Seven years ago, the United Nations adopted a new set of global goals designed to put humanity on a more sustainable, positive path by 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the SDGs, set 17 goals covering everything from gender equality to global economic growth. The first two SDGs were arguably the most revolutionary – eradicating poverty and hunger from the face of the planet.
A lot has happened since 2015 – much of which was unimaginable to the UN when it first presented the SDGs. A global pandemic, a war between major grain producers Russia and Ukraine, runaway food price inflation and extreme weather events have pushed us in the wrong direction, especially when it comes to hunger. Today there are 828 million hungry people worldwide, a sharp increase over the past two years, despite international pledges to end hunger.
As the world now descends into a full-blown food crisis, the US this week summoned world leaders to a Global Food Security Summit at the United Nations. The UN acknowledges that we are not on track to meet its zero hunger pledge by 2030, and the summit addressed how we can change course in the face of current global challenges.
There are many causes of food insecurity, most notably man-made conflicts like we saw in Ukraine, which disrupted grain exports to developing countries. But based on my experience as a farmer and former US Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome, I have come to believe that a solution can have an outsized impact. Put simply, to significantly reduce global hunger, we need to invest more in agricultural research and development so that countries can produce more to feed themselves.
The US is a world power in agriculture, and our industry’s record for innovation is one reason for that. When my father started farming in Indiana in the 1950’s, the average US corn yield was less than 50 bushels per acre. Thanks to innovations such as improved seeding techniques, better soil management, data analysis and high-precision machines, the national average is now almost four times higher.
The private sector often gets credit for growing yields, particularly for corn and soybeans, the two largest US crops. However, the public sector has played an important role – through research at universities, government laboratories and international organizations such as CGIAR. This is because public sector research is often focused on early-stage discoveries that can later be developed by private companies, or on underexplored areas such as crops with smaller markets in the US and around the world.
Today, it’s no surprise that many regions of the world still struggling with hunger are also struggling to increase their own harvests, contributing to cycles of poverty. While crop yields have increased dramatically in developed countries, including the US, many other areas have been left behind. Farming is the main occupation of the world’s poor, and yields for small farmers, who often support families on 1-2 acres, lag well behind the global average. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, where production of coffee, a main crop, is stagnating. When smallholders cannot make a living from farming, they often try to emigrate, as we saw on our southern border.
So how can the US support innovation and change course on global hunger? I would recommend four focus areas.
- Increase in public funding for agricultural research. This is long overdue – public funding for agricultural research has declined in real terms since 2003. This lack of investment prevents important research from being carried out and also means that many scientists work in subpar conditions with aging infrastructure. A recent report showed that 69% of state agricultural college buildings are “at the end of their useful life”.
- Sponsor programs that support farmers in the US and abroad. Growing conditions around the world vary greatly. Research is required to develop tailored solutions for different areas – within the US and overseas – to address different weather conditions, soil types and disease threats. Funds are also needed to study a variety of crops such as sorghum, coffee, rice and orphan crops commonly grown by small farmers. CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research consortium, is doing a particularly good job – its drought-resistant corn varieties developed for African smallholders are now benefiting US farmers. Feed the Future Innovation Labs at universities across the country are also conducting important, bespoke research that deserves more support.
- Promotion of public-private cooperation. Collaboration between the public and private sectors can help keep public research funds flowing and facilitate efforts to bring innovations to market. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) public-private partnership is a prime example of this. Since inception, FFAR has matched every $1 in public funding with $1.40 in private sector research support – an incredible return on taxpayer investment.
- Don’t forget nutrition. Today we know that malnutrition can be just as devastating as hunger. Failure of the body to get the right nutrients can lead to growth retardation and lifelong negative consequences for children. Supporting programs that prioritize nutrition and improve healthy food supply chains would go a long way in alleviating the impact of food insecurity abroad and in the United States
Doing our part to end global hunger is in our country’s best interest. Nations that succeed in reducing hunger and poverty can, over time, become strong trading partners for the United States. Improved global food security also translates into better national security domestically, as hunger and poverty are the main drivers of political unrest, creating a leadership vacuum in which extremism can thrive. In addition, investing in local food systems abroad can make developing countries more resilient to shocks and meet the needs and costs of food humanitarian food aid.
Above all, however, it is right to work to significantly reduce global hunger. The US is fortunate to have some of the world’s most productive farmers and leading scientists whose research has made the sector a success. By supporting more funding for agricultural innovation, we can ensure this vital American industry remains strong into the future and create a more food-secure world for all.
Kip Tom is a seventh-generation farmer from Indiana and a former US Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture in Rome.
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