More than half of U.S. counties have been declared disaster areas as the drought chokes the farm belt. On the nightly news, we see the food supply shrink. In the grocery stores, we watch the food prices rise. Take heed, Mother Nature is warning us: tend to agricultural development.
Or else. Turbulence in the food chain will become the new normal; perhaps it already has. We first noticed this five years ago, when shortages of the main staples and subsequent rising prices triggered riots in dozens of countries in the developing world. The ranks of the hungry swelled. Global food stockpiles fell to their lowest levels in decades, and prices rose to their highest levels ever. In the U.S., the escalating grocery bills prompted a flash of panic because for so long we had enjoyed the comfort of a long era of reasonably low, stable prices.
A flurry of corrective activity ensued. The World Bank called for an about face of the disastrous policies that ignored agricultural development. President Obama, new to office, focused the minds of world leaders to prioritize “global food security” – riots and turbulent prices will do that -- and his administration began to form Feed the Future, an initiative designed to reduce hunger and strengthen the global food chain through agricultural development, particularly among the smallholder farmers of Africa whose yields were far below potential.
And then… And then, things stabilized. Prices came off their highs and we seemed to get comfortable with at a new plateau of food costs. Problem solved, right? Wrong.
That’s what we also thought after Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his pioneering work developing new strains of wheat that led to the Green Revolution. The Nobel committee hailed Dr. Borlaug for cutting the “Gordian knot,” for relieving the doomsday scenario that the planet, with an increasing population, would run out of food. The world congratulated Dr. Borlaug and slapped itself on the back. Well done, problem solved. But Dr. Borlaug knew better. He warned us to pay attention, not to lose focus, to continue investments in agricultural development, to help farmers around the world, especially the smallholders in the poorest of countries, to be as productive as possible. If we turned our back on this, if we permit future famines and allow hunger to persist, he said, “We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation.”
And yet, there are those, plenty in number, who still aren’t paying attention, who call for the elimination of Feed the Future and other initiatives to secure the global food chain. Such wrongheadedness is right there in a budget proposal that came out of the House of Representatives earlier this year. Agricultural development is too expensive at a moment of budget cutting, it was said. This isn’t the right time to begin such programs, it was proclaimed.
If the hunger crisis in east Africa last year or the suffering in West Africa this year hasn’t grabbed our attention in the U.S., maybe the drought in our own farm belt will. As the members of Congress head home for summer and the campaign trail, they will surely get an earful of advice from their constituents. And, hopefully, they will also behold the shriveled ears of corn and pay attention to what they are saying.