As the war in Ukraine has shown, food security and global security are critically intertwined. War, climate change, demographic shifts, global socio-economic inequalities, and other challenges continue to destabilize international food systems, supplies, and distribution. Not only does instability and conflict lead to food insecurity—potentially across entire regions—but food insecurity, in turn, leads to political instability: a cycle with implications for U.S. interests across the globe. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the lasting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a rise in extreme climate events around the world, global instability rose in 2022. At least 12,500 protests took place last year in countries facing rapid food and fuel price increases.  

The next U.S. farm bill is an opportunity to increase investments in research, development, and innovation to help farmers at home increase productivity, adapt to changing conditions, and reduce rising input costs, feeding a growing global population more efficiently while advancing U.S. interests and U.S. national security.

The destabilizing impact of climate change on food systems is magnifying the crisis and fueling conflict around the world. Pressure from climate change is turning up the heat, reducing agricultural productivity, amplifying food insecurity and water scarcity, and increasing competition for natural resources among vulnerable populations. This leads to conflict, migration and the empowerment of violent extremist organizations, who exploit such crises for their advantage. 

The humanitarian disaster in Ethiopia, where nearly six million people faced famine as government and Tigrayan forces weaponized food access against the Ethiopian people, is one of many examples of food insecurity and hunger as a U.S. national security priority. Conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in the African Sahel are among the most studied examples of food-related instability. Conflict can also be driven by higher yields, and not by scarcity. In these situations, rebel groups are more likely to use violence to secure access to food resources. World Food Program USA report found that “approximately 95% of [the 53] peer-reviewed studies examined…were able to establish an empirical link between food insecurity and instability.”

“A one standard deviation rise in temperature increases the rate of interpersonal conflict by 2.4 percent and the rate of intergroup conflict by 11.3 percent,” according to an International Fund for Agricultural Development representative at a recent roundtable sponsored by the Center for Climate and Security (roundtable summary forthcoming).. Conflict inevitably produces poverty and hunger. But hunger and food insecurity can lead to instability as well. From the World Food Program report Dangerously Hungry, “There is a vicious feedback loop between conflict and hunger currently at play in dozens of countries around the world. War drives hunger and hunger drives war.”

A recent report on the subject, co-authored by this piece’s co-author Patricia Parera and released by the Council on Strategic Risks, examined these connections, and noted that one path toward managing these security risks is the development of more climate resilient food sources and improved availability and affordability of nutritious foods. Deploying such innovations requires increased investment in research and development (R&D), from both the public and private sectors. 

The opportunity to increase U.S. efforts in agricultural R&D, with benefits not only addressing the food security challenges but also supporting domestic production and economic growth, resides squarely in the lap of the Farm Bill. While the 2018 Farm Bill, which authorized food and agricultural programs across the Federal Government, expired at the end of September 2023, the recent continuing resolution signed by the president includes a one-year extension. Over the course of 2024, Congress will develop a new five-year bill, and that bill represents an opportunity to invest in research and development programs that could enhance agri-food systems at home and abroad, and therefore promote international stability.

The Farm Bill comes at a time of major challenges for U.S. farmers, many of whom face supply chain disruptions, drought conditions, increases in interest rates for loans, price spikes for agricultural inputs, including fertilizers, transportation and production materials, and the general effects of inflation. The preponderance of the bill will focus on food security in the United States, yet the R&D efforts it supports will yield benefits beyond domestic consumers and producers.     

The world has seen incredible growth in food production in the past propelled by American researchers, such as the pioneering and Nobel Prize-winning work of Norman Borlaug of Texas A&M University, who developed ways to provide higher crop yields from the same amount of land. Land use must be matched with its sustainable potential and improved soil management to build healthy soils, leading to more productive and nutritious crops, greater resistance to extreme weather, less need for costly and scarce inputs like fertilizer, avoidance of irreversible land degradation and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

During the last 30 years, we saw hunger and food insecurity cut in half due to these innovations and action. However, we have lost 20-30 percent of those advances during the last three years due to the three “Cs”, COVID, conflict, and climate change. As per the Farm Journal Foundation, “This decline in US public funding for agricultural research threatens the global competitiveness of US agribusinesses as other major agricultural powerhouses—China, Brazil, and India—have all ramped up spending in recent decades.” The United States needs to revive the innovative spirit that drove Borlaug to combat emerging and compounding global food crises, particularly as production is challenged by climate change and demand increases to feed a global population between 9.4 and 10.2 billion in 2050.

