I’ve lived in London and Seoul, but this year I’m thankful to be living in Iowa celebrating our fundamentally American holiday of Thanksgiving. America exports a lot of food, but finding a Thanksgiving turkey in Korea is nearly impossible!

Despite difficulties in finding turkey, it turns out that Korea imports a lot of food, to the tune of $5.43 billion from the U.S. alone in 2017. Over $4 billion of that food is meat! My favorite local cuisine, Korean barbecue, is one that heavily relies upon international trade. “Samgyeopsal” (try pronouncing that one), or for those of us in Iowa, grilled pork belly, is a national favorite. That $1.63 billion appetite for pork is great news for Iowa hog farmers and is representative of a vibrant global trade network that feeds the world and our local economy.

International trade is vital to farmers. The United States is one of the major breadbaskets of the world, and our farmers here are among the most productive in the world. This was made very clear to me when I attended this year's World Food Prize celebration in Des Moines, where I sat in on discussions with farmers from around the world.

While our trade agreements with countries like China, Canada, and Mexico make the most headlines (understandably so), it’s important to note that the U.S. has many key trade partners around the world – including Japan, the European Union, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the aforementioned South Korea (which recently signed a revamped bilateral agreement).

And that’s before we even consider the trading potential of the fastest-growing continent in the world.

Future trading partners

During the 2018 World Food Prize, I had the chance to sit in on several global farmer roundtable discussions, where farmers from across the world met to discuss their successes and struggles. The unique challenges faced by farmers in other countries were fascinating, and several key themes emerged from farmers in three African countries (Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe).

We often picture Africa and the “developing world” (for lack of a better term) as a place where we send aid, from food to money to medicine. Africa, however, has the fastest-growing population of any continent. Nigeria is the seventh most populous country in the world, with over 195 million people. Africa is already the second most populous continent, with over 1.2 billion people. Imagine the trading potential of an entire continent of people with true spending power. The EU is our fifth-largest ag trading partner. Imagine an area with double that population with the same income per capita. Africa could be an enormous market for ag products; unlike other industries, we won’t suddenly stop needing to eat. A larger population means an ever larger demand for ag products.

Why aren’t we there yet?

This potential isn’t lost on the people of Africa, either. One farmer on the roundtable from Nigeria said it plainly: “There’s dignity in trade and exchange. We’ve tried aid. It isn’t working or sustainable.” But what, then, are the issues, and how do we address them?

One major difficulty for farmers from developing countries is lack of access to technology. Here in Iowa, we often harvest 11-13 tons of corn per hectare (a hectare is roughly two and a half acres). In Nigeria, that figure is closer to 1-2 tons per hectare. Iowa soil might be some of the best in the world, but it’s not six times more productive than similar soil in Africa.

“Countries like America and Europe, you have issues with GM [genetic modification]. In Nigeria, these issues don’t exist. We’re just trying to grow enough to eat.” With hardier and more productive crops, farmers in Africa could grow enough to sell, instead of relying on farming for sheer survival. We even have proof that this biotechnology can dramatically improve yields. At the same roundtable, AD Alvarez, a farmer from the Philippines, explained how using GMOs increased his island’s corn yield from 600-800 kilograms per hectare to 7,000-8,000 kilograms (metric tons) per hectare.

Farmers in the U.S. farm for their livelihood. In Nigeria (and much of Africa), most farmers farm for their lives. They aren’t selling what they grow at all: they save and use it for their family to eat. Subsistence farming is a death spiral; a single bad harvest can spell starvation, which has ripple effects across a family and, eventually, an entire country. As Larry Sailer, an Iowa farmer on the roundtable, said it, “Half the hungry people in the world are farmers.” I heard similar sentiments echoed across many other sessions at the World Food Prize.

Coupled with the lack of biotechnology are other underlying issues. Farmers in Africa farm on far smaller plots of land. Where a farm here in Iowa may be several hundred acres, in Africa it’s typically very small plots of land of a few acres at most. These smaller plots make large purchases, like farm machinery or equipment, much more challenging, since the increase in productivity might never pay for the upfront cost.

Room for hope

With all of these challenges facing our neighbors across the ocean, is there any hope for the future? Absolutely! Some countries have begun accepting GMOs and more traditional technology already. John Deere has a new program in place in Nigeria to lease out a thousand tractors to farmers across the country in a program like a farm co-op.

You may be wondering how farmers here benefit from farmers elsewhere growing more crops. Wouldn’t that increase competition? But farmers in other parts of the world grow different crops than we do. If farmers in Africa grow rice or sorghum or millet more effectively, they get disposable income that they can use to buy foreign goods, like corn or pork or beef. When quality of life improves, hunger for exotic (usually imported) food increases. We’ve seen this trend before with our (current) problem partner, China. We even see it with our own food habits when we buy foods like coffee and chocolate.

Hunger is not a zero-sum game. When we lift our neighbors out of hunger and poverty, we grow the entire economic pie. Farmers play an important role in this, even if they never meet someone from those countries in person. Be advocates for biotechnology. We know it works: the proof is in our own productivity. From increasing yield to improving water quality to reducing pesticide use, biotechnology, including the inexplicably dirty term “GMO”, is essential for our future. Keeping families from starving and gaining new trading partners seems like a win-win to me.

For now, though, I’m thankful to be in Iowa, where our farmers have access to the tools and technology they need to be world-class, and where I can find a turkey for the holiday. As I recover from my annual turkey binge, perhaps I’ll even send a picture of the meal to my Korean friends. And I’ll definitely be thankful that I’m lucky enough to live in a country that makes holiday feasts like this affordable.

By Troy Colvard. Troy is Iowa Farm Bureau's Digital Marketing Analyst.