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Uncertain Trendlines For Political Stability And Global Trade

“The question of feeding the world in a sustainable way offers many challenges,” Charles Rivkin told participants on the concluding day of the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.

Rivkin, assistant secretary, bureau of economic and business affairs, U.S. Dept. of State joined a panel moderated by World Food Prize Symposium president Kenneth Quinn. “As Nobel Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug once said, ‘You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.’ ” Rivkin said.

Rivkin said that making sure our agricultural system functions well is a food security issue. “It’s an economic security issue,” he said. “And it’s an energy security issue. As we saw during the food price riots of 2008, it’s also a national security issue. And as we learned during the famine in Somalia in 2011, which claimed more than 250,000 lives, it’s also a moral issue.

“Agriculture is a cornerstone of our economy, and a sector in which we consistently enjoy a trade surplus,” he said. “We continue to leverage technology and ecological know-how of American scientists and farmers to make significant advances in precision farming, breeding and biotechnology to raise productivity, improve food security and nutrition to build resilience and advance development.  On the global stage, we’re committed to open markets that yield affordable and stable supplies of wheat and other staples to the world, and making sure the poorest countries have better access to these markets”.

Rivkin said the U.S. is working closely with global partners across sectors to support smallholder farmers in initiatives including Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative focusing on 19 countries, based on these five criteria: Level of need; Opportunity for partnership; Potential for agricultural growth; Opportunity for regional synergy, and Resource availability.

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition was launched in 2012 by the president with African leaders and the private sector to support investment in African agriculture.

Rivkin said that Pierre Ferrari, president of CEO of Heifer International, who spoke at the World Food Prize Symposium in 2012, said, “Smallholder farmers are best change agents we have to help feed this hungry world.”

“We’re also committed to ensuring that women farmers, who make up 50% of farmers in Asia and Africa have the same access to land, agricultural inputs and markets as men,” he said. “As we work toward these and other goals, we’re mindful of the agriculture’s environmental footprint.”

Rivkin also mentioned the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, recently launched at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York. It’s working to reduce greenhouse gases, provide economic opportunities for farmers, particularly women. “That’s another key step in the right direction,” he said.

Rivkin said that Borlaug once said he was working with a team fighting a losing war on the food production front. “Today the team is many times bigger, and everyone has a part to play,” he said. “While it might have seemed like a losing war when he said those words, today’s it a war we’re winning. One hundred years after his birth, we’re bringing that global team together to fight hunger, poverty, and under nutrition, and safeguard our food security. Given the commitment of so many from all sectors around the world, I have to say:  I like our chances.”

Panelists Offer Perspectives

Panelist John Hamre, president and CEO, Center for Strategic and International Studies, was less optimistic than Rivkin. “We know how to win wars, but not how to build countries,” he said. “A hard defense is much less effective than soft love.”

He cited a study of 189 countries that found intangible resources like quality education, a stable currency, fair judicial system, and a common shared purpose made the difference in a country’s success or failure.  “Every one of these is a product of good government,” he said.

He cited two current examples making news headlines: Ebola and ISIS. “They’re different problems, but they’re happening where government is corrupt and illegal, and ineffective in dealing with problems. All complex problems are horizontal. All governments are vertical. We can’t solve all of our problems as sovereign states alone.”

He added, “The human condition now becoming seamless. Closing airports won’t solve Ebola. It’s like putting a band aid on someone who has cancer.”

Panelist Daniel Speckhard, a former ambassador and now president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, agreed. “If you turn on the news, the world is facing war, famine, and the modern equivalent of the plague,” he said. He pointed to the need to think strategically about achieving stability at the global, regional and local levels.

“Local level efforts are needed to help farmers and communities become more resilient,” he said. “That’ why I’m excited that Lutheran World Relief is working in West Africa during this period of drought to reduce migration and increase food security, as an antidote to unrest in the region.”

Speckhard cited three big picture factors that are coinciding:

  1. Declining power and influence of the U.S.

  2. The weakened economy and internal politics of Europe

  3. The national rise of Russia and China reasserting their presence

He listed on-going conflicts and violence at the regional levels in Syria, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Central America, Asia, North Korea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“All this is taking place as we try to stay on track to feed 9 million people by 2050,” he said. “And it’s all complicated by climate change.”

He added, “Just as we build resilient crops, it’s equally important to build resilient political systems. We need to keep pushing back at populist and nationalistic tendencies overseas and at home,” he said. “They make us lose sight of our global geopolitical interests.”

Hamre raised the need for new tools to build a global framework. “We don’t have a global institution focus,” he said. “We have treaties and consensus coalitions. Institutions atrophy over time, and coalitions don’t give the next generation a framework. Some global frameworks are regarded as illegitimate because white guys set them up after World War 2. He suggested the World Bank as well as the private sector could be helpful.

“The Gates Foundation is doing more to shape global health than the U.S. government,” he said. “It’s like the yeast in the dough that enlivens the world efforts. Companies have to build factories close to farmers. I know of one company that hired 3,000 people to train these farmers. A company can’t afford the risk of adulated products.”

Speckhard agreed on the need for the private sector and nonprofits to partner. “In this era of dramatic change, governments are distracted by the speed and breadth of the crisis, and missing the long term.”

Hamre said he remains concerned about global recession. “Young people have more global consciousness, connectedness and responsibility. Eventually their voices will be heard in Washington. The younger generation will change politics, I just wish they’d hurry up.’

Quinn concluded with a plea for urgency. “I’m more pessimistic about whether political stability and health issues will ameliorate enough so agricultural production can take place,” he said. “The potential for catastrophe is greater than people might think. Whether we meet the challenge or not hangs in the balance. Global leaders are not treating it with urgency it deserves.”

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