Last week, the Obama administration won a quiet, but important victory when Congress passed the Global Food Security Act with a large, bipartisan majority. The bill funds President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, which puts a greater emphasis on food security and agricultural productivity in the U.S.’s development strategy.
Feed the Future currently invests roughly $1 billion per year in agricultural development programs in 19 countries - twelve in Africa, four in Asia, and three in Latin America - with the majority of the investment concentrated in eastern Africa from Ethiopia to Mozambique. The program’s investments are partly to improve the incomes and livelihoods of farmers in these countries, but the initiative has a much broader target beyond the individuals who receive direct assistance. The Obama administration hopes that by targeting areas with high agricultural potential and helping farmers maximize their productivity, they can help battle the larger challenge of global food security.
Dramatic increases in agricultural productivity and efficiency over the course of the 20th century helped reduce food prices and allowed many economies to shift more of their labor and capital away from the agricultural sector and towards manufacturing and service sectors. But due to increasing demand from global population growth and diminishing crop yields from climate change, food prices are expected to increase over the 21st century even with modest increases in agricultural productivity. A 2010 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute projects 43-59% increases in wheat prices, 31-78% increases in rice prices, and 87-106% increases in maize prices by 2050 as a result of these global market changes.
These expected price increases make feeding the world’s 795 million undernourished people even more difficult without some combination of significant economic development for the world’s poorest or major improvements in agricultural productivity. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, it will take a 60% increase in agricultural production to ensure everyone on the planet has enough food to eat by 2050. These increases will largely need to be achieved through greater efficiency and productivity of existing farmlands given the simultaneous need for better land use and forestry practices to combat climate change. Chopping down more carbon-containing forests to create more carbon-producing farmland isn't a viable solution anymore.
Feed the Future tries to tackle both challenges simultaneously first by increasing incomes for some of the world’s poorest so that they are able to afford food, and second by improving agricultural productivity to increase the global food supply and keep prices low. It’s still too early to tell how successful the initiative has been, but a recent report by the Center for Global Development gives Feed the Future positive marks for which countries it’s targeting, though it raises concerns that the lack of country ownership and transparency may undermine the sustainability of improvements.
From restructuring agricultural subsidies to good governance to better-functioning markets, there are many controversial pieces of the puzzle that will be needed to figure out how to grow and deliver enough food to the world. The Global Food Security Act, by improving rural economic development and agricultural productivity, is a small, but important piece of that puzzle. As Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Georgia Republican who co-sponsored the Senate bill said, “This initiative is morally right and economically smart. Plus, it helps our national security.” It’s a good step forward in a challenge that will need many more of them.