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Plentiful, available food supply remains key to global stability

September 16, 2012

By Mark Keenum
Guest Columnist

Mississippi State University this week hosted an international conference on “Food Security for the Future.” In our complex, rapidly changing world beset by hundreds of daunting challenges, none is bigger, more important or more fundamental than the task of feeding all the inhabitants of our planet in years to come.

By 2050, the world population is projected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion people. These additional 2 billion people will put incredible pressure on the world’s farmers to match production to demand. Cereal production, for example, will need to increase by 60 percent just to keep pace. If world food production does not grow substantially over the coming decades, the number of people living in poverty and chronic hunger will significantly increase.

Certainly, Mississippians understand the obvious and compelling humanitarian plight of the almost 1 billion hungry people on this planet. Mississippi routinely ranks per capita as the most generous people in the nation in terms of charitable donations to worthy causes. One of those worthy causes is the battle against hunger.
But even in the poorest state in the nation, it is difficult for Mississippians to appreciate fully the scope of global hunger in comparison with the same problem in our own communities.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that, in developing nations, one of every 15 children will die before the age of 5. The same UNICEF report documents that poor nutrition plays a role in the deaths of at least 7.6 million children annually with hunger as the leading contributing cause.

A total of 20.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty with a cash household income of $10,000 or less for a family of four, according to research from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. Thankfully, hunger in the U.S. is met with an array of assistance from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps, the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) Program, national school lunch programs and several other federal government programs designed to fight poverty and hunger in the U.S.

But globally, hunger is a far more prevalent problem with little or no safety net for those living in endemic poverty. According to the estimate of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some 925 million of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants are malnourished – with 817 million in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia alone.

Helping feed the hungry here at home and abroad has been an essential element of our American character. It’s who we’ve been as a people, and it is inarguably the morally right thing to do. In this season of global economic woes, however, and with our own American economy struggling, the nature of the assistance we bring to this fight bears examination.
The deeper heartbreak of the humanitarian considerations for the problem of world hunger — particularly in many Third World venues like sub-Saharan Africa — is that much of the food insecurity present can be traced to grossly ineffective agricultural productivity, a lack of basic nutrition education, unreasonable vulnerability to natural disasters or civil conflict and the systemic denial of empowerment to women who must try to get food from the field to their families.

Yet hunger in Third World countries bears one crop in abundance — the growth of opportunities for political instability that is a direct threat to the interests of the U.S. Consider the catastrophic impacts of an interrupted or impeded food supply. Consider the inherent dangers of allowing terrorists, rogue regimes or even desperate countries or regions to gain the same chokehold on the global food supply as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) placed on the global energy supply 40 years ago.

Locally, regionally and globally, the American public understands the fundamental supply-and-demand relationship between energy and the economy.

In reaction to U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war, the Arab members of the OPEC in 1973 instituted an oil embargo. The immediate impacts in the U.S. were soaring energy prices, serious diplomatic rifts between the U.S. and traditional North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) allies, gas rationing and economic instability.

The OPEC nations were able to utilize energy insecurity as a potent weapon to complicate fundamentally the foreign policy of the U.S., Western Europe and Asia without firing a shot. Some 40 years later, energy insecurity remains a global concern that is exacerbated by new and evolving political, economic and environmental concerns.

Energy remains an overarching issue of global concern that has tremendous impact on international strategic security. Yet as much as nations and individuals depend on a ready supply of affordable and accessible energy, international food security and safety are emerging as issues that could have a far more dire impact on international stability.

Both as an agricultural economist and as president of Mississippi’s largest land-grant university, I see clearly that MSU has a significant role to play in addressing the growing challenges of food security and safety. During my time in Washington, the global implications of food security and safety issues increased exponentially.

As my responsibilities first on U.S. Senator Thad Cochran’s staff and later at the U.S. Department of Agriculture made me an active participant in the formulation of U.S. agricultural policies in the 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008 farm bill debates, it also became clear to me that finding innovative and imaginative solutions to food security and safety issues internationally would necessarily provide benefits to addressing the problems of food insecurity and hunger here in the U.S., as well.

I am particularly interested, as you might expect, in the need for greater involvement in global food security efforts on the part of American universities. Our institutions have knowledge and experience pertinent to every aspect of the food chain, from the laboratory to the farm to the market to the table. Our immediate challenge is to find ways to bring our resources to bear on global challenges.

The creation of our International Institute in 2010 has enabled MSU to strengthen its global ties even further. We are collaborating with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), World Food Program and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on ideas and initiatives to advance our involvement internationally. The presence at our conference of USAID Director Rajiv Shah, Millennium Challenge Corporation CEO Daniel Yohannes, and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities President Peter McPherson added to the dialogue about how universities such as MSU can play a greater role in this effort.

To that end, Mississippi State University has much to offer. One great tool at our disposal is the Extension system developed over the past century at land-grant universities. Extension has brought enormous benefits to poor rural areas in the U.S., and this model is well suited to the needs of many developing areas of the world.

MSU has a long history of international involvement. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, our Seed Technology Program trained thousands of individuals from dozens of countries and made a major contribution to food production efforts.

MSU also has expertise relevant to the world fight against hunger in areas such as crop production, post-harvest processing, livestock, aquaculture, food policy, water resources, geospatial technologies and biofuels.

There are no easy solutions to world hunger, but embracing the global battle against hunger furthers U.S. interests in international security, benefits the American farmer and offers developing nations a chance to become secure and independent. Just as important, the lessons learned in this battle can and will change American communities where poverty is endemic and knowledge is transformational – as universities like MSU teach hungry people to feed themselves more effectively.

Mark E. Keenum, who holds a Ph.D in Agricultural Economics, is the 19th president of Mississippi State University. Prior to leading MSU, Keenum served as the nation’s third highest-ranking agriculture official as the former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services and is a former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

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