That is the message to the U.S. government – both the administration and Congress – from the 2012 Progress Report on American Leadership in Global Agricultural Development released today by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The report applauds the emergence of bipartisan support for food security and agricultural development, particularly during a time of nasty partisan sniping and budget slashing. This has indeed put the U.S. at the front of international efforts to end hunger and poverty and strengthen the global food chain. But, up front in the report, there is also this ominous exhortation:
“Without continued support, the strong efforts made thus far – many of which are already showing great promise – will have been tragically wasted.”
Allow me to add italics and bold emphasis to one of those words: tragically. It is an important reminder of what is at stake at next month’s Camp David G8 meeting, where the leaders of the world’s largest industrial countries need to reinforce their expiring promises to conquer global hunger through agricultural development. President Obama forged that international commitment three years ago when he also launched his own Feed the Future initiative.
Since then, as the report notes, strong progress has been made in the U.S. in setting up organizational structures, increasing staffing and putting those officials to work on innovative agricultural development programs and securing a reasonably steady flow of funding from Congress. And with this flurry of activity in the past three years has come raised expectations among the intended beneficiaries: the smallholder farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These farmers are at the center of Feed the Future, which has set out to reverse the decades-long neglect of agricultural development – and the hunger and poverty that has followed. To slow down now, or to retreat, would not only be a severe stain on America’s image in these regions but it would be a serious blow to the prospects of meeting one of the great challenges of our age: the need to nearly double global food production by 2050 to keep up with a growing population that is also growing in prosperity.
The progress report, compiled by the Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative, gives an “outstanding” rating – the highest mark – to the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) for launching and advancing Feed the Future and other food security initiatives. The report notes that the MCC’s disbursements for agricultural development to African countries have virtually doubled every year since 2009. The Department of Agriculture and Congress received “good” evaluations, and the progress of the Peace Corps was “satisfactory.” While the Peace Corps has increased the number of agriculture and environment volunteers, the report suggests it should encourage inventive agricultural development and food security programming worldwide.
U.S. agricultural development activities in three countries – Ethiopia, Ghana and Bangladesh – also received “outstanding” ratings. The report focused on the work of U.S. government agencies operating in those countries; the impact in the farmers’ fields, though promising, was too new to be evaluated. U.S. appropriations for agriculture increased significantly since 2009 in all three countries.
The report noted that both Congress and the administration missed an opportunity to institutionalize Feed the Future when they neglected to embrace the Global Food Security Act of 2009. That piece of bipartisan legislation would have ensured the continuation of Feed the Future beyond the current administration and put in place legislation to authorize appropriations for the program annually. Instead, Feed the Future and other food security programs have become budget battlegrounds. The House of Representatives’ version of the fiscal year 2013 budget calls for the elimination of Feed the Future, claiming now is not the time to proceed with new spending programs.
But, the report argues, this is precisely the time to press ahead and build on the progress that has been made.
“The challenge will be to sustain this higher level of U.S. effort in agricultural development for the remainder of the ten-year period needed at minimum to produce a durable result. The memory of the 2008 world food crisis my fade in the years ahead, and if nothing emerges to refocus policy energies in this area, the United States may once again lose sight of the smallholders and pastoralists in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia who are poor and hungry year in and year out regardless of the price of food on the world market….
“Avoiding a retreat into inactivity or a lapse into complacency will be the real challenge our leaders must confront in the years ahead. The project has been launched, but it now must be carried forward with creative and watchful care.”
There is also this admonition: “A payoff from these efforts can only come about through a dedicated, longer-term effort in both Washington and the field.”
I have seen the possible payoffs during the past year while reporting my new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change. I have watched smallholder farmers in western Kenya – desperate farmers, struggling to feed their families throughout the year — double, triple, quadruple their maize yields when they have access to better seeds, a small amount of fertilizer, agriculture extension advice, improved storage practices, and the financing to pay for it all.
It is this improved food production and the diversification of their farming – the very goals of Feed the Future — that puts these families on the brink of change. The farmers dearly want to move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, which means that improving harvests and the nutritional quality of their food is not just as a one-year wonder but a regular event, year after year after year.
They know it will be a long journey to get to that point. And they would like to know that the U.S. will be traveling along with them.
For these farmers to be abandoned now, again, would indeed be tragic.
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