US Foreign Policy

Making Food Security a National Security Priority

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Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Presidential Inbox 2017 — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.

By Johanna Mendelson Forman with Lovely Umayam

THE CHALLENGE:  In a time of highly polarized partisan politics, President-elect Trump has a great opportunity to start off his administration focusing on an issue that enjoys bipartisan support: global food security. The recent passage of the Global Food Security Act of 2016 demonstrates that both political parties can come around the table to address global hunger. 

Food security is a national security priority. Today’s conflicts, whether they are in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen or Nigeria, are fueled by food insecurity and growing famines arising from ongoing fighting. Preventing conflicts requires that countries that are fragile, or in need of reconstruction, are provided adequate humanitarian assistance. But more than aid, focusing on food security as a long-term goal will help ensure that hunger does not trigger new fighting. It is even more urgent that a broad strategy that involves government, civil society groups, and the private sector be implemented to combat hunger.

During the first 100 days, President Trump and his team must demonstrate a new commitment to food security by setting up a task force that is headed by a Food Security Coordinator. The purpose of this task force will be to lead the implementation of the Global Food Security Act by focusing on priority countries that are highly vulnerable to food insecurity, and working with U.S. government agencies on the ground in different countries to identify the partners who can help build a sustainable food infrastructure that is resilient and responsive to local needs. This task force will also work with the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, a quasi-governmental organization arising from the 2015 Farm Bill that promotes cutting edge work in agricultural science and technology. It gives voice to strengthen a public private partnership through grantmaking to promote innovation in the food sector.  Given that the National Intelligence Council concluded that the nexus of food and conflict will affect our own security at home, this task force should provide a strategy that utilizes the whole of government approach envisioned in the Global Food Security Act to address some immediate crises where lack of food, human suffering, and dependency on humanitarian assistance must be factored into our overall global food assistance programs.  

THE CONTEXT: In July 2016, President Obama signed the Global Food Security Act, a comprehensive law that calls for the coordination of U.S. global food security strategy. It codified the Feed the Future program started in 2009 when the U.S pledged during the G8 summit to understand a new approach toward global food and nutrition security. The Global Food Security Act also insisted on a “whole of government” approach to help the hungry around the world develop smart, long-term, country-specific agricultural policies — and to ensure that these nations meet the nutrition needs of their people. This new law also made clear a finding of the National Intelligence Council: food insecurity is a national security challenge. One that deserves a strategic approach to prevent global conflicts arising from food shortages, price hikes, as well as climate change — all factors that could destabilize weak and fragile states.

Food security is more than the GMO or Frankenfood debate. It is about nutrition, conflict, the impact of climate change, urbanization and our commitments to the goal of eliminating hunger by 2030. In 1974, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger committed the U.S. to end global hunger by 1984 when he addressed the first global food summit in Rome. Thirty-two years later — with great advances in food technology, more efficient agricultural methods, and a growing awareness that the 800,000 million people still do not have adequate food on a daily basis — the United States can help reach that goal. It will take greater inter-agency coordination, cooperation with our military that helps to deliver emergency food relief, and a Congress that understands the national security implications of ending global hunger. We need to address the entire value chain of food production, and the human dimensions of that chain that are often the poor, the underserved, and those in need of the greatest boost.

The United States — a leader in the export of wheat and soy and a nation with science prowess second to none — can demonstrate the power of the private sector and public sector working together to take meaningful steps toward the goal of ending global hunger by 2030.


  1. Create a White House Food Security Program like PEPFAR: Food security depends on addressing the entire value chain, from reaching communities in need of food assistance, to providing national governments with technical assistance for farmers and new methods of production, to incorporating private sector investment into the equation along the way. Using the model of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, created by President George Bush to address the scourge of HIV/AIDs through a value chain approach for the distribution of medicine to those who needed it in the communities, created one of the greatest public health success stories in this century. There is reason to think that a similar value chain approach to food security that looked at the problem along the long line of consumers and producers could go a long way to achieve the goal of ending hunger by 2030. 
  2. Focus on the Science and Technology Community: Immediate incentives must be written into reforms being drafted in our tax codes to consider ways to promote greater investments in food innovation. Disrupters of the food system hold the keys to the future of food security. Public-private partnerships must be forged in ways that create the access to innovation that can be shared with other nations. Technology incubators are supported in communities around the world can help create innovative ways to reduce food waste, track food entering the system, not to mention the important biotechnology advances that create proteins without animals, thus reducing greenhouse gases. Investments in this area can help stabilize countries emerging from war while also leveraging the human capital that exists to remain committed to rebuilding.
  3. Bring our national security agencies into the conversation about food security: The Global Food Security Strategy which lists eleven government agencies having direct responsibility for the law’s implementation omits the Department of Defense. Yet our military’s global reach, its international training role for other nation’s militaries, and the time-honored role that our department plays in delivering humanitarian aid must be factored into the conversation. We must use the capacity of our military to help delivering agencies gain awareness of potential food crises, and work together to manage immediate solutions to crises arising from the lack of food or access to humanitarian supplies.
  4. Close the Humanitarian Development Divide:  If we have learned anything from the long conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it is that we must treat food emergencies as part of a broader strategy to rebuild states where governance is weak and where taking the long view is as important as the immediate emergency assistance rendered. In the current crises in Yemen and South Sudan, for example, the new administration could create pilot programs that will ultimately demonstrate ways to help address food insecurity by working with organizations to build a more resilient response to immediate crisis. 


Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Senior Advisor with the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center, where she directs the Food Security program.

Photo credit: DFAT via Flickr
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