Preventing Famine and Protecting U.S. Interests: The Case for a Robust Agricultural Science Budget

At a moment characterized by four looming famines abroad and a steady drip of political tumult at home, you could be forgiven for missing fall armyworms in the headlines, but they should command your attention nonetheless. Native to Central and South America, the pest was first identified in Africa just last year but has now spread to over 20 countries, devastating grain, horticultural, and cash crops in its path. Fall armyworms could cost the continent $3 billion over the coming months while ravaging the staple crop, maize, upon which over 200 million southern Africans depend.

In the increasingly interconnected economy of our warming planet, the potential of invasive agricultural pests and diseases to jeopardize food security and business interests alike merits deeper consideration in Washington. Recent estimates suggest that invasive insects cost the global economy at least $70 billion each year, with a further $7 billion toll on human health. Investments in agricultural science that help to anticipate and mitigate such transboundary threats constitute a triple bottom line for the United States: they represent resource-efficient humanitarian engagement before challenges become calamities, savvy foreign policy to buttress national security, and the advancement of U.S. economic interests in markets at home and abroad. But the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget undercuts science spending at every opportunity, dismantling public stores of technical expertise and signaling a withdrawal of global leadership. President Trump proposes to cut the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) budget by over 20 percent, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) by over 10 percent, and the State Department and foreign assistance budget by nearly 30 percent. Such stark curtailment of national and global public goods should be the source of bipartisan alarm.

An American Pest Abroad: Fall Armyworm in Africa

Consecutive failed harvests stemming from El Niño–induced droughts left southern Africa with a 9 million ton cereals deficit and 40 million additional food insecure people last year. The regional director of the World Food Program recently wrote that famine would likely have been declared in Madagascar and Malawi had it not been for the international humanitarian response. This year, the fall armyworm is threatening regional food security once again. In a cruel twist of irony, experts suspect that the pest may have arrived with maize from the Americas imported for drought relief. The director of the global maize program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Dr. B.M. Prasanna, described the threat of fall armyworm in Africa as “truly frightening.”

The pest was first identified in Africa in early 2016—initially in Sao Tome and Principe and Nigeria, followed by Togo, Benin, and Ghana, which recently declared a state of emergency. Although its pathway to west Africa is unclear, it most likely slipped through one of many cavernous cracks in the regulation of agricultural trade. Zambia was the first southern African country to confirm an outbreak in December of last year. A month later, nearly 10 percent of its 1.4 million hectares of maize were infested. By mid-May, fall armyworm had made swift progress through the region, razing fields across South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Its rapid spread has caught farmers and governments by surprise, if not the experts: adult fall armyworm moths have been known to fly hundreds of miles, and females lay 1,500 to 2,000 eggs in their brief lifetime.

Fall armyworms devastate maize; some contaminated areas are reporting near total losses of the region’s dietary staple crop. But they also attack 80 or more other plant species, including a wide variety of grains (sorghum, millet, and wheat), horticultural crops, sugarcane, and pasture grasses—even cotton and tobacco. In the United States, fall armyworms migrate across eastern and central states on an annual basis; their proliferation is halted only by the North American winter, as they can only survive the season in southern Florida and Texas. Brazil, meanwhile, spends $600 million every year to minimize their impacts.

A stakeholder consultation meeting on the fall armyworm in Africa was convened in Nairobi in April, but experts are focused on mitigation, not extermination. Dr. Prasanna explained, “we cannot eliminate the pest from Africa—now that it is here, it will stay.” Zambia commissioned its military airplanes to spray pesticides back in December. Rwanda deployed National Defense Force helicopters to distribute the chemicals. But the fall armyworm is less vulnerable to insecticides than its African counterpart, which tends to experience outbreaks in periods of drought. Other viable control measures include the use of natural biopesticides (such as viruses, fungi, and bacteria), plant extracts from neem and other species, and the introduction of natural predators and parasites. Earlier planting and deep ploughing that exposes pupae to predators and heat may offset the worst effects. In dire cases, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends burning crops to prevent the pest’s further spread.

Crop Breeding for National Security

Short-term responses must be paired with longer-term solutions in a region that doesn’t share our wintery advantage. “We need to develop and deploy in a fast-track manner improved drought-tolerant, disease-resistant hybrids adapted to Africa that are also resistant to the fall armyworm,” Prasanna explained. The adoption of genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize may prove helpful given armyworm’s typical vulnerability to pesticides produced by these varieties, and trials in Uganda have shown promise. But many African nations do not permit the commercial production of transgenic crops, although such policies are increasingly the subject of debate.

Joe DeVris, vice president at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), recently commented that, for the longer term, “only a truly collaborative effort between international and national agencies can provide a solution.” The Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa project perfectly exemplifies such a configuration. A partnership between CIMMYT and Africa’s International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, it is working to develop and commercialize 70 improved, multiple-stress-tolerant maize varieties that will reach 5.4 million households in 12 countries by 2020. This work would not be possible without U.S. government support.

