Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Toni Verstandig Headshot

Food Security Is National Security

Posted: Updated:

In order to set effective food and nutrition priorities, as well as strengthen access to nutritious foods and sustainable agriculture, America must view food security as integral to its national security. According to USAID, food security is "having at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life." When this access is denied, food insecurity can become a catalyst of social unrest. Nowhere is this more evident than in the oscillating political seismograph that is the Middle East.

In Egypt, as food prices rose 37 percent between 2008 and 2010, protesters in Tahrir Square chanted for "bread, freedom and social justice." Prices remain high, and despite the new government's success in curbing the price of food and goods for Ramadan, it cannot avoid continued calls for bread and social justice.

The Syrian government's mismanagement of water in the midst of a pressing drought led protesters to scold the regime by saying it took their "loaf of bread." Food and water deprivation have become a weapon in a bloody crisis that is spreading throughout the region, and the situation is only worsening.

In Iraq, government officials are telling employees at the Haditha Dam that they made need to open the dam's floodgates, as fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are advancing on the dam. When the Fallujah Dam was opened after ISIS seizure in April, the agricultural results from the flooding were disastrous. We can expect the same for Haditha.

The combination of conflict and food scarcity in addition to the broadening and deepening of drought due to climate change and resource mismanagement, population displacement, and refugee crises, have all impacted the changing landscape in the region and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

The challenge is great. According to the USDA International Food Security Assessment, the number of food insecure people is projected to increase to 868 million by 2023. However, when it comes to sustainable agriculture and global food security, the U.S. can still reap what it sows. Increased global food security will tame social unrest and advance the national security goals of the United States.

This will require sustained and patient thought leadership to incubate a global set of values through which leaders can influence security factors and collaborate across sectors and geographies. In the Middle East and North African region, in particular, we should weigh the costs of investing in wheat fields against the costs of investing in battlefields. The more support for programs that foster sustainable agriculture and nutrition today, the less likely the need for American intervention tomorrow.

So what is the blueprint to address this immense issue? First, we must recognize that there are many stakeholders -- from the Rome-based UN food agencies, multinational corporations, and national governments to the predominantly women smallholder farmers themselves who carry the burden for most of the world's food production.

Second, we must cultivate not just thought leadership, but actionable ideas here in the US and abroad to advance solutions and bring these stakeholders to the table, whether it is in Alabama or Africa.

If we are to achieve this goal, we must think outside the box and acknowledge that talking about acting and acting are different. Therefore, we should consider in this new table we've constructed a redesign of the UN food agencies to be more collaborative and more impactful. We should think creatively and create incentives for smallholder farmers, whether it's through greater access to finance, legal rights, or technology.

Above all, as we consider this new architecture we need to run, not walk, as we are all mindful of the stunning impact that climate change is having on meeting and feeding the next nine billion. It strikes me, as His Holiness Pope Francis has recently reminded us, that we have a moral authority to address this compelling 21st century issue. We must engage, not embrace the globalization of indifference.