A New Approach to Dealing With Global Food Insecurity

Going forward, America cannot continue to dump subsidized food aid on other countries hoping it will fix the food insecurity problem.

By SHARE
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A central Illinois corn farmer harvest his crops Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 in Oreana, Ill. The latest update on the worst U.S. drought in decades shows that farmers bringing in their weakened corn crops had some relief with recent rains that soaked much of middle America.

There are few ideas that convey the idea of "shared security" better than global warming. When the world warms up, when the sea levels rise, and when the extreme weather patterns wreak havoc, we are all in it together – either to weather it or to be weathered by it. Carbon consumption, here on our continent or theirs, equals climate change everywhere. And while some places are getting hit or hurt most visibly now – from the New Orleans bayou to the banks of Bangladesh – we will all share in the insecurity of an ecosystem in disequilibrium (that is, unless we do something soon to prevent it).

There is another idea, however, that is equally compelling in its capacity to convey the concept of shared security. That is the reality of global food insecurity (often defined as not knowing where your next meal will come from). How is this "shared"?  Beyond the mere fact that there are millions of people living in food insecurity on every continent – including 50 million Americans – the presence of food insecurity in a populace is often a precursor to instability and violence.

The sad truth is that nearly one billion people are living in chronic food insecurity worldwide. In the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's top rankings of countries requiring external assistance for food (whether due to lack of food availability, widespread lack of access to food, or severe but localized problems), is it any wonder why we are seeing Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Niger, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Sudan on the list?  Countries that are in conflict, and specifically the ones we hear about in the news, are often the same countries struggling with severe food insecurity.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

If we want to help the world be more stable, reduce violence, and thus increase our sense of shared security, one clear path towards doing so lies in reducing global food insecurity. That is why James Clapper, director of National Intelligence reported earlier this year to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that, "growing food insecurity in weakly governed countries could lead to political violence and provide opportunities for existing insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and discredit governments for their inability to address basic needs."

Clapper's assessment is absolutely on target. Thankfully, there is a bipartisan effort in Congress aimed at this task of reducing food insecurity. Last week, the Global Food Security Act of 2013, also known as H.R. 2822, was introduced by Reps. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., Aaron Schock R-Ill, and James McGovern, D-Mass., to help poor countries grow their way out of poverty and overcome hunger. Having traveled, in 2011, as a congressional staffer to Cameroon with aides from McCollum's and Schock's offices, to help the government launch a nationwide anti–malaria campaign, I can attest to these offices' commitment to global health. 

When this legislation was introduced, Schock said it best by noting that "it's a primary deterrent to the growth and prosperity of developing countries," and that we have a responsibility to help since "the United States has a strong history of leadership in providing assistance to developing nations." 

[Read the U.S. News debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

Schock is right. Nothing could deter growth and prosperity more than food insecurity. That is why the bipartisan bill directs the president to implement a multi–agency strategy for improving global food and nutrition. This is no small task, especially in America where 50 million Americans are living in food–insecure households and one out of two kids will, at some time in their childhood, have to rely on federal assistance for food. This is happening in the richest country in the world, and the problem is only getting worse. Under President Reagan there were 20 million Americans living with food insecurity. We are well over double that figure now.

Here's a big part of the problem: Fresh fruits and vegetables – largely unsubsidized in comparison to the heavily subsidized corn, wheat, soy, and rice crops – remain out of reach for much of America's poor, both rural and urban. Since 1980, costs for fruits and vegetables increased by roughly 40 percent leaving financially struggling families with little choice when it comes to cheapest calories at the local mini–mart. Junk food is often all that's affordable and accessible, with fresh food markets located many miles away.

That is why McCollum, Schock and McGovern engineered the bill to prioritize investments in farm–to–market capacity, local markets and smallholder farmers. While the implications for America are profound, overseas this means that when the US government is in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, we must direct our defense and aid dollars towards local infrastructure, local farmers, and local markets. This is not common practice for our Defense and State Departments and the private contractors we employ. But it should be. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Lastly, the bipartisan effort appoints a new special coordinator for Food, Nutrition and Agricultural Development, requires yearly reports on progress toward meeting strategy objectives, and updates the Foreign Assistance Act to include a renewed focus on women, nutrition and smallholder farmers. While this all sounds a little bureaucratic, the focus on coordination, oversight and legislative consistency is critical.  Otherwise it will not get done or, at minimum, it will not get done well. 

Enabling the world's poor to produce their own food is an exercise in the democratization of farming. What a liberating return to something so basic. Much like the democratization of energy, so too is the democratization of food production a revolutionary act, one that has implications for food industry and agribusiness giants who are keen to control everything from seed patents to market access.

Going forward, America cannot continue to dump subsidized food aid on other countries hoping it will fix the food insecurity problem. It won't. If we truly want the world to be a safer and saner place, it starts with making sure the nearly one billion people living in chronic hunger have food on their table. Not just any food, mind you: local, healthy and ideally organic food produced with native seeds and no fear of patent lawsuit.  Now that's a nonviolent revolutionary concept that might prevent the next violent revolution. And that's what we mean by shared security.

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