The Bureau for Food Security within the U.S. Agency for International Development also provides significant funding for agricultural research that benefits American and international farmers alike. The bureau currently funds 24 Feed the Future Innovation Labs, based at top U.S. universities, to advance applied agricultural science related to wheat genomics, irrigation, postharvest loss, and many other areas. At Virginia Tech, the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab has honed expertise in fall armyworm and a host of other invasive species, learning lessons equally applicable to Tanzania and Tennessee.

When staple grains are blighted by pests or drought, crucial trade flows can quickly dry up, too. Formal maize exports from Zambia had been limited to World Food Program emergency shipments until early May, when the export ban was lifted in the wake of a bumper crop despite the outbreak. The timing is fortuitous: armyworm-infested areas of the neighboring DRC are now facing maize losses of around 40 percent. The DRC’s southern provinces already depend on Zambia for 70 percent of maize supplies in normal years, and the arrival of fall armyworm only compounds protracted conflict and displacement. In Malawi, President Peter Mutharika has deployed army troops to the country’s borders with Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique to curtail maize smuggling.

Food insecurity can contribute to political instability, as we have witnessed in the Arab Spring, Syria, and elsewhere. Ethiopia anticipates further widespread armyworm outbreaks in Oromo, Amhara, and other regions with June maize planting. Waves of escalating protests in these unstable areas left an estimated 800 dead at the hands of security forces last year, and food insecurity factors prominently in the calculus of opposition groups. In a March 2017 statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Human Rights Watch recounted the experience of one Amhara farmer who explained, “we do not like this government, but we always vote for them. We have to because we get our seeds and fertilizer from them. During times of drought, we get food aid from them. If we don’t vote for them, we can’t eat.”

The risks posed to food security, regional and global trade, and political stability by this outbreak are not unique to fall armyworm: a recent study analyzed nearly 1,300 agricultural invasive species in 124 countries, concluding that sub-Saharan Africa constitutes the most vulnerable region to precisely this confluence of circumstances. And just last week, FAO indicated that it is tracking migratory swarms of red locusts across Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Forward-thinking investments in agricultural science, like those Trump proposes to slash, are our first and our most cost-effective line of defense.

The U.S. Economic Interest

The president’s budget message opens with an entreaty to “remove the barriers holding back our economic growth.” Defunding agricultural science does just the opposite, undermining the capabilities of our public research institutions. The divestment would curtail our collective ability to prepare farmers and businesses for the challenges ahead, as markets grow increasingly interconnected, spreading risks along with sales, and as soils erode, temperatures rise, new pests emerge, and water becomes increasingly scarce.

The administration’s budget proposes to purge “unnecessary, overlapping, outdated, and ineffective programs.” Investments in applied science fit none of those categories. The National Science Foundation funds 24 percent of all federally supported research at U.S. colleges and universities, maintaining world-renowned repositories of specialized expertise while bolstering the innovative potential of the next generation. The budget calls for the complete elimination of a $75 million NSF program dedicated to researching innovations at the nexus of food, energy, and water systems. Projects currently supported by this tranche of funding have informed our understanding of stressed systems from California to the Cotton Belt.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service supports science “to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority.” Yet the president’s budget requests nearly $31 million in cuts to ongoing research activities within its Crop Protection program, which focuses on losses associated with pests and diseases. It identifies 37 specific programs for abrupt discontinuation due to their “relatively low impact, significance, or relevance to national priorities.” Resources on this particular chopping block include $1.3 million to mitigate the threat of invasive tropical pests in Florida, $1.1 million to develop biopesticides for invasive insects in Illinois, $1.9 million to improve cropping systems in South Dakota, and many, many others.

Finding, and Funding, Our Way Forward

The White House’s proposed budget cuts to NSF, USDA, and the State Department sum to nearly $17 billion. While the magnitude of this contraction may appear consistent with the administration’s track record of science skepticism, consider this: the Department of Defense has requested over $83 billion for “research, development, testing, and evaluation” for FY2018, three times what the administration proposes to allocate for all foreign affairs, diplomacy, and development activities combined. The marginal increase in defense research and development over FY2017’s $70 billion is the equivalent of two more National Science Foundations. And yet, while the outlays of such vast defense resources will anticipate possible threats to the United States, none of them will tackle the types of certain, recurrent, and broad-based food security and economic hazards embodied by this year’s spread of fall armyworm in sub-Saharan Africa.

Trump’s budget foreword concludes, “the time for small thinking is over.” But the gutting of scientific investments, where untethered from military applications, belies this rhetoric. The future of U.S. government resources to mitigate food security crises, while supporting American national security, business, and trade, will soon be determined by Congress. Our elected officials would do well to ensure that the 2018 budget supports the big thinking that our scientific researchers have in spades.

Reid Hamel is a senior fellow with 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).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
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Reid Hamel