June 4, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

It's the Security

For anyone who doesn’t “get” the moral and economic imperative of ending hunger through agriculture development, here’s another motivating imperative: security, both domestic and global.

The phrase “food security” and the mission of helping countries feed themselves are mentioned multiple times in the recently released National Security Strategy of the Obama administration.  Its Feed the Future initiative is a key weapon in the deployment of American “soft power” around the world.  And “development experts who can strengthen governance and support human dignity” are included with soldiers, diplomats, law enforcement officers and intelligence gatherers as defenders of the nation’s security.

Over the past several decades, the U.S. (along with other wealthy nations) has beaten a hasty and precipitous retreat from the development front.  In the extended era of cheap food and impressive gains in rich world agriculture, there had been a disastrous abandonment of the farmers of developing countries.  The result was the 2008 food crisis, when shocking shortages of key staple crops and soaring prices led to riots in dozens of countries.  (Students of history will know that food riots have triggered many revolutions down through the centuries.)

Now the agents of development are once again advancing.  Food security – or the opposite, “food insecurity” and its implied threat to political and economic stability and the portent of failed states – is on the minds of many top administration officials, from National Security Advisor General James Jones to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  Even in the Pentagon they realize that a legion of well-equipped farmers can be mightier than a battalion of tanks.  That is why agriculture development and restoring the prosperity of wheat farmers is an essential element of rebuilding peace and economic stability in Afghanistan.

The truism long cherished by proponents of agriculture development – “You can’t build peace on an empty stomach” – becomes a Washington rallying cry every couple of decades.  It was a main driver of the Marshall Plan immediately following World War II – the necessity to secure the peace in the face of rising European hunger.  And it was when Henry Kissinger’s advisors couched ending hunger in security terms that the U.S. became a strong backer of the 1974 World Food Conference in Rome.

Now food and security are linked again, this time in a post Cold-War world and an era of globalization where American power is needed not only to strike fear in enemies but to inspire hope in potential friends.

Here are some excerpts from the National Security Strategy and President Obama’s preamble:
  • “Wars over ideology have given way to wars over religious, ethnic, and tribal identity; nuclear dangers have proliferated; inequality and economic instability have intensified; damage to our environment, food insecurity, and dangers to public health are increasingly shared; and the same tools that empower individuals to build enable them to destroy.”
  • “We will pursue bilateral and multilateral trade agreements that advance our shared prosperity, while accelerating investments in development that can narrow inequality, expand markets and support individual opportunity and state capacity abroad.”
  • “…we recognize economic opportunity as a human right, and are promoting the dignity of all men and women through our support for global health, food security and cooperative responses to humanitarian crises.”
  • “We must maintain our military’s conventional superiority, while enhancing its capacity to defeat asymmetric threats.  Our diplomacy and development capabilities must be modernized, and our civilian expeditionary capacity strengthened, to support the full breadth of our priorities.”
  • “Development is a strategic, economic and moral imperative.  We are focusing on assisting developing countries and their people to manage security threats, reap the benefits of global economic expansion, and set in place accountable and democratic institutions that serve basic human needs.  Through an aggressive and affirmative development agenda and commensurate resources, we can strengthen the regional partners we need to help us stop conflicts and counter global criminal networks; build a stable, inclusive global economy with new sources of prosperity; advance democracy and human rights; and ultimately position ourselves to better address key global challenges by growing the ranks of prosperous, capable, and democratic states that can be our partners in the decades ahead.  To do this, we are expanding our civilian development capability; engaging with international financial institutions that leverage our resources and advance our objectives; pursuing a development budget that more deliberately reflects our policies and our strategy, not sector earmarks; and ensuring that our policy instruments are aligned in support of development objectives.”
  • “…sustained economic progress requires faster, sustainable, and more inclusive development.  That is why we are pursuing a range of specific initiatives in areas such as food security and global health that will be essential to the future security and prosperity of nations and peoples around the globe.”
  • “The United States will initiate long-term investments that recognize and reward governments that demonstrate the capacity and political will to pursue sustainable development strategies and ensure that all policy instruments at our disposal are harnessed to these ends…This will expand the circle of nations – particularly in Africa – who are capable of reaping the benefits of the global economy, while contributing to global security and prosperity.”
  • “Our approach needs to reflect the fact that there are a set of development challenges that strongly affect the likelihood of progress, but cannot be addressed by individual countries acting alone.  Particularly in Africa, these challenges – such as adaptation to global warming, the control of epidemic disease, and the knowledge to increase agricultural productivity – are not adequately addressed in bilateral efforts.  We will shape the international architecture and work with our global partners to address these challenges, and increase our investments and engagement to transition to a low-carbon growth trajectory, support the resilience of the poorest nations to the effects of climate change, and strengthen food security.  We must also pursue potential ‘game changers’ for development such as new vaccines, weather-resistant seed varieties, and green energy technologies.”
  • “The freedom that American stands for includes freedom from want.  Basic human rights cannot thrive in places where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive.”
  • “The United States is working with partners around the world to advance a food security initiative that combats hunger and builds the capacity of countries to feed their people.  Instead of simply providing aid for developing countries, we are focusing on new methods and technologies for agricultural development.  This is consistent with an approach in which aid is not an end in itself – the purpose of our foreign assistance will be to create the conditions where it is no longer needed.”
  • “The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times – countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; resolving and preventing conflict, while also healing its wounds.
  • “…we must foster even deeper connections among Americans and peoples around the globe.  Our long-term security will come not from our ability to instill fear in other peoples, but through our capacity to speak to their hopes.  And that hope will best be done through the power of the decency and dignity of the American people – our troops and diplomats, but also our private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens.  All of us have a role to play.”


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The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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