Solving the Global Food Security Problem

On the surface, the riots in developing countries linked with the 2008 global food crisis painted a picture of chaos in dozens of cities around the world. At a more fundamental level, these riots may be the starkest image of the international community’s complacency about global agriculture over the past four decades.

The 2008 global food crisis proved that agriculture and international security had become integrated. Now, a multitude of organizations have renewed their focus on solving this problem with initiatives that are building political will on agriculture to a level not seen since the 1960's Green Revolution.

"Officials in the U.S. government working on international issues began to turn back toward what had been the focus 40 years earlier – global agriculture," said Kenneth Quinn, the president of the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation and a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia. "Agricultural development was increasingly coming to be seen as an important element in how the U.S. might overcome instability."

Global agriculture is gaining attention, evident in two recent initiatives. In 2009, the U.S. government launched "Feed the Future," which focuses mainly on sub-Saharan Africa and implementation plans for each country. The program's focus is on developing food security and making poor countries less dependent on foreign aid. The second initiative is the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, which looks to build partnerships among developing world governments, the private sector, and civil society to bolster agricultural development.

What’s most striking to me about these two programs is their emphasis on the comprehensiveness of agriculture, departing from the Green Revolution’s focus on crop technology. This line from the World Economic Forum’s report on its new agriculture strategy demonstrates such an approach: “Improved seed does not yield a full harvest without soil management and storage; an improved harvest can result in price erosion and regional surplus without appropriate market links.”

This broader approach to agriculture will help elevate the issue to the top of leaders’ agendas, because it brings more stakeholders into the fold. Environmental advocates and human nutrition specialists don't need to work separately on different issues; now they must work together to ensure that agricultural development addresses both agendas.

Recognizing agriculture’s centrality to development marks a radical departure from the dominant view in the 1980's that massive crop production from wealthy countries would achieve global food security. 

“The idea was that if agricultural trade was liberalized, countries like the United States, with surpluses, could sell crops to countries deficient in food,” said Anis Chowdhury, a United Nations Senior Economic Affairs Officer.

The old model discourages governments from investing in developing countries' agricultural sectors. A prime example is the 2003 Ethiopia famine, as Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman discuss in Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. Following a structural adjustment policy, the World Bank insisted that African governments remove investments in agriculture, saying that it was the private sector's job. Yet in Ethiopia, the private sector was underdeveloped. Despite huge crop yields for Ethiopian farmers in 2002, the country was missing an efficient market to absorb those yields. The lack of storage facilities caused the surplus crops to flood the market, driving down prices and making farmers curtail production to maintain a profit. No network was in place to transfer crops from productive agricultural regions to less arable areas.

“Recently in Africa, leaders have been saying: ‘The state has a large role to play [in agriculture], and we cannot rely on markets, as structural adjustment told us to do’,” Chowdhury said.

Despite the optimism surrounding Feed the Future and the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, there are still legitimate concerns. The initiatives don't address the issue of American-grown crops flooding African markets; U.S. farmers can still export their subsidized crops at prices below production costs. Improved infrastructure in African markets might make it even easier for U.S. farmers to sell their crops there. The U.S. government is clearly trying to walk a fine line, as it is unwilling to alienate its powerful farm lobby.

Overall, I applaud the increased focus on global agriculture. However, I think the two high-level initiatives need to do a better job of confronting entrenched agricultural interests in wealthy nations to fully benefit developing countries. 

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