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Food: an opportunity for presidential initiative

By Martin McLaughlinMartin McLaughlin is vice president for education of the Overseas Development Council. / July 23, 1981



The Reagan administration has yet to state its explicit view on United States relationships with the developing countries. But in light of a rather negative image projected to the third world and in the absence of a clear policy statement, it is important to seek areas in which the US can show that it still cares about the poor and in which the President can be positive and forthcoming.

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One such area is that the world food security -- a major concern of the food-deficit countries. For millions of people in those countries, the food situation remains precarious. Most experts agree that the decade of the 1980s will be marked by food scarcity, not surplus.

The US, because of its enormous impact on the international food system, is in a unique position to assist in meeting both short-run and long-run goals with respect to the half billion people who are malnourished and facing starvation. With five percent of the world's population and three percent of the agricultural work force, the US produces about one sixth of the world's food and accounts for more than 60 percent of its grain exports. US agricultural exports in 1980 set a new record for the 11th consecutive year; they amounted to $40.5 billion ($20 billion net), up 25 percent over 1979. Food (not just production) is the biggest US business; it employs 20 million people and accounts for 25 percent of the GNP.

This dominance carries with it both a moral obligation and a comparative advantage in discharging that obligation. There is no physical need more basic than food. The US, founded on the principles of human freedom and human dignity , cannot ignore the problem of hunger and remain true to its purpose. We already have many programs for emergency situations, but in the absence of short-term crises, the need to help in the continuing effort to prevent or relieve chronic malnutrition too easily fades from public consciousness.

The concern for improving food systems in poor countries is not entirely altruistic. The US agricultural system faces serious trouble down the road. As US agriculture is increasingly internationalized by the growing dependence of the world on american grain and of US farmers on the world market, rising pressure is exerted on the agricultural resource base. Erosion of fertile topsoil is accelerating, water quality is deteriorating, underground water supplies are decreasing, and the environment is suffering great damage from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, there are burdens on the transportation system and an increasing effort to grow grain for fuel.

There is little doubt that both primary producers and consumers in the US would benefit from an improvement in the food situation in food-deficit developing countries. Rather than reducing farm income in the US -- which is sometimes an expressed fear -- increased food production in poor countries, if it is accompanied by increased farm income and rural employment, would raise demand not only for more and better food, but also for nonagricultural products and services. This in turn would increase the incomes of those who provide those goods and services and expand their demand for food and for imported manufactured goods from, e.g., the United States.

All this argues for a US presidential initiative. Three dozen concerned persons, representing a wide spectrum of expertise and philosophy in and out of government, met in an informal seminar at the Overseas Development Council in mid-June and discussed the kinds of initiatives the US might take in the food area.Their recommendations' included the following:

* Increase food aid to the poorest countries, stressing its developmental role.

* Work toward a reserve-and-insurance scheme for interim food security.

* Accelerate the development of national food plans in food-deficit countries.

* Focus more research on the needs of small farmers in developing countries.

* Liberalize trade in agricultural products.

* Draw the private sector into food policy and programs.

* Renounce the use of food as a political weapon against poor countries.

With the exception of increasing food aid, the budgetary impact of these recommendations would be negligible. But their value for the poor -- and for the US -- could be great. The World Food Council, the highest UN policy body in the food area, confirms that half a billion people are still chronically malnourished and emphasizes that the long-term solution is to increase food production where these hungry people are.

An initiative by the President of the United States to help achieve that goal would represent real leadership