The rising importance of food to America's national security

Getty Images

With recent surveys indicating that Americans increasingly say national security and terrorism are their top concerns, a hearing late last year before the House Agriculture Committee on the nexus between national security and agriculture could not have been more timely. The panel's chairman, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who also serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, is clearly out to help colleagues and the public better understand the strong and accelerating connection between food and security.

ADVERTISEMENT
Among the witnesses offering testimony was Ambassador John Negroponte, former U.S. deputy secretary of State, who discussed what he called "agricultural megatrends" that come packed with homeland and global security implications. Negroponte, of course, served in senior diplomatic and national security advisory roles under four of the past five American presidents, beginning with President Reagan.

Negroponte spoke to "the pressing need to feed the future world of 9 billion people," observing that "the world must increase food production by 50 to 60 percent to satisfy expected global population growth and changing consumption patterns by 2050." While I have read other sources approximating that a 70 percent increase is more on the mark of what will be needed, any of these required increases in food production within this space of time is wake-up call enough, even for those of us who have experienced firsthand the unprecedented increases in yields many American farmers have experienced over the past 30 years thanks in large part to the biotechnology pioneered by Dr. Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution."

The anticipated increase in population and the corresponding need for more food, Negroponte notes, also result in "rising competition for limited resources such as waters and arable land" that, he says, "could affect political stability" and even "shift military priorities." Negroponte goes on to point out that this situation could, for example, "fuel further instability in the Middle East, where water scarcity in particular has the potential to aggravate interstate conflict." Down the road, vulnerable U.S. allies, Negroponte stresses, may well depend on America to secure their food supplies.

At the same time that global population is expected to grow by some 28 percent and an emerging middle class in developing countries uses greater disposable incomes to enhance diets, some in richer countries, particularly those of Europe, but increasingly here at home, too, are rejecting the very food science that allowed Borlaug to save billions of human lives and millions of acres of pristine lands in favor of production systems that use more resources while producing less food. Of this, Negroponte warns, "If science skepticism accelerates, this could undermine our ability to increase production enough to feed the world."

While Negroponte's testimony did not touch upon legislation pending in Congress to create a federal preemption vis-a-vis state and local biotech labeling regimes that, against all science, seek to stigmatize the breakthrough technologies that have been widely utilized by farmers and that are absolutely indispensable to feeding future generations, anyone listening carefully could hear the canary in the coal mine. By opposing federal preemption, those agitating against all food science would have lawmakers awkwardly welcome Borlaug's statue to the Capitol even as they effectively throw out the lifesaving policies that earned him his place in Statuary Hall.

In assessing what all might be done to "enhance both national and global security," Negroponte spoke directly to the "need to find a way to encourage agriculture and food policy to align with science on such issues as biotechnology." But Negroponte also spoke to the need to assess "counterproductive policies that tax producers and undermine food availability."

Making Section 179 tax code relief permanent last year is certainly an example of Congress recognizing that Washington creating uncertainty makes it extraordinarily challenging for businesses, farmers and ranchers to make major, long-term investments. But the failure to block Waters of the U.S. regulations that will burden farmers with untold costs and litigation; to stop spiraling foreign subsidies, tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers that artificially prop up inefficient foreign agriculture and harm our farmers and ranchers; and to quit the almost serial attempts to gut U.S. farm policies that come around about as often as the Cleveland Browns swap out quarterbacks all create a very negative, unhealthy current of uncertainty throughout rural America that chills growth.

As the former chairman of both the Agriculture and Intelligence Committees, I was pleased to see the importance of agriculture discussed in the context of our homeland and national security. Negroponte articulated very well the exigency of the situation we face, the implications for homeland and global security, and even the moral imperative that somehow seems to get lost in the shuffle: Are we or are we not going to do what it takes to feed the world's people?

If one listens closely, the case being made by Ambassador Negroponte is also a point that has been stressed by Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioClinton brings in the heavy hitters Guess which Cuban-American 2016 candidate best set themselves up for 2020? Budowsky: Why Warren masters Trump MORE (R-Fla.) in defense of American agriculture. Yet, a day after Negroponte offered the benefit of his extensive knowledge before a House panel, The Wall Street Journal inveterately declared that any defense of American agriculture on national security grounds is but "the last refuge of protectionist scoundrels." Regrettably, like the antagonism against food science, this strident dismissal of food's importance to our national security does little to help our country's farmers and ranchers rise to meet the daunting challenge that Negroponte so compellingly laid out.

Combest represented the 19th Congressional District of Texas from 1985 to 2002 and chaired the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Agriculture Committee. He is now a principal at Combest Sell & Associates.

More in Homeland Security

Terror in Nice: It's time to get serious about Jihadi ideology

Read more »