Opinion: To end global hunger, we need to invest more in agricultural innovation

Seven years ago, the United Nations adopted a new set of global goals meant to put humanity on a more sustainable, positive course by 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the SDGs, set 17 targets covering everything from gender equality to global economic growth. The first two SDGs were arguably the most revolutionary – to wipe poverty and hunger off the face of the planet.

A lot has happened since 2015 – much of it unimaginable to the UN when it first unveiled the SDGs. A global pandemic, war between major crop producers Russia and Ukraine, rampant food price inflation, and extreme weather events have sent us hurtling in the wrong direction, especially when it comes to hunger. Today, there are as many as 828 million hungry people around the world, a significant increase over the past two years, in spite of international pledges to end hunger.

With the world now entering a full-blown food crisis, the US convened global leaders for a Global Food Security Summit at the UN this week. The UN acknowledges that we’re not on track to meet its “zero hunger” pledge by 2030, and the summit addressed how we can turn the course in light of current global challenges.

There are many causes of food insecurity, especially man-made conflicts such as what we’ve seen in Ukraine, which disrupted grain exports to developing countries. But in my experience as a farmer and a former US ambassador to the UN Agencies on Food and Agriculture in Rome, I have come to believe that one solution can have an outsized impact. Simply put: 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 this. When my father started farming in the 1950s in Indiana, average US corn yields were less than 50 bushels an acre. Today, the national average is nearly four times that much, thanks to innovations such as improved seed technologies, better soil management, data analytics, and high-precision machinery.

The private sector often gets credit for increasing yields, especially for corn and soybeans, the two largest US crops. However the public sector – through research at universities, government labs, and international organizations such as CGIAR – has played an important role. This is because public sector research often focuses on early stage discoveries that can be developed later by private companies, or under-explored areas such as crops with smaller markets in the US and around the world.

Today, it’s no surprise that many areas of the world that still struggle with hunger also struggle with increasing their own harvests, contributing to cycles of poverty. While crop yields have risen dramatically in developed countries including the US, many other areas have been left behind. Agriculture is the main occupation of the world’s poor, and yields for smallholders, who often support families on 1-2 acres, lag significantly behind global averages. This is especially true for Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, where production of coffee, a main cash crop, has stagnated. When smallholders can’t support themselves through agriculture, they often seek to immigrate, as we’ve seen at our southern border.

So how can the US support innovation and turn the course on global hunger? I’d recommend four areas of focus.

  1. Increase public funding for agricultural research. This is long overdue – public funding for agricultural research has declined in real dollars since 2003. This lack of investment prevents important research from being done, and also means many scientists are working in sub-par conditions with aging infrastructure. One recent report showed that 69% of buildings at state colleges of agriculture are “at the end of their useful life.”
  1. Fund programs that support farmers in the US and abroad. Growing conditions around the world vary widely. Research is needed to tailor solutions for different areas –within the US and overseas – to account for varying weather, soil types, and disease threats. Funding is also needed to study a diverse range of crops, such as sorghum, coffee, rice, and orphan crops that are often grown by smallholders. CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research consortium, does particularly good work – 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 doing important, tailored research that deserves more support.
  1. Encourages public-private cooperation. Collaboration between the public and private sector can help public research dollars go further and facilitate efforts to bring innovations to market. The public-private partnership the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) is a great example of this. Since it started operations, FFAR has matched every $1 of public funding with $1.40 in research support from the private sector – an incredible return on taxpayer investment.
  1. Don’t forget about nutrition. Today, we know that malnutrition can be just as devastating as hunger. When the body doesn’t get the right nutrients, it can lead to stunting, creating life-long negative consequences for children. Supporting programs that emphasize nutrition and improve supply chains for healthy foods would go a long way toward alleviating the consequences of food insecurity abroad and in the US

Doing our part to combat global hunger is in our country’s best interest. Nations that succeed in reducing hunger and poverty can become strong trading partners with the US over time. Improved global food security also leads to better national security at home, as hunger and poverty are key drivers of political unrest and engender leadership vacuums where extremism can thrive. In addition, investing in local food systems abroad can make developing countries more resilient against shocks, reducing the need for, and cost of, humanitarian food aid.

But most importantly, working to significantly reduce global hunger is the right thing to do. The US is fortunate to have some of the most productive farmers in the world and leading scientists whose research has enabled the sector to thrive. By supporting increased funding for agricultural innovation, we can ensure that this vital American industry remains strong for the future and create a more food-secure world for all.

Ambassador

Kip Tom is a seventh-generation farmer from Indiana and a former US Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.

For more ag news and opinions, visit www.Agri-Pulse.com.

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