Tucker Kuhn, executive director of Roots of Peace, a humanitarian non-profit organization dedicated to restoring war-torn regions into working farmlands, has seen first-hand the tragedy of food insecurity.

“It’s not just about hunger; it’s about life and death,” Kuhn said.

Consider a community in Afghanistan with no available work, the population’s savings depleted and no food. “You don’t know where your next meal will come from,” Kuhn said. “What would you do in that situation?”

In desperation, some sell their daughters into marriage to secure food for other family members, while others turn to stealing or take up arms to target their perceived oppressors.

“These are the realities we don’t like to think about,” Kuhn said. People are being put in situations that “cause them to take a different path than they would otherwise go.”

Food insecurity threatens the security of nations worldwide, including the U.S., and needs to be addressed head on. That was the consensus of experts who gathered last month at the World Food Prize Foundation’s Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue to discuss the alarming rise in hunger and malnutrition due to crises linked to the pandemic, climate change and conflict.

The consequences of migration, radicalization, environmental de­grad­ation and lost economic growth were outlined in a report commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation and conducted by Dr. Edwin Price and Abdul Saboor Raymany from Texas A&M University. The report suggests the U.S. faces social, political, economic, nutrition, health, environmental and cultural threats, all linked to global hunger and poverty.

Global issue

Dr. Manjit Misra, former director of Iowa State University’s Institute for Food Safety and Security and current director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), said food is the foundation of society and civilization but the world currently is a hot, very hungry and thirsty place.

“In this interconnected world, the stability and security of our nation are intimately tied to the food security of the globe,” Misra  said. “It’s not just a matter of providing enough food … It’s about safeguarding our nation’s stability, prosperity and well-being.”

Dr. Bram Govaerts, director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, added, “There’s no peace without food, and it’s also very difficult to produce food if there is no peace.” 

He pointed to the current conflict in Ukraine.

“(It’s) very clear how if in one area of the globe the food production is disrupted, how the ripple effects of those are very far reaching,” he said.

According to the commissioned report, the U.S. faces a wide range of national security threats due to global food insecurities, such as:

• Perceived risks linked to mass migration, such as extremism, terrorism from radical groups, or crime and drug trades.

• Lost export opportunities when developing countries are hit by a shock, and disrupted access to import products that can’t be produced domestically, such as coffee or pharmaceuticals.

• The spread of new diseases from countries that have poor health infrastructure or populations weakened by hunger.

• Degradation of land, air and water due to deforestation.

• Expansion of anti-American sentiments if the U.S. withdraws from or withholds humanitarian aid.

Adressing hunger

Recommendations to tackle those threats include increased investments in global food and nutrition security programs, ex­­panded knowledge-sharing and support for ag research initiatives.

 “We really need to be thinking about ... how to solve hunger over the longer period,” said Price. 

He said ag research dollars have remained stagnant while food assistance dollars continue to grow. 

Investing in ag production in Central America and engaging young scientists in research could help advance food production.

“We need to have about a 1.75% increase per year in total factor productivity in order to feed the world in 2050,” Price said. “We have a big hill to climb in the future in order to provide for food security.”

Additional efforts

The U.S. is no stranger to food insecurity, even on the domestic front. Kip Tom, former ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture, said just look back to the Depression era, when people spent 40% of their disposable income on food and had trouble feeding their families.

Tom said he has seen that scene play out in countries across the world, including Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. “There’s no more empty feeling than seeing the despair in these people’s faces,” he said.

The U.S. is vulnerable to a food insecurity repeat, Tom said. Supply chain disruptions, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic have shown how fragile world food production can be.

“We need to do a better job of development around the world. At the same time, we need to make sure our food system is functioning well,” Tom said. “And make sure we can be a major supplier.”

Misra said NIFA is committed to advancing connections and encouraging partnerships to address global hunger, which in turn will address national security. 

NIFA is building the long-term capacities of land grant institutions, collaborating with other federal agencies and cultivating future leaders.

“We must commit ourselves to the ideal that as long as hunger never ceases, science never sleeps,” he said. “We must collaborate globally with other countries to succeed.”