Charting the Path to a Resilient and Food-Secure Future

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Originally published by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs on their blog – Global Food for Thought.

Policymakers around the world have long advocated food self-sufficiency as the best policy for reducing the risk of food insecurity. Self-sufficiency means that farms, livestock operations, and fisheries produce enough food within a country’s national borders to adequately feed the population. Most countries, however, have found that the goal of 100 percent food self-sufficiency is neither attainable—it’s hard to produce food in a desert or on a snow-capped mountain—nor sensible—it’s cheaper to buy food grown in places where it is produced most efficiently. In countries with little geographic diversity, a self-sufficiency strategy can be risky when adverse weather conditions strike.

A more pragmatic approach to establishing a resilient and secure food system generally involves a hybrid strategy, one that combines national production and regional or global trade. Countries experiencing water scarcity, for example, may choose to import major staple grains while allocating their limited agricultural water resources to the production of high-value and perishable commodities that produce a net economic—and nutritional—benefit. So long as trends towards the globalization of agricultural trade continue, with food exports originating in a diversity of countries with differing production and weather conditions, a hybrid strategy can provide both an adequate and resilient food supply.

Indeed, data show that growth in global food trade from 1965-2005 enabled almost two-thirds of the countries of the world—with a population of nearly 4 billion people—to achieve an average daily energy (calorie) supply sufficient to ensure national food security. This represented a near-doubling of the share of countries that were food-secure in 1965.

This hybrid policy approach is not, of course, foolproof. As we saw in 2008, a sudden spike in global food prices for major grains and oilseeds made it difficult for some countries to import the volumes they needed and led to civil unrest in dozens of countries where significant shares of the population relied on imports of a staple grain. Leaders in some food-exporting countries added to the turmoil in that year by choosing to shut off exports in order to conserve their own supplies.

Post-2008, therefore, many countries consciously adjusted their food security strategies. They committed both to investing more in greater local production—with the help of development assistance programs such as the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative—as well as diversifying their sources of food imports. In 2014, for example, African leaders committed to “tripling intra-African trade in agricultural commodities and services by 2025 and to building the resilience of agricultural livelihoods and production systems to climate variability and shocks.”

AGree, an initiative established to drive positive change in food and agriculture, has, since 2011, become a platform for discussion of options for transformative change in these sectors. To help realize its vision of ensuring that people everywhere have access to affordable food that is nutritious and safe and promotes their health and well-being, AGree has engaged more than 2,000 participants in review of food, nutrition, agriculture, and health policies and practices.

We have confronted, time and again, the complexity of the linkages among all parts of the food system—from farm to fork—at local, state, national and global levels. The solutions to emerging issues are not always obvious. Determining exactly what policies and practices will lead to the “right” food and agricultural outcomes—ensuring food security, providing both food producers and consumers a high degree of resilience to environmental and economic risks—requires serious analysis and debate.

Rapidly changing social, economic, and environmental dynamics add to these challenges. The growth of urban populations and incomes in many low- and middle-income countries is driving food demand in new directions. Volatile energy prices are affecting both production and transport of agricultural commodities and suggesting that “local” markets (and some new urban food production technologies) might provide new economic opportunities. The use of innovative food production and processing technologies is raising new questions as to their nutritional and environmental benefits and the risks they pose in different regions. Changing climatic conditions are adding new unknowns to producers’ decision-making and leading to a call for more innovative resource management techniques. Competition for land, labor, and investment capital is making it hard for young, entry-level farmers to secure their niches.

The growing trade in food has also increased the risk of foodborne pathogens and contaminants entering the food system. Recent global metrics on the burden of foodborne diseases on human health and productivity indicate that food safety risks may be taking their place alongside price risks and climate uncertainties as critical challenges to the resilience of the global food environment and the billions of consumers reliant on that environment. Foodborne pathogens can cause illness, disease, and death. They can also destroy the economic health of food-based businesses as remedies require significant financial investments and consumer trust in product safety is wiped out.

AGree experience indicates that the prevention of risks associated with food and agriculture should be a higher priority than investments to compensate for losses when they occur. AGree’s Working Landscapes initiative, for example, grew out of consideration of the root causes of soil erosion, degradation of soil quality, and contamination of surface waters; discussions led to the articulation of a positive strategy focused on strengthening the financial resilience of farms and farm families while also improving environmental outcomes. AGree’s International Development strategy is aimed at building a broad coalition to advocate for authorizing legislation that recognizes the importance of agriculture and food systems development to economic development, sociopolitical stability, environmental sustainability, and the achievement of a hunger-free world. Given the high human and economic costs of hunger and malnutrition, food security should be an enduring goal of U.S. foreign development assistance programming.” AGree’s support for greater attention to agricultural research and innovation, the development of local food systems, and the expansion of opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers is consistent with the principle of working to anticipate—and reduce—the risks of the future and to build resilience in the systems we currently have.

As we assert in the opening phrases of our recently-issued Call to Presidential Action, “Our food and agricultural system from ‘farm to fork’ is vital to the health of our nation, but facing a period of enormous transition… So far, farmers and ranchers have overcome challenges with market volatility, drought, floods, pathogens, and pests, enabling the food and agriculture systems to contribute roughly five percent of GDP and employ more than 12 million people. But American agriculture is under great threat and its continued success depends on targeted research and improved policies. Far beyond the farm, the right food and agriculture policies and program investments can improve health and nutrition nationwide and reduce hunger.” We share these challenges with many other nations. Actions now to improve the resilience of food systems around the world will also help us to manage the risks and uncertainties of the future.