(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 globalized and dynamic world.)

The U.S. is a global leader in agriculture and food.  In the last 150 years, technological advances and innovations in the production, processing, transportation, and retailing of food have spurred unprecedented economic growth at home and provided affordable food to billions of people worldwide. To maintain this competitive edge in the century to come, American agriculture will need new approaches and a renewed commitment to research, education, market engagement, and trade.  It will also need to focus on meeting future food and fiber needs sustainably and nutritiously.

Today’s agriculture and food system is increasingly global, with food demand driven by growing populations in Asia and Africa, and millions of people in emerging markets moving into the middle class.  In 2012, American farmers sold more commodities in North Asia than they did in North America.  U.S. commodity exports to Sub-Saharan Africa have increased by 200 percent in the last decade.  These will be America’s growth markets well into the future.  

America’s continued leadership in food and farming, however, is not guaranteed.  Emerging risks are placing pressure on America’s historic role as a global leader.  Stagnating public investments in research have made it more difficult for producers and businesses to adapt to droughts, floods, new pests, and emerging diseases.  Total factor productivity in U.S. agriculture is in decline, dropping almost half from 2.12 percent per year from 1949-1990 to 1.15 percent per year from 1990-2007.  Numerous experts have called on the U.S. government to reinvigorate its research investments. Scientific breakthroughs are needed to increase food production while minimizing impact on the environment and promoting health.  Our competitors are aware of the power of innovation:  between 2000 and 2009, public agriculture and food research spending in Brazil, China, and India increased by 12.5 percent annually while spending in the U.S. grew by just 3 percent. 

New approaches are also needed to prepare the next generation to be agriculture and food leaders.  Fewer and fewer Americans are growing up on farms and considering the farm and food sector as a career, making it harder to recruit the talent we need in our fields, laboratories, and agri-food businesses.  The U.S. is also not doing enough to incentivize its universities to partner with educational institutions overseas.  Existing partnerships are often promoted because of their vital role in alleviating poverty, but twinning arrangements can help Americans entering the farm and food business to understand foreign markets and agro-ecologies, positioning the U.S. to do more profitable agriculture and food business with these nations in the future.  They also accelerate the creation, testing, and scaling of high-impact technologies.  The U.S. experiences with Brazil and India prove this concept.

The U.S. must also do more to position its growers and businesses for success in markets of the future:  Asia and Africa.  Trade and regulatory challenges will require new thinking to ensure American businesses can enter these regions and growers can export to them.  Food standards and regulatory frameworks in emerging countries are inconsistent and dynamic and property rights and rule of law are all too limited.  The absence of regional trade agreements force companies to deal with markets country-by-country, while the greatest economic gains will be made by reaching the entire region.  In spite of this, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the United States Department of Agriculture have far too few staff working on agriculture and food and only limited attention is paid to regulatory issues and food standards. On the ground, the U.S. must redouble its efforts to increase the presence of agricultural experts in emerging markets.

Finally, the U.S. should be at the forefront of efforts to ensure a sustainable and affordable food supply.  Recent estimates indicate global production must jump by 60 percent to adequately feed the world’s population in 2050.  The regions that will experience the greatest population growth, but have the lowest agricultural yields – South Asia and Africa – will be most at risk for hunger and malnutrition.  The magnitude of these coming production and nutrition gaps cannot be met with food assistance alone. Our land grant universities and the agribusiness community can play a leading role in strengthening these continents’ farm sectors, which will increase the global food supply and drive economic growth.  After all, investments in agriculture are the most effective tools for reducing poverty. 

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs will be spotlighting these issues in this monthly column. Our hope is to drive new ideas on how American agriculture can remain competitive and advance food security in an increasingly globalized world.  America can and should remain the world’s agriculture and food leader in the decades to come. In the last century, the U.S. farm and food sector has achieved impressive gains in food production, reduced agriculture’s environmental footprint, and pioneered breakthroughs in food safety and nutritional quality. 

To maintain this leadership moving forward, we need to recalibrate our federal agencies to support innovation, develop a globally competitive workforce, and engage frontier markets.  There are numerous gains to be made by tackling trade and regulatory challenges and leveraging the strengths of universities, businesses, and other players in production agriculture. And if history is any indication, America is up to the challenge.


About the authors: Dan Glickman is a former member of congress from Kansas and served as secretary of agriculture from 1995-2001.  Doug Bereuter is a former member of congress from Nebraska and is president emeritus of the Asia Foundation.  They co-chair a Chicago Council on Global Affairs project on global agricultural development and food security.