The Washington Times
Commentary – by Richard G. Lugar and Norman Borlaug
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Invest in agriculture and technology

The world is not producing enough food, and many poor families cannot afford to buy the food that is available. As a result, nearly a billion people, a sixth of the Earth’s population, do not have enough to eat.

This global food crisis erupted into public view last year when food prices spiked around the world and food riots and demonstrations rocked 19 countries, from Bangladesh to Egypt. Today’s worldwide economic collapse threatens to push millions more into poverty, making them unable to buy enough food to feed their families.

The long-term prospects for global food supplies are equally troubling. Based on expected population growth, rising incomes and wider meat consumption, it is estimated that the world’s farmers will have to double their output by 2050. They will have to do so in the face of rapidly depleting water supplies and the impact of climate change, which threatens altered weather patterns and droughts. Moreover, rising sea levels could submerge river deltas that are among the most agriculturally productive regions on Earth.

Attempting to double food production by increasing the acreage under cultivation would cause widespread deforestation and put significant stress on local ecologies. Farmers will have to get much higher yields from land already in production, requiring major investments in infrastructure and agricultural technology.

The hunger and related diseases resulting from food insecurity are a humanitarian tragedy: An estimated 25,000 people per day die of malnutrition-related causes. Hungry children suffer worst, with low survival rates, stunted bodies and impaired cognitive development. Moreover, hunger has profound implications for peace and U.S. national security. Hungry people are desperate, and desperation often sows seeds of conflict and extremism.

The causes of this calamity are many. Acute factors such as soaring energy prices, local droughts and bad decisions by food-exporting countries led to last year’s price spike and exposed structural weaknesses in the world agriculture system. After the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s seemingly vanquished the specter of world famine, the international community prematurely declared victory over hunger and let down its guard.

Investments in agriculture tumbled. By 2007, rich countries devoted merely 4 percent of their foreign assistance to agriculture. U.S. agricultural aid, adjusted for inflation, fell 80 percent from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

In Africa, which has the most severe food problems, donor aid to the farm sector plunged from $4.1 billion in 1989 to just $1.9 billion in 2006. Africa’s per capita production of corn, its most important staple crop, has dropped by 14 percent since 1980.

Equally troubling are sharp cutbacks in research into new farming technologies and seed varieties that could increase yields, cope with changing climate conditions, battle new pests and diseases and make food more nutritious.

The world needs a new green revolution. The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act, S. 384, introduced in February, could help launch one. The Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill April 1, and it can now move toward consideration by the full Senate.

The legislation calls for the United States to make food and agriculture a foreign policy priority. It would require the administration to appoint a high-level coordinator to devise and implement a governmentwide food security strategy, and it would authorize $10 billion over five years for foreign agriculture assistance, with special attention to research and outreach, so small farmers can quickly utilize breakthroughs made in the laboratory. Helping small farmers raises rural incomes, thus easing poverty, hunger’s chief cause.

If the United States leads the battle to eradicate hunger, other nations will follow.

This new revolution won’t succeed without new tools, namely biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) seeds, to meet the enormous demands for increased production. But Europeans oppose most GM technology, despite its proven safety and success in cutting pesticide use, raising output and adapting to adverse conditions. African countries in particular have been intimidated by aggressive European lobbying from deploying biotechnology, widely used in many places, including America – GM varieties comprise 80 percent of our corn crop.

European opposition to safe GM technology contributes to African hunger in the short run. In the long run, it virtually dooms those countries’ efforts to adapt their agriculture to changing climate conditions. If current global climate forecasts are right, farm yields in Africa could plummet by 35 percent in coming decades, leading to starvation, mass migration and conflict. Only through the application of science and technology to African agriculture can such a catastrophe be averted.

Thomas Malthus warned 200 years ago that food production would not keep pace with population growth. He did not foresee how technology and innovation would forestall his dire predictions. Today, we can either succumb to Malthusian pessimism or once again invest in agriculture and embrace technological solutions inspired by the green revolution. It is both a moral and security imperative that we act.

Richard G. Lugar of Indiana is the Republican leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He has a 604-acre farm in Indiana. Norman Borlaug is a Nobel laureate and father of the green revolution. At age 95, he continues his work as a researcher with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.