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Starving National Security

By Joshua Stanley

Few legal arenas are as amorphous as the realm of national security. It touches everything from Al Qaeda and nuclear proliferation to steel tariffs and the TikTok app. Now that the world is once again experiencing an upheaval flipping life upside down, citizens are reminded of yet one more facet of our society that national security must consider deeply: the food supply.

This is nothing new: food has featured heavily in the international discourse for at least fifty years. It was then that the lauded “father of the Green Revolution” Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping engineer new forms of wheat growth to feed impoverished nations with ballooning populations. Following his recognition, Rome hosted the first World Food Conference where global representatives declared that “every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition,” pledging to eradicate world hunger in ten years’ time. Needless to say, their eyes were bigger than their stomachs as no one accurately gauged the political, structural, and technological limitations involved. Ceaseless innovations in food production, distribution, and growing international cooperation have eased matters, and since 2015 the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aim to effectively end world hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

Advancing on the food security front is not charity, as President Obama made clear on signing the Global Food Security Act of 2016, but rather a most prudent investment in ensuring national security by coordinating eleven federal agencies to focus on long-term sustainment. It codified the Feed the Future initiative that spun from a G8 promise in 2009 to better understand and approach the problem of global hunger. This promise in turn was bolstered by the National Intelligence Council’s finding that the problem had national security implications in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The bill received rare bipartisan support thanks to wide recognition that there was a nexus between food insecurity and political instability, as conflicts ranging from Nigeria to Yemen are fueled by growing famines, disrupted production, damaged infrastructure, and billions in losses. Insurgent groups such as the Islamic State would recruit newcomers by promising meals while regimes like Syria and Saudi Arabia would use starvation as a battle tactic by keeping enemy-occupied territories from humanitarian aid, feeding the cycle of conflict.

Though USAID affiliates have ensured that the initiative “remains in good hands,” the Trump Administration has not made clear its level of commitment to ending hunger, despite the Act directing the president to develop a food security strategy. Instead, focus has shifted inward, with Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introducing the boldly named Food Security is National Security Act of 2017. Its aim was to amend the Defense Production Act so that the USDA and HHS could have members in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US to ensure proper consideration of the nation’s food and agriculture systems as factors in weighing foreign involvement. The bill went nowhere, but the change of focus was made clear.

Also clear is how this focus on domestic food security will only intensify in the days ahead. Celebrity chef Jose Andres and his Washington, DC-based nonprofit World Central Kitchen is feeding 100,000 people across the nation every day and is pushing for stronger policies to prioritize food as a national security issue. The sentiment is echoed in the west, as Tania Pacheco-Werner, co-assistant director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute in California, said in a recent public meeting that farmworkers are “tied to our national security, and they should be seen in that manner.” To this end, the House of Representatives’ Hispanic Caucus has written Speaker Pelosi for an emergency relief package catering to farmworkers’ and food producers’ needs, which would certainly feed partisan argument as many such workers are undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile on the world stage, the UN’s World Food Programme predicts the number of people facing acute food insecurity will almost double to 265 million by year’s end due to the impact on wages, supply chains, and humanitarian aid. Yemen is likely to suffer the world’s worst food crisis thanks in no small part to the ongoing proxy conflict, with much of Africa facing the same predicament. Fifty years later, the hunger cycle continues as the world’s aim to end it in ten years’ time again bit off more than it could chew.

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