As these security pressures mount, China’s approach to agriculture adds another security dimension and provides another incentive for the United States to rethink its current trajectory. China has tripled its investments during the past two decades to become the largest funder of agricultural R&D in the world. Not only has it dramatically increased its own agricultural investments to compete with the United States, but it also conducts unsustainable harvesting operations and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing abroad – reaping its own gains while taking advantage of the resources of others. 

While China has increased spending, investment in U.S. public agricultural R&D has fallen by a third over the past two decades, from about $6.5 billion down to $5.2 billion as of 2019. Losing ground to China in this way not only disadvantages the United States economically, but also limits U.S. ability to influence markets and nations that prioritize agricultural interests. According to a study by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), agricultural research provides one of the highest returns of any public research investment, generating $20 on average for every $1 spent. Public research investment complements private sector spending. The private sector invests deeply in a limited set of areas, such as crops including corn and soybeans. However, other important commodities which are less profitable, including wheat, rice, and specialty crops, have seen significantly less private sector investment, as have research subjects like environmental, animal health, nutrition, and food safety research. These areas, which contribute to social and environmental sustainability, can benefit from increased public-sector research support. “The U.S. public R&D generates large positive spillovers, sharing knowledge with other countries that boosts their productivity as well,” according to a study by the Breakthrough Institute. “Despite a net present cost of about $86 billion, doubling R&D would have a net positive economic impact, generating about $174 billion in net present value by increasing US farm output.”

Agricultural research and development are crucial to maintaining and increasing yields in the face of climate change, by diminishing the risk of climate-related food insecurity and reducing greenhouse gas and land-use footprint of the global food system. The United States, through next year’s Farm Bill, has an opportunity to:

  • Increase funding and investments in federal R&D to increase the competitiveness of US farmers while representing one of the greatest opportunities to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, reduce land use, and keep food prices low around the world.
  • Double the funding for major agricultural R&D agencies and programs that address the threat to food security posed by the climate crisis.
  • Commit to funding the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA), a pilot effort designed to generate and deploy advanced agricultural technologies, research tools, and qualified projects and products. As of today, AgARDA has only received $1 million of the $50 million approved by Congress for Fiscal Year 2023.
  • Increase resources for food aid to reach people in crisis as quickly and efficiently as possible while also addressing long-term sustainability of agri-food systems. 
  • Increase support for post-harvest food recovery to reduce food waste and loss. 
  • Develop improved, climate-resilient crop varieties and expand access to traditional food crops to provide better nutrition and build resilience. 
  • Focus on analysis of real time information and gathering real time data vis-à-vis food insecurity and instability/conflict.
  • Reduce agriculture greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change by increasing investment in agroforestry, climate-smart agriculture and irrigation, implementation of resilient crop strains, proper use of fertilizers, and early-warning systems to decrease land degradation, increase food security, and prevent livelihood loss and instability.
  • Conduct research on how to reduce agricultural emissions without further widening existing inequalities that mean smallholder farmers are most likely to be poor, hungry and malnourished.

In recent Congressional testimony, General Bryan P. Fenton, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, noted that: “Ongoing geopolitical, technological, economic, and environmental change often exacerbate regional instability, threatening effective governance and fueling radicalization.” While members of Congress may look first to the Defense bill to address security priorities, Congress must keep security benefits in mind as it considers the Farm bill as well. According to former National Intelligence Council official Rod Schoonover in a War on the Rocks report, a more appropriate  definition of national security should anticipate threats from other drivers of conflict and instability, such as climate change, ecological disruption, and pandemics. This should also include food insecurity since, as this article has suggested, “it is an important driver of political instability and other adverse security consequences.”

Lastly, the aforementioned  Feeding Resilience Report, published by the Council on Strategic Risks, finds that food, climate, and security risk is systemic and requires systemic solutions. Recognizing the links between natural and biological hazards, climate change, and socio-economic shocks such as conflict, hunger and malnutrition, global, regional, and national policy dialogues must be risk-informed and geared towards system-wide solutions across sectors and actors. According to the Feeding Resilience Report, “attaining stability, climate resilience, food security, and nutrition for all requires scaled-up action, integrated approaches to disasters, conflict, instability, climate and crisis risk reduction and management at all levels.” There is room to improve, including accounting for underappreciated systemic risks like simultaneous breadbasket failures or better coordinating overlapping data and modeling tools. The United States should continue to be a leader in fighting global hunger, not only because it is a moral imperative, but because it is economically and strategically imperative to do so.

IMAGE: In this aerial view, workers fill boxes with peaches from the trees at Pearson Farm on July 24, 2023 in Fort Valley, Georgia. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)