Report: Food insecurity rising as crop production falls

America’s food security is at risk, according to a new report leaked this month. Photo: AP Photo

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2013 — America’s food security is at immediate risk, according to a report leaked this month by the New York Times. Americans should expect crop production to fall by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of the 21st Century. 

As the world’s population and accompanying food demand continue to rise, the food supply will not keep pace, say the world’s top scientists. The leaked report, drafted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the United Nations, is the direst yet, and departs from previous, more hopeful, reports. With greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures rising, agricultural crops, which are sensitive to both, will struggle to survive, leading to soaring prices and starving populations.   

America’s drought last year, which devastated food crops, is illustrative of a trend that will become more prevalent. Yet we keep kicking the food security can down the road by reassuring ourselves that we have enough food supply and that it’s merely a matter of distribution. This is a fool’s errand. 

The new reality of global food insecurity, or not knowing where your next meal will come from, comes with profound security implications. Nearly one billion people are living in chronic food insecurity worldwide — including 50 million Americans — and the presence of food insecurity is often a precursor to instability and violence. 

It is unsurprising to see Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Niger, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Sudan in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s top rankings of countries that require external assistance for food, whether due to lack of food production, widespread lack of access to food, or severe but localized problems. 

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. If we want to help the world stabilize and reduce violence, one clear path to that lies in reducing global food insecurity.

Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, reiterated this point to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this year, saying 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 is absolutely on target and, thankfully, there is a bipartisan effort in Congress aimed at this task of reducing food insecurity. 

To help poor countries grow their way out of poverty and overcome hunger, The Global Food Security Act of 2013, also known as H.R. 2822, was introduced in this Congress by Reps. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., Aaron Schock, R-Ill, and James McGovern, D-Mass. Having traveled as a congressional staffer to Cameroon to help the government launch a nationwide anti–malaria campaign in 2011 with aides from McCollum’s and Schock’s offices, I can attest to these offices’ commitment to global health. It is genuine.

When this legislation was introduced, Schock noted that food insecurity is “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.” 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. Fresh fruits and vegetables — largely unsubsidized in comparison to the heavily subsidized corn, wheat, soy, and rice crops — remain out of reach for many 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 U.S. 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, which is why the bipartisan bill updates the Foreign Assistance Act to include a renewed focus on smallholder farmers, women, and nutrition.

Enabling the world’s poor to produce their own food is an exercise in the democratization of farming. 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.

We 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, but local, healthy and organic food produced with native seeds and no fear of patent lawsuit. 

Going forward, then, the short-term fix to food insecurity will be found in more sustainable agricultural development practices. The longer-term fix, however, will be found in fewer heat waves, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and less erratic crop-growing climates. Since it is clear that the security of our food supply is intimately connected with our carbon footprint, it would be wise for us to tread a little more carefully on the climate. Our food depends on it.


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Michael Shank, Ph.D.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.  Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director.

Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives.  Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.

 

Contact Michael Shank, Ph.D.

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