Editor’s note: This analysis is part of 2020 Presidential Inbox — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the next administration faces.
The U.S. food system is part of a global agricultural value chain. Our nation’s ability to feed our citizens, while remaining a leader in agricultural exports, depends on how we approach policies that seek to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. We live in a world of great abundance, but we also understand that almost one billion people on this planet suffer from chronic hunger. This type of inequality has been a driver of conflict as food security remains an elusive goal in many parts of the developing world. We ignore this at our peril. The United States has the opportunity return our nation to a leadership role on climate change by taking an approach to our food systems which embraces both national priorities and multilateral engagement.
Food insecurity is a driver of conflict. The rise in global hunger has been a direct result of climate temperatures which have caused massive crop failures and human migrations. Food systems are global and crop failures in one part of the planet can have dire consequences for peace and stability a continent away. With a planet predicted to have over 9.5 billion people to sustain by 2050 we will have to find ways to reform agricultural practices. The United States must be part of broader efforts to address how our own agricultural practices and farming contribute to that problem. Soil conservation programs, diet and behavioral changes among consumers, and technologies that transform biogases produced by animals are urgently needed if our country is to transition into a more carbon neutral agricultural system.
Food and Climate Change: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Food systems are responsible for almost one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock, especially cattle, release methane, one of the most potent of all greenhouse gases. Another major source of carbon emissions in agriculture comes from poor soil management. Agricultural policies should promote environmental stewardship at least as much as increasing productive capacity. There are great opportunities to transform our lands and lay the foundation for sustainable agriculture if programs are put in place to help farmers respond to the call for lowering greenhouse gases.
Food is a National Security Issue
In 2015, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) made the connection between food security and national security clear, connecting the issue of food scarcity to political and social instability. Even though these findings reflected the impact of global agriculture failures arising from climate change, they also suggested that we could expect future conflicts to occur in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Since that time our planet has witnessed the unintended consequences of climate-induced agricultural failure, from conflict in Syria sparked by drought and lack of water for irrigation, increased resources competition and violence between pastoralists and agricultural communities in African Sahel, to the current migration crisis from Central America, the result of crop failures and drought due to rising temperatures in the region.
The weaponization of food is not new, but responding to the withholding of food in war zones, and man-made starvation that we have witnessed in countries like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria all call for leadership that ensures that our values to support human rights and protect people are part of our own foreign policy agenda.
Global food security requires multilateral cooperation. Support for United Nations agencies that manage responses to food emergencies is essential to our own security interests. We owe this both to our citizens and to our commitment to prevent fragile states and global disorder. Similarly, committing to policy frameworks like the Paris Climate Agreement and joining in collaborative science solutions is the only way forward.
Food is an Immigration Issue
One quarter of all jobs in this country are related to food production. The United States depends on immigrant labor to farm our lands and support our export economy. Our current immigration system has been broken for decades, but our food security ultimately depends on a well-run federal system with laws that allow for temporary workers to help harvest crops and support our farmers.
Climate change is also a factor in migration. Our nation continues to face climate migration from Central America. While the best way to manage these problems is through foreign assistance programs that address climate mitigation while simultaneously increasing productivity, recent cuts to this aid have resulted in even more people leaving rural areas for the United States. These individuals are victims of drought and food insecurity which fuel conflict. While the United States cannot become the sole sanctuary for those seeking safety, the absence of immigration reform will only increase tensions in our own country, unless our leaders take a strong stand on ways that migrants and refugees are treated when it comes to maintaining our food system.
Supporting Sustainable Agriculture and Soil Regeneration
Farmers know that their sector needs to change. Rural communities are already experiencing shifting rainfall patterns, prolonged drought, and the emergence of new pests and diseases. Our current agricultural system is integrally linked to our ability as a nation to feed not only our own citizens but also to supply food to other countries in a trading system that is irreversibly global. Abundant food has been America’s gift to its citizens and to the world. Yet conventional agricultural—large-scale corporate farming and extensive use of land for cattle grazing—has resulted in carbon emissions so high that they threaten to destabilize our climate. In order to create a food system that can support our population we will need a united front with national leadership, including food companies and consumers, to address ways to transform the way we grow food.
Managing Food Waste
Cutting food loss in half will have a major impact on reducing greenhouse gases. The United States is not alone in the battle to reduce food waste. Addressing this problem nationally will require a comprehensive set of guidelines for prevention and recycling of waste, and partnerships with private sector organizations to find solutions to the greatest sources of food loss. First among the challenges will be to create new plans for tackling landfills. According to Project Drawdown, if global landfills were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of green-house-gases—after the United States and China. Federal guidelines to manage landfills must be streamlined. The two executive agencies tasked with this job, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, must collaborate to help cities and states reduce this source of carbon emissions.
Nutrition Education for All
Diets drive demand for what our food systems produce. The federal government can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions if it creates clearer dietary guidelines around the consumption of meat. This does not mean eliminating pasture-raised meat. But reducing the amount we eat and increasing plant-based consumption will help. Cattle raising is among the major culprits for greenhouse gas emissions. Half of global cereal production is used to produce animal meats. In the United States many commodity crops, corn and soy included, are grown specifically for animal feed. The challenge ahead will be to find ways to promote greater cooperation by private sector corporate interests and the government to help transition our country’s eating patterns and food exports to levels that are sustainable. We can ensure an adequate diet for our citizens and for those we support in the developing world by making changes to the way we eat.
Recommendations for the President:
- Return the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. This international framework for reducing greenhouse gases demonstrates recognition that multilateralism is a key to mitigating the challenges we see from the warming of our planet.
- Pay US financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund. This fund, created out of the Paris Climate Accords, was designed as an important economic support fund to help countries manage and reduce carbon emissions in the developing world.
- Food security and food-related impacts on instability arising from climate change should be adequately captured in the U.S. Government Global Fragility Strategy and other government strategies and frameworks for conflict prevention, stabilization and recovery.
- Return to the National Goal of Reducing Food Waste by recommitting to the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development Goals by funding federal agencies to help states find ways to meet recommended reductions.
- Make Landfill Management a Priority. By Executive Order mandate that the work of both the USDA and EPA be combined so that there is a unified approach to landfill management, ending duplication of functions, and coordinating resources so that there are national management benchmarks.
- Create a Presidential Level Commission to Support Research on Sustainable Agriculture which brings together private sector partners and the heads of the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency to create a roadmap for transforming our land through regenerative agriculture, water conservation, climate adaptation, and precision and digital agriculture.
- Mandate a meaningful immigration reform policy that addresses climate migration and recognizes the increased movement of people because of changes in the global environment.
- Direct the Departments of State and Defense and the Agency for International Development to address international food security as a whole-of-government challenge that is directly linked to our national security interests at home and abroad.
- Participate in the United Nations Food Summit in 2021, a meeting of global leaders that will seek the integration of food systems and climate change.
- COVID19 has created an unprecedented disruption in our food supply chains. As the crisis continues the President will have to review how, in a state of emergency, food is distributed to organizations around the United States to ensure continuity of supplies, and adequate nutrition to all of those who have lost employment. FEMA will be directed to coordinate with state governors and the National Guard to deliver food around the country.