Barren fields grow terrorists

Barren fields grow terrorists
© Getty

The fall armyworm is the name of a two-inch-long brown caterpillar with a yellow stripe. It has a military name because common infestations are both large and destructive. The insect recently arrived in Africa and its impact on the Lake Chad region — already plagued by violence from terrorist group Boko Haram — has security experts concerned.

The pest has destroyed 37,000 hectares of maize (corn) fields in Northern Cameroon, worsening a food crisis where 1.5 million people in the region lack sufficient food. In East Africa, 16 million more need assistance in getting enough food to eat. Like Lake Chad, this is a region whose unrest has crossed national borders and created international incidents.

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In all, more than two dozen African countries have been hit by the fall armyworm, spreading across farm fields already hurt by drought, with experts estimating more than $3 billion in damages to the continent’s corn yields.

Hunger generates political unrest; people will not be content with their country’s state of affairs if they do not have enough to eat. The classic example that political scientists cite is the Arab Spring of 2011-12, where many North African and Middle Eastern nations suffered through unrest and revolution after food prices spiked. The entire world — particularly North America and Western Europe — became less safe as a result.

It stands to reason, then, that the fall armyworm needs to be defeated for the sake of global security. At present, however, this insect can only be stopped by spraying large quantities of pesticides numerous times. There is a variety of corn that was bred to resist insects like the fall armyworm, but the insect is increasingly becoming resistant to the plant’s modification.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been funding research at Pennsylvania State University that delves into how plants respond to predatory insects, like the fall armyworm. These responses — which include defense mechanisms like longer leaf hairs or slightly altered ph balances on the leaf surface — can be intensified if proteins from the excretions can be isolated and applied or enhanced before the insect reaches the plant.

The discoveries will eventually lead to corn plants being ready for the next fall armyworm infestation instead of sitting in the field with defenses down.

The research grant that funded these scientific breakthroughs was provided by the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the agency’s primary source of competitively awarded grants.

AFRI-funded research has also developed a method for roasting peanuts that removes almost all of the proteins that trigger allergic reactions, and tools for detecting and controlling foodborne pathogens and viruses.

AFRI was created by Congress almost 10 years ago, with its budget “authorized” at $700 million — but when Congress negotiates a budget every year, AFRI’s budget ends up far short of its authorized level.

Earlier this year Congress agreed to increase the program’s actual budget to $375 million — a modest $25 million increase — and yet, despite its successes, in the next budget, AFRI’s funding is expected to continue at that meager level.

In comparison, the economic damage from invasive insects like the fall armyworm is approximately $70 billion globally, every year. Related health costs add another $7 billion while the national security costs have yet to be estimated.

One prominent aspect of this year’s federal budget debate is the proposal to increase defense spending. As a former senior executive in the aerospace sector, I agree with this approach. But we also need more federal support of agricultural research, to resolve international crises before they escalate into security threats.

This is a premise our current Secretary of Defense, James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Mattis hints at US military options for North Korea Mattis: US to send 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan MORE underlined in his defense of diplomatic aid several years ago. General Mattis’s key point: the U.S. needs to invest in international development, otherwise “I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately.”

The U.S. once led the world in agricultural research investments. In 1940, almost 40 percent of the federal government’s research budget was devoted to the agricultural sciences; now it is only 2 percent. The U.S. has lost its leadership position to China, which dramatically increased its government support of agricultural research in the past decade.

The havoc that the fall armyworm has generated in Africa is just a taste of what is ahead. We need to increase the size and scope of AFRI so that this insect and the many other agricultural threats do not destabilize our world. Agricultural problems can become security threats if ignored, but an ounce of scientific prevention is always worth a pound of cure.

John F. McDonnell is board chairman of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, former chief executive officer of McDonnell Douglas Corporation and a retired member of The Boeing Company board of directors. He lives in the St. Louis area.