Measuring Global Food Security


The United States is suffering through one of the worst droughts in its history, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture announcing earlier this month that more than 1,000 counties across 26 states now qualify as natural-disaster areas. By some estimates, the bone-dry weather could cost farmers and ranchers as much as $50 billion.

On my farm in Central Illinois the effects of the dry weather and high temperature is stunning.  What might have been one of my best crops ever has turned into one of the worst.

It is a serious economic problem for farmers, but it’s not a life-threatening event. We’re not about to witness a famine in the heartland. Crops may fail, but Americans won’t starve to death.

That’s because the United States is the most food-secure country in the world. So says a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has just released the first edition of the Global Food Security Index, a comprehensive survey on the availability, cost, and quality of food.

If food security were an Olympic event, the United States would take the gold medal. The silver would go to Denmark and the bronze to France.

In reality, there are plenty of winners, including Australia, Canada, Europe, Israel, Japan, and South Korea. Even New Zealand, off by itself on the edge of the world, is the 11th most food-secure country. There are no losers or also-rans in this distinguished club.

This is positively good news–a tribute to the success of modern agricultural methods, which have all but abolished food shortages in prosperous nations. We’re growing more food and safer food than ever before, using 21st-century technologies that were not available just a generation ago.

We overcome the food supply challenges that can be a result of droughts through sheer abundance and availability. If one part of the United States endures poor weather for agriculture, another section can begin to make up the difference through its own productivity. International trade networks also soften the blow: Buying and selling food across borders means that no single region is abandoned to its own fate.

Earlier this year, Michigan’s cherry farmers lost most of their crop, due to an untimely freeze. The state of Washington is stepping up. So are imports from Poland. A year from now, Michigan’s growers will be back on their feet. Most consumers probably won’t even notice that they had stumbled.

When a supply of food is secure, people don’t have to worry about the source of their next meal. One way or another, it will be there–possibly with cherries on top.

Yet food security is hardly universal. Around the world, according to the Global Food Security Index, billions of people lack it. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only Botswana and South Africa enjoy reasonable levels of food security. Their neighbors often live on the brink of catastrophe–and there, a drought like the one now hitting the American Midwest is measured not in dollars lost but in lives destroyed.

Signs suggest that global food security may improve in the near term. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued its International Food Security Assessment, which predicts that rates of food insecurity will creep downward between 2011 and 2012. In the decade ahead, the share of the population without adequate food security will drop from 24 percent to 21 percent.

If there’s a drawback to food security, it’s in the encouragement of an unwelcome complacency: the problem of taking food security for granted. We may live in the most food-secure nation in the world, but our country is full of hyperventilating activists who step in front of television cameras and try to terrify us about the perils of our safe, affordable, and abundant food.

We’ve never had it better, but they try to convince us that things couldn’t be worse. We see it all the time, from celebrity chefs who appear unfamiliar with basic nutritional facts to anti-biotech activists who want to frighten voters into approving a costly labeling rule that will drive up grocery-store bills without achieving anything good in return.

Let’s keep things in perspective, and recognize good news when we see it. The United States is food secure–and it will stay that way for a long time, if only we remember how we got here.

John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois.  He volunteers as a Board Member for Truth About Trade & Technology.


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John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Illinois. He served on the Global Farmer Network Board of Directors, and is a former Chair. John currently serves as Chairman and President of the GROWMARK Board of Directors-a farm supply and marketing cooperative that operates principally in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario.

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