Seventy-five years ago, the world was emerging from the most damaging war ever fought. Much of Europe was in ruins, many lives had been lost, and families were pushed to the brink of starvation.
At this time, a young farmer from the Midwest called Dan West headed to Spain to help families displaced by the country’s civil war. Day in, day out, West and his fellow humanitarians set up their soup kitchen, feeding the hungry and weary. People would leave their service with their bellies full, but often without knowing where their next meal would come from.
On his return to the United States, West continued to develop an idea that had first come to him back in Spain. What if families on the war-torn continent had their own livestock, producing enough milk to add much-needed nutrition to people’s diets?
This idea marked the beginning of the organization I lead today, Heifer International. West and other American farmers knew the importance of food security in a fragmented world and started sending shipments of cows to communities across the world, equipping them with the means to feed themselves and generate their own income.
Fast forward to today, and many U.S. farmers are themselves struggling to make ends meet. Diversity has disappeared from most American farms and ongoing trade disputes sow uncertainty for an industry that thrives on stability. Faced with their own problems in this increasingly introspective climate, should global food security remain important for U.S. farmers?
My answer is a resounding yes. Tackling global food insecurity makes sense on many levels.
It will come as no surprise that parts of the world with the highest levels of food insecurity are also the most unstable. From Haiti to Iraq, Syria to Venezuela, people are taking to the streets or leaving their countries, as natural disasters, conflict, and corruption leave them unable to meet their basic needs. Lacking access to credit or other options to bridge income gaps, farmers in poor countries often have to leave their land and migrate to find work, so they can send money home to their families.
Coffee farmers are one example. Faced with low international prices in recent years and a system heavily stacked against them, many are struggling to even cover their costs, let alone make a living income. This despite companies at the top of the supply chain that rely on their product reporting record profits.
U.S. farmers and their communities know investing in agriculture can be truly transformative. Today, farming remains one of, if not the biggest, source of livelihood in many countries around the world. The benefits of a healthy farming sector extend far beyond putting nutritious food on our tables to job creation and economic development opportunities – both within countries and across borders.
Thriving farms not only provide stable incomes and jobs within rural communities, they also protect local resources for future generations. U.S. farmers know better than many that our climate is changing. In the years ahead, their industry has a crucial role to play in tackling the climate crisis and feeding the world in a sustainable way.
While many people in the U.S. are choosing to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, in an effort to protect the climate, the same can’t be expected of people in countries with high levels of food insecurity. Animal source foods still remain the best option for getting vital nutrients to the people that need them most, and can be produced sustainably on small-scale farms, generating income for local communities.
Whether in California or Cambodia, Iowa or India, farming can be good for the planet. Managed grazing can help restore large areas of grassland, while reducing the pace of desertification in fragile ecosystems. Wind, solar and waste products can be harnessed to produce energy to power farms, cleaning up the local environment.
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Farmers know their sector needs to change. Their communities are already experiencing shifting rain patterns, prolonged drought, and pest invasions never seen before. According to the USDA, food waste represents 30-40 percent of food supply in the United States, meaning large amounts of resources end up thrown into landfills. But at the same time, the world over, 820 million people go to bed hungry every night, despite there being sufficient food produced to feed every person on the planet. In an age defined by innovation and cross-border consumption, this is simply unacceptable.
Hunger and poverty are both solvable, but we need to transform our food and farming systems here at home and around the world to make this a reality. Dan West, himself a farmer, recognized the role food security could play in restoring peace and security to a region ravaged by war. Today, we face crises that cannot be limited to individual countries or communities, and that must concern us all. U.S. farmers know this – that’s why even when faced with difficulties at home, they should continue to care about global food security.
Pierre Ferrari, President and CEO of Heifer International, joined Heifer International in 2010 with more than 40 years of business experience. He worked for many years at Coca-Cola USA, before deciding in 1995 to focus his energies and business acumen on social issues. Ferrari is a current board member of the Small Enterprise Assistance Fund and Global Impact. Ferrari is also a former chair and current board member of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream. He received a master’s degree in economics from The University of Cambridge and a Master's of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.
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.