Final Presidential Debate: In Foreign Policy Debate, Candidates Should Address Food Security

That a full third of tonight’s debate will be spent dissecting terrorism is, as I noted yesterday, patently absurd. What should the candidates be debating instead?

In a word, food.

This year, the effects of climate change have been made manifest like never before, with brutal impacts upon global food supply and prices. Don’t take my word that it’s been a rough year for agriculture –– ask any corn grower whose crop was devastated by America’s worst dry spell since the dust bowl.

While the U.S. might be the wealthiest country ravaged by drought, it certainly isn’t the only one: from Australia to Africa, diminished rainfall has ruined crop production in 2012. And even if climate change weren’t happening, we’d still be approaching a food crisis thanks to population growth and improving dietary standards. 

Why is this topic worthy of discussion during a foreign policy debate? When crop prices become volatile, geopolitics shortly follow. Tonight, there’s sure to be talk of the Arab Spring, and how popular uprisings have facilitated the rise of hardline Islamic governments. What the candidates probably won’t mention is the role that food has played in these revolutions. The Tahrir Square protest, for example, didn’t begin its life as a movement against Hosni Mubarak –– it was initially backlash against the rising price of wheat.

Without question, American agricultural policies have contributed to global instability. The Renewable Fuel Standard and subsidies to ethanol growers have devoted millions of acres of prime cropland to feeding cars instead of people. Through subsidies, we have encouraged the world’s most beef-intensive diet, in spite of the fact that raising cattle is a mind-blowingly inefficient use of crops and land. And our free-trade policies have allowed American corn growers to undercut farmers in Mexico, providing an adrenaline shot to both illegal immigration and the drug industry.

Given all this, there’s no doubt that food security deserves its fifteen minutes tonight. Do the candidates support the increased provision of food aid? The expanded use of genetic engineering and other tactics to enhance crop yields? The revisiting of trade policies that contribute to food volatility? And how will the U.S. respond when food riots destabilize foreign governments? When immigrants fleeing hunger wars bang on our gates? When global price spikes lead to hunger in our own cities?

That’s a debate that I’d love to watch. (I’d be especially interested to hear how Romney, who uses sea level rise as a laugh-line, deals with climate change when it’s reframed as a national security issue.)

But that’s not the debate we have; what we have is terrorism, terrorism, and, in case you get sick of terrorism, more terrorism. Guess I’ll have to hope that one of the candidates connects the dots during the #muslimrage conversation, or wait until Marco Rubio and Andrew Cuomo square off in 2016.

I'll be covering the debate all night, so keep checking in here for updates and analysis.