing countries is stunted. Undernutrition in early childhood has been linked to adverse health outcomes throughout life in addition to reduced educational attainment and lower earnings as an adult. In the long run, malnutrition undermines a country’s economic growth potential by diminishing the cognitive and physical capacity of its emergent workforce. Addressing nutritional deficits is thus a critical component of any strategy that seeks to harness the potential of youth.
Development Glass Half Full
Agricultural development may take time to show results, but with the right kind of partnerships and country leadership, it works. While Feed the Future, the U.S. global hunger and nutrition initiative launched by the Obama administration, has room for improvement, its achievements in poverty reduction and improved nutrition in select focus countries are laudable. Smallholder farmers are learning improved cultivation and management practices and utilizing new technologies. The private sector has been engaged: small and large actors alike are making investments across various value chains. Children are eating more diverse and nutritionally complete diets. And the United States has established itself as a global development leader by fulfilling its promise to address food insecurity while leveraging substantial investments of other countries to complement its initiative.
There are few topics that have broad bipartisan support in both congressional chambers, but global food security has proven to bring both sides of the aisle together in solidarity. The Global Food Security Act, which would codify Feed the Future into law and authorize $1 billion a year for the initiative, was passed by the House on April 12 with 370 votes of support and by the Senate with unanimous consent on April 20. There are slight differences in the two versions, including an emergency food aid component, that will need to be worked out in conference, but it looks likely that the bill will be signed into law ahead of a new administration in 2017. This is nothing short of a ground-breaking moment that signals strong U.S. leadership and, more importantly, continues services to the millions of smallholder farmers and families who currently receive direct support to sustainably increase their incomes and to improve their diets.
[This essay was initially published as a chapter in Global Development Monitor: A Changing World, edited by Conor M. Savoy (Washington, D.C.: CSIS, May 2016).]
Kimberly Flowers is director of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.