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The Biden administration has encouraged the world with its renewed commitment to the Paris accord and the goal of combatting the existential challenge of global climate change. But that bold objective will not be achieved without a comprehensive parallel American exercise of leadership to confront the crisis in food security. Such a strategy is imperative on a global basis and critical to U.S. domestic policy. The challenge of food security will require leveraging advances in technology and demand policy innovation within the U.S. government and deep cooperation between the public and private sectors. If not tackled comprehensively and effectively, failure to mitigate the crisis in the sustainability of our global food supply chain will devastate the multilateral effort to arrest climate change.
The global dimensions of food instability are staggering. As the global population grows to a projected 10 billion in 2050, with a concurrent growth in income, overall food requirements are forecast to increase [PDF] by more than 50 percent. The demand for resource-intensive foods like meat and dairy is projected to grow by 70 percent.
The crisis in food sustainability displays a disturbing daily cadence. The world has lost 1,000 football fields worth of forest every hour, almost 30 million acres annually. According to a recent scientific study, climate change has diminished global food productivity by more than 20 percent over the past 60 years. If crop and pasture yields continue to grow as projected, by 2050 agricultural land will need to increase by an area nearly twice the size of India.
Not surprisingly, the world’s most populous and wealthy countries contribute the most to the crisis in food sustainability. Roughly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are clustered in four countries—the United States, China, India and Brazil. Since 1990, roughly 24 percent of global Greenhouse Gas Emissions can be attributed to the food system and our disproportionate reliance on livestock. Further exacerbating the problem is the methane produced in the agriculture industry, which is ~30 to ~80 times as deleterious to the environment as carbon dioxide.
The United States suffers from its own acute national challenges. Estimates suggest 23 million people live in so-called “food deserts”—low-income areas with poor access to healthy food. The pandemic, which has led to over 50 million Americans facing food insecurity, has illustrated the weakness in our food system and supply chain resiliency. Americans in lower income segments spend 30-40 percent of their income on food. The food security crisis in the United States has recently prompted the Biden administration to propose tens of billions of dollars of new federal assistance to American families at risk.
The United States has historically used food policy to strengthen its relationship with friends and allies through initiatives such as the U.S. Food for Peace Program, the 1960’s “Green Revolution” or the so-called “Third Agricultural Revolution” which featured research and technology transfers that significantly increased agricultural production globally while feeding millions and increasing U.S. influence worldwide.
The United States is once again poised to use its rich history of innovation in foreign agricultural policy to both enhance its influence with friends and allies where food insecurity is a major issue—the Middle East, Africa, and emerging economies in Asia. These include some of the same countries that China is courting through its “Belt and Road” initiative, which seeks to construct a massive infrastructure network around the world.
The United States should leverage its private and public sources of capital and innovation, in partnership with new and incumbent players in the corporate community, to accelerate the transition to global food sustainability.
Advances in emerging technologies hold the promise to both alleviate the food crisis and amplify American influence abroad. The next era of food sustainability will be influenced by breakthroughs in global technology such as fifth generation telecommunications, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. Specific areas of technology investment that will contribute to higher levels of productivity and efficiency in food generation with a decreased impact on the environment encompass initiatives in agricultural biotechnology, such as genetics, microbiome, breeding and animal health; alternative food products, including plant-based forms of alternative protein, which are surging in popularity and adoption; farm management systems, including sensing and data analytics software; farm robotics, including automation and drone based monitoring; and new farming structures, such as indoor farming and aquaculture.
In addition, the Biden administration needs to drive tax, investment, regulatory and subsidy policies that encourage the increased flow of capital into the transition to viable food sustainability strategies, including investment into cell-based and plant-based meats; the wider implementation of regenerative agriculture practices, including agribusiness marketplaces and farm robotics, mechanization and equipment; and, finally, the reduction of waste throughout the food value chain. The companies and countries that are the leaders in these areas of innovation will not only strengthen global food supply but also capture the intellectual property, information and data that is embedded in the global food supply chain. In addition to addressing an urgent global challenge, American innovation in food security would support the goals of the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, bipartisan legislation crafted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that seeks to counter China’s growing economic and geopolitical and technology competition with the United States.
Meeting the food sustainability challenge will require creativity and a new level of engagement between the public and private sectors. The Biden administration should consider creating a high-level commission of government and private sector experts to compose a multifaceted food sustainability strategy. That group should include the former secretary of state, John Kerry, who has been appointed the president’s special envoy for climate change; the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack; representatives of the National Security Council and the National Economic Council; the Administration for International Development as well as other government agencies working in concert with corporate, academic, and think tank leaders on the issue of food sustainability.
The world is hungry for American leadership in the quest to solve the food security crisis. It is time for Washington to act ambitiously, applying imagination and strategic determination to this seminal twenty-first century problem.