Farm Futures

Bringing Agriculture Back to U.S. Foreign Policy

It is not easy for Americans to understand the starvation that afflicts much of the developing world. Families in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia spend up to 80 percent of their incomes on food; for the average U.S. household, that would mean an annual grocery bill of $40,000. Yes, there are hungry Americans in the millions, and the U.S. food-stamp program is operating at record levels. But hunger in the United States does not put tens of thousands of infants into hospitals and require them to be hooked up to feeding tubes. Nor does it lead to stunting, wasting, and debilitating forms of malnutrition, such as kwashiorkor and marasmus.

Yet even if Americans strain to comprehend the depth of hunger that plagues much of Africa and Asia, they do care about it. They know that chronic hunger among Afghans, Congolese, or North Koreans can pose a threat to their national security. Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center have consistently revealed that Americans want to make ending hunger and poverty a priority for U.S. foreign policy. A recent survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that the American public feels aid to poor farmers overseas should play a more prominent role than any other form of U.S. development assistance.

Sadly, as global food emergencies have grown worse, the United States has been playing defense, desperately pouring $2.1 billion into food aid in 2008 to cope with a global food crisis that led to riots in more than 30 countries. Last year, a potent mix of high Asian demand, persistent drought in Australia, commodities speculation, high energy prices, and the diversion of crops to biofuels led to the greatest run-up in grain prices in decades. And although most food prices have since declined somewhat, many of the world's poor are still going hungry.

With the Obama administration struggling to address an economic crisis at home, the question arises, how much money will be left for the world's hungry? With the growing intensity of domestic economic distress, some Americans may have little interest in even considering that question. Yet the consequences of neglect would be immense. The Obama administration should make agricultural development its number one priority for foreign aid and actively enlist support from other donors and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

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