When Food Security Worries Become National Security Dilemmas


It all started with a food cart.

Members of Congress will want to bear in mind this important detail as they weigh President Obama’s request to approve a U.S. military strike against Syria.

Most of their concerns will be more immediate, of course. They’ll examine the evidence purporting to show that the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. They’ll also debate the likely consequences of military action: Will it prevent future attacks? Will it empower a rebel movement of Muslim extremists? Will it start a wider regional conflict?

Reasonable people can disagree. Whatever Congress decides, however, we should remember a fact that is beyond dispute: food security is an essential part of national security.

Syria’s unrest has many sources, and one of them is food.

Nearly three years ago, Tunisian authorities seized the fruits and vegetables of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, apparently because he refused to pay bribes to local officials. Outraged by the injustice, Bouazizi went to his governor’s office and shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?”

Then he lit himself on fire—and sparked a momentous wave of protests throughout the Middle East, sometimes called the “Arab Spring.”

Within days of Bouazizi’s death, people across Tunisia assembled to complain about food inflation, lousy living conditions, and restrictions on political freedom. Soon they chased Tunisia’s president from office. The turmoil then spread to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Next it reached Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died since a civil war broke out more than two years ago.

When you’re hungry, you’ll do desperate things to feed yourself. When your kids are hungry, however, you’ll do anything to feed them. It’s the difference between stealing a chicken for yourself and shooting someone to get a chicken for your family.

The United Nations estimates that nearly 900 million people around the world are food insecure, meaning that they don’t have access to enough safe and nutritious food. That’s about one out of every eight people.

To complicate matters, these people are aware of their plight more than ever before. They know that billions of other people are better off. Television programs and the movies share images of abundance from the developed world. Bombarded with pictures of people who struggle with obesity rather than starvation, the poor parents of gaunt children become envious.

Who can blame them for dreaming of a different life?

As fellow humans, we should sympathize with their predicament. As Americans concerned with global stability, we should think about how to improve their lot. If we don’t, their food-security worries will become our national-security dilemmas.

Children not only must be fed enough calories, they must also receive a balance of vitamins and nutrients to allow for proper cognitive development. The United States should want a world filled with intelligent people who can think and reason, as opposed to a planet populated by people with low cognitive skills who live on rumors, succumb to radical ideologies, and choose violence.

Food security is one of the keys to success—and “feed the world” isn’t just a charitable slogan, but rather a national-security imperative.

Last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization published “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.” Amid the document’s statistics and charts was a common-sense observation: “Agricultural growth is particularly effective in reducing hunger and malnutrition.”

This statement may sound transparently obvious, but its practical application can be tricky. Agricultural growth requires both scientific innovation and political determination.

If we’re serious about food security, we have to figure out how to feed more people on less land. That means supporting the latest technologies, such as genetically modified crops that resist weeds and pests, survive drought, and yield more food. We should push for golden rice in China and GM brinjal in India. We must also strive to lower trade barriers so food can flow from producers to consumers without the interference of protectionism.

The alternative to food security is food insecurity—and a dangerous world full of hungry people, perilous situations, and bad options for American policymakers.

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa.  Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Bill Horan

Bill Horan

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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