Food insecurity and national security

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No one would deny that a vibrant and stable agriculture economy is important for national security. Across the globe, unstable food supplies are associated with turmoil, crime and conflict.

It’s also indisputable that 21st century Americans are fortunate to be living in a nation where food security is virtually a nonexistent threat. In a country struggling more with high rates of obesity and food waste than food insecurity, it’s hard to imagine an America where there aren’t enough calories to feed the citizenry. The United States is universally considered among the most food-secure nations in the world.

On the list of tangible national security threats facing America, it’s safe to say that food insecurity rank somewhere near the very bottom. But that didn’t stop the House Agriculture Committee from convening a July 7 hearing to air concerns about the intersection of agriculture and national security, featuring a panel of retired military leaders discussing their on-the-ground experiences.Such hearings are intended to be educational. In that spirit, there’s nothing wrong with members hearing from experts on this issue or any other. But given time constraints and the limitations of the congressional calendar, one would hope committees single out the most pressing issues facing their constituents. If everyone agrees that the United States already has achieved food security, what is there to merit the Agriculture Committee’s inquiry?

In his opening statement, Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said he wanted to hear from military leaders who have served in places that lack agricultural development in order to underscore “how important it is for the U.S. to continue providing the tools that are necessary for our nation to be able to feed and clothe its people.” In other words, the hearing was designed to remind people how much we owe to farmers and to justify an extensive and far-reaching system of farm supports.

Americans indeed should be thankful both to farmers and to service members who ensure we are secure and well-fed. But aside from its questionable relevance, given that the United States already is food secure, there are some major flaws with the perspectives presented by Conaway and the witnesses.

First and foremost, U.S. farm supports do not predominantly go toward food. The biggest and most heavily subsidized crop in the United States is corn, nearly 40 percent of which is used to produce ethanol. Another third of our corn crop goes to animal feed. The second-biggest U.S. crop, soybeans, also feeds livestock more than humans. Cotton, another U.S. crop heavily subsidized through crop-insurance premium support, isn’t eaten at all.

When it comes to those subsidized U.S. commodity crops that actually are eaten, research has shown government spending disproportionately favors the farm products most directly tied to obesity. Americans have access to plenty of food at cheap prices, but ensuring Americans are healthy and have balanced diets is more difficult. As it’s currently constructed, the system serves to subsidize commodities that often are converted into refined grains, processed food and high-fructose corn syrup. The importance of a stable food supply for national security may justify a well-managed farm safety net, but it certainly does not justify our current farm-support system.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Farm-state politicians and subsidy supporters routinely leverage romanticized notions of farmers and their role in history and society to lobby for extensive subsidies and programs that, in most cases, tend to disproportionately benefit the largest agribusinesses, rather than small farms. In a recent R Street policy brief, I examine the oft-repeated claim that U.S. farmers require lavish subsidies because they “feed the world.” Here, too, exaggerated claims about U.S. farmers’ role in fighting global hunger repeatedly are used as support for wasteful and unsustainable farm-support policies. When it comes to fighting world hunger, our policies may actually make it more difficult for developing countries to feed themselves because of the way they depress world food prices and distort global markets.

The military leaders who testified last week should be commended for their service and role in fighting hunger. By all means, they have important perspectives to share on what we can do to encourage agricultural development on the local level in countries plagued with food insecurity. But here in America, it appears the Agriculture Committee’s focus on national security is just pretext to justify cronyist and fundamentally unsustainable agriculture policies.

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