Every year across the United States millions of people take a major step to protect their health and wellbeing by making the wise decision to get inoculated against the potentially severe effects of influenza.
In the worst cases, flu can result in hospitalization and even death. The vaccine costs very little relative to that risk, and the return on investment is substantial. A 2014 study, for example, revealed that flu vaccination reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 percent from 2010-2012.
Governments, like individuals choosing vaccination, also weigh the relationships among cost, benefit and risk in order to design and implement programs that generate the best return on investment, or to put it more succinctly, the biggest bang for the buck.
America’s investment in international agricultural development certainly fits that bill. As with an inoculation, the amount we invest is modest, but the risk of not investing is much greater. The programs we fund help to mediate the threats of food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty—conditions that can lead to long-term political instability, and economic strife in already fragile nations. If ignored, these problems will only worsen, and generate consequences that can endanger our own nation’s welfare and require even larger investments to address.
The outsize benefits of these international agricultural development efforts are described in detail in a new study released at the World Food Prize Summit in October by a group composed of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD), the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.
That report, “How the U.S. Benefits from Agricultural and Food Security Investments in Developing Countries,” provides a clear picture of how a very small investment can provide outsize returns not only to farmers and agri-stakeholder beneficiaries overseas, but also to U.S. citizens and businesses.
Like the cost of an influenza vaccination, that investment is truly very minimal when viewed in context. The report cites statistics from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which serves as the primary funding mechanism for foreign agricultural aid, that show the U.S. government’s foreign agricultural aid expenditures in 2017 totaled $1.41 billion—a mere 0.04 percent of total U.S. government expenditures.
Those dollars, which help lift millions of smallholder farmers out of poverty, also generate net returns right here in the United States by helping to establish new relationships in emerging markets that allow U.S. businesses to promote and export our country’s products, services and technical know-how. Oklahoma-based insect monitoring and control company Trécé, for example, gained a new market in the Caucasus as a result of its participation in an international development project in that region. That new business played a pivotal role in helping the company expand its U.S. operations and create new jobs at home. By supporting agricultural and food security abroad, our country plays a key role in laying the foundation for commercial exports of agriculture commodities, equipment and machinery.
And that is not a small benefit. According to the report, “Each dollar of agricultural exports stimulates an additional $1.87 in business activity in the United States, and every $1 billion in U.S. agricultural exports supports 8,619 full-time jobs in the American economy.”
By helping to bolster food security and provide additional income and jobs in countries with fragile economies, U.S. investment in foreign agriculture aid also helps to mitigate the risk for populations in those nations against radicalization, which can lead to conflict, migration and even threats to our own national security.
And when U.S. development workers—such as members of my organization, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA)—connect with smallholder farmers in developing nations, we do more than simply provide technical assistance. We also act as citizen diplomats who raise our beneficiaries’ awareness of American culture and values—fostering the kind of mutual understanding that helps to support global stability. The hundreds of American volunteers we deploy every year through the USAID Farmer-to Farmer Program for instance not only function in this dual capacity, but also return home with a new awareness of host cultures.
All these efforts make extremely efficient use of funding. Led by USAID, Feed the Future, for example, excels on a lean budget by leveraging private-sector resources and expertise to boost commercialization of new technology, improve agriculture and nutrition, and promote inclusive market growth.
As is the case with flu vaccinations, the cost of investment in international agriculture and food security is quite small in the grand scheme of things—but it is an investment that we cannot afford to pass over.
Neither vaccinations nor international agriculture development offer a 100 percent cure. But as the report illustrates, the return on investment in agricultural aid is overwhelmingly positive. By fulfilling our obligation to help ensure global food security and stability, we lessen the risks inherent in not doing so, and generate significant benefits not only for the recipients of our efforts, but also for our own citizens.
Helping the disadvantaged people of the world is an important part of our American identity. We must resist to the temptation to cut funding for these small but important investments —and preserve our leadership in offering aid to less fortunate populations around the globe.
Sylvain Roy is the President and CEO of CNFA: Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture.