In Tunisia, a president is toppled after 23 years in power. In Egypt, the 30-year reign of its president is abruptly ended. The swiftness and power of these popular uprisings have caught many Americans by surprise, leaving policymakers scrambling to grasp the consequences. While political corruption and soaring unemployment have grabbed the headlines as driving forces of these uprisings, the dangerously destabilizing force of rising food prices is also at work and looms as a further threat to the stability of governments, global economic growth, and U.S. national security.
This month the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, a prominent indicator of global food prices, reached its highest level since records began in 1990, surpassing its previous spike in 2008 that led to violent food riots in countries from India to Egypt to Argentina. While that crisis was relatively short-lived following swift action to quell the problem, the underlying causes of the crisis have persisted. Population growth, rising incomes and dietary change in developing countries, and growing demand for biofuels are increasing demand for agricultural commodities at unprecedented rates. Rising energy prices have increased the cost of transportation and agricultural inputs such as fertilizer. Crop shortfalls caused by drought, floods, and other natural disasters — many associated with climate change — have further stretched the food supply, putting upward pressure on prices. With falling stockpiles of essential foodstuffs in nations around the world, including the United States, we are teetering on the edge of a potentially devastating global crisis.
America cannot afford to stand idly by as this crisis escalates. With global demand for food expected to double by 2050, the problem of global food security and price volatility is only likely to get worse. Short-term fixes without structural change cannot begin to address the longer-term — and very real — prospect of global food demand that outstrips production capacity. Food system productivity will need to double. With limited land available for farm production, the solution lies in drastically increasing productivity in areas already in or available for crop production. Much of this potential rests in the underdeveloped countrysides of the developing world. In these areas, the untapped power of modern agriculture to feed the chronically poor and undernourished, meet growing global demand, stimulate economic growth, and transform developing countries from massive food aid consumers into self-sustaining contributors to global growth and trade is enormous.
The benefits of developing agriculture and improving food systems, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will accrue not just to the millions of hungry people that live in those regions, but also to the United States. In addition to providing a foundation for global stability, improved agricultural systems abroad create markets for American seeds and farm equipment, U.S.-made goods and services, and American influence. Indeed, agricultural advances achieved in the U.S.-supported Green Revolution in East Asia and Latin America have led to economic growth and increased U.S. exports to these countries.
Now is not the time to turn a blind eye to the looming crisis of food and hunger that has sent throngs of people into the streets and toppled governments. Indeed, it is our problem too, one that threatens our own food, economic, and national security. As the U.S. government faces the inevitable and legitimate challenge of reducing the growth in federal spending levels, it must not sacrifice support for agricultural development assistance. By supporting these programs, the United States is investing in its own food security and helping to avert the potentially devastating and costly consequences of a global food system meltdown.
In addition to strengthening food security for itself and all the world’s citizens, U.S. support for agricultural development assistance hedges against geopolitical instability, creates investment opportunities and new markets for American businesses, and advances U.S. foreign policy objectives. Now is the time for the United States to leverage its unique position as a global leader in agriculture to lead the nation and the world to a more secure and prosperous future.
Catherine Bertini was executive director of the UN World Food Programme from 1992 – 2002. Dan Glickman was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2001. They are cochairs of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Agricultural Development Initiative.