U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation to ease global hunger, a problem that experts say has national security implications for the United States. The issue was the focus of a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
The chairman of the committee, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, says hunger is one of the greatest diplomatic and moral challenges the world faces.
Kerry says the problem affects some 850 million people and is particularly acute in Africa.
"One in three people are malnourished, and food security today is worse than it was in 1970. Conflict, poor governance and HIV/AIDS have all reduced basic access to food. Now drought, aggravated by climate change, makes the situation even more desperate," he said.
The hearing comes as the Obama administration reviews U.S. development aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton submitted a letter to the Foreign Relations Committee, saying she hopes to make food security a priority for U.S. development programs.
The top Republican on the committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, has reintroduced legislation, the Global Food Security Act, that would make long-range agricultural productivity a major goal of U.S. development programs.
"I believe the food security challenge is an opportunity for the United States. We are the undisputed leader in agricultural technology. And a more focused effort on our part to join with other nations to increase [crop] yields, create economic opportunities for the rural poor and broaden agricultural knowledge could strengthen relations around the world and open a new era of United States diplomacy," he said.
Catherine Bertini, former Executive Director of the United Nations' World Food Program, agrees.
"We see this as a wonderful way to restore American standing and leadership in the world through showing the world how important these issues are. And finally, of course, we see this as a moral responsibility for Americans to help our sisters and brothers from around the world who are hungry," she said.
Bertini says hunger and poverty have triggered food riots and instability in many countries, so helping to alleviate global hunger could benefit U.S. national security.
Bertini helped draft legislative recommendations on alleviating global hunger in a report released by the nonpartisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She served as task force co-chairman with former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
"The key recommendations are increasing support for agricultural extension and education in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, increasing support for agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia," she said.
Another witness, agronomist Gebisa Ejeta at Purdue University in Indiana, called for closer cooperation between the U.S. government and international research institutions to ease world hunger.
Ejeta, a native of Ethiopia, played a key role in developing a new grain variety that is able to resist parasitic weeds and drought.
"I developed the first commercial sorghum hybrid in Africa. The high-yielding, drought-tolerant sorghum hybrid is now grown in one million acres [about 404,686 hectares] in Sudan annually," Ejeta said.
Political scientist Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College in Massachusetts expressed concern that the United States has reduced its agricultural development aid to Africa during the past quarter century, as agricultural production on the content declined.
"The per capita production of maize has actually dropped by 14 percent since 1980. The average income of these farmers is less than $1 per day and one-third are chronically malnourished. But to make things worse, over the last 25 years, the United States government has essentially walked away from this problem. Since the 1980s, the United States government has cut its official development assistance to agriculture in Africa by roughly 85 percent. The staff at USAID [the United States Agency for International Development] that handle agriculture has been cut by nearly 90 percent. So as things have been getting steadily worse in Africa, the United States government has curiously been doing steadily less," he said.
Paarlberg says that because African farmers do not have access to fertilizer, irrigation or powered machinery, agricultural production in Africa has lagged behind population growth for most of the last three decades.