Op-ed: Why the U.S. should help other nations’ farmers

Source: By Douglas Bereuter and Dan Glickman, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, April 7, 2017

The American agricultural community knows better than anyone that a strong agricultural sector is a cornerstone of long-term economic growth, employment and stability. This fact is at the heart of America’s story and its history of progress, and it’s also true for the world’s poorest countries.

As American farmers face the forecast of a fourth consecutive year of declining projected farm income, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the United States should support the agricultural progress and food security of other nations. But, in fact, it is this investment that may help turn the tide for American farmers’ market opportunities.

Today, the majority of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and typically practice subsistence farming on small, unproductive plots of land. These smallholder farmers are often unable to grow enough food to earn an income or even feed their families, and U.S. agricultural development efforts have focused on making these small farms more productive. Yet Americans’ support to these farmers through global agricultural development doesn’t just help rural families to escape the grip of poverty and hunger, it drives the development of entire economies.

As incomes rise and these countries’ economies grow, their commodity imports often grow, too, as consumers demand higher-quality food products, which greatly benefits U.S. farmers by expanding their markets. And as smallholders farmers become more productive and move beyond subsistence farming, they also become customers of agricultural inputs and technology, including fertilizer, seeds, and farm machinery. The innovations of our land grant universities and agribusinesses helped our farmers overcome the effects of bad weather, pests, diseases and tired soils, and future U.S. research, adequately funded, will lead to even more innovations. Overseas markets will be an important one for these U.S. technologies.

This growing demand is not limited to the food and agriculture sector. Low- and middle-income countries are buying more and more American aircraft, automobiles, medical equipment, pharmaceutical products, consultancy services, and entertainment. In 1990, low- and middle-income countries accounted for one-third of the global economy. Today, their share is half, and they purchase more than half of U.S. exports.

These new and growing market opportunities are clearly on the horizon. In Africa alone, the value of the agriculture and food sector is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2030. The USDA forecast for 2017 projects dramatic growth in American imports in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia in recent years and predicts these growing markets will constitute 34 percent of total agricultural exports this year.

Yet the value of these emerging markets means there is increasing geopolitical interest — and competition — in the agriculture sector. It is important for the United States to continue its agricultural development leadership in these regions now, or rising powers will almost certainly take our place. China in particular has already made multibillion-dollar investments in infrastructure and agricultural systems in Africa and Latin America. Where America does not lead, others will.

Why so much focus on agriculture? Because investment in agricultural development not only works, it is also cost-effective: It has been found to be more than twice as effective at alleviating poverty as investments in other sectors. America’s foreign assistance as a whole makes up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. budget, compared with the 54 percent of the budget devoted to military spending. These successes have come about through cooperative efforts across the U.S. government — though many of these agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are now looking at significant cuts in President Trump’s proposed federal budget.

The bottom line is that we can do well by doing good.

As America’s agricultural productivity continues to rise, building new and emerging market opportunities is more important than ever — for the U.S. agricultural community and our economy as a whole. Meanwhile, 700 million people around the world, many of them subsistence farmers, still live in extreme poverty. Now is the time to double-down — not back down — on the U.S. commitment to global agricultural development.

Douglas Bereuter is president emeritus of the Asia Foundation and served as Republican congressman from Nebraska from 1979 to 2004. Dan Glickman is a former U.S. secretary of agriculture and served as Democrat congressman from Kansas from 1977 to 1995. They cochair an independent task force that prepared a new report, “Stability in the 21st Century: Global Food Security for Peace and Prosperity,” by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.