Why global food security matters

By Ken Blight

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Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

How often do you think about food security? It's probably an issue that seldom crosses most Americans' minds. Most of us in the U.S. agriculture community have been inundated in recent years with articles asking questions along the lines of “will farmers be able to meet the challenge of feeding the projected 9.7 billion world population by 2050?”

The generosity of the United States in combatting hunger around the globe the last century is something we can all be proud of. America's land grant university system, research and development projects funded through USDA have been pivotal in reducing world hunger numbers from 1 billion in 1990 to 795 million in 2015, despite the fact that the world's population has increased by 1.7 billion over the same period. 

Lets Talk Food

Over the last 150 years, federal funding for agricultural research and extension services has been instrumental in helping American farmers attain their current level of productivity. For example, research that has led to improved animal genetics, better nutrition achieved through livestock feed rations, and introduced use of growth promotants have enabled U.S. hog farmers to enjoy a more than 40 percent improvement in swine feeding efficiency, from an average from 4.4 pounds of feed per pound of weight gain in 1961 down to needing only 2.59 pounds of feed in 2012. Progress in cattle and poultry production has produced similar results.

However, public funding for agricultural research and extension has eroded in recent years, especially in the livestock sector. Overall, USDA funding for this area has declined by about 4 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last decade, during a time when the agricultural sector is under considerable pressure to perform. At my alma mater Michigan State, for example, the Extension Service no long supports crop and livestock specialists in most counties. This gap between the farmer and University has eroded the impact independent research performed at the University has on today's agriculture.

This gap does not exist solely in the US. Globally, agricultural development and research funding has continued to be a critically underfunded foreign policy tool. Ask any Iraq or Afghanistan veteran about the relationship between food security and insurgent activity, or look at the underlying reasons for political unrest, mass migration and refugee disasters. Food insecurity is a major contributor to nearly all such problems. This is more than just a humanitarian issue; it's an economic one. When domestic agricultural production is no longer viable, it stifles the economy and floods the cities with people looking for work. The lack of options to feed themselves and their families makes people seek economic opportunities elsewhere as refugees and migrants, or worse, through the promise of food they become easy targets as recruits for destabilizing activities. The cascading effects of food insecurity become very expensive over time, making the research dollars that weren't spent look like a missed opportunity.

Feeding hungry people and meeting the demand for new generations will require all hands on deck. If that includes biotechnology that can help develop pest resistance, drought tolerance, salt tolerant crops or other benefits to help people struggling with food security, then we must embrace it. For instance, in parts of India, up to 30 percent of children are born blind due to lack of vitamin A. Using agricultural biotechnology, golden rice is a variety capable of producing vitamin A that would eliminate the problem. Political forces have stopped those Indian villagers from having access to the new variety due to their concerns over the use of biotechnology, so the problem persists.

Providing funding for agricultural research with an eye on reducing the need for direct food aid is the smartest use of our investment. Offering people in developing countries the dignity of being able to grow much of their own food and express their own talents to care for their families is the most important aid we could offer. The United States is uniquely positioned to continue their leadership in this effort by supporting research and education activities both here and in developing countries where they need it most. July's passage of the Global Food Security Act is step in the right direction. As an American farmer who has greatly benefitted from U.S. agricultural research and extension, I encourage policymakers' to continue to support and expand these efforts.

About the author: Ken Blight farms with his family in Calhoun County, Michigan and is a second generation cattle feeder. Graduating from Michigan State University in 1983 with an Animal Science degree, he went home to the family farm and expanded the feed-yard as well as worked with his brother to grow the swine operation. Blight Farms Inc. currently is operated by not only Ken and Art but also a niece Afton and nephew Stan producing beef, pork, corn, soybeans and wheat.  

Ken is a long time member of the Michigan Cattlemen's Association as well as National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and serves on the NCBA Board and one term on the Michigan Beef Industry Commission Board. He is currently a member of the Advisory Committee to the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, a voluntary environmental program developed for Michigan, and his was one of the first feedlots verified under that program. In 2006, Blight Farms was honored with the region 1 Environmental Stewardship Award sponsored by NCBA, USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Dow Agrosciences. Additionally, Ken is the michigan lead farmer for the Farm Journal Foundation. 

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