Photograph courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
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A high tunnel protects delicate crops, such as strawberries, from being effected by frost in the spring and fall seasons.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

Food Security Is National Security

As we celebrate World Food Day and 2014 as the Year of Family Farming, we want to celebrate the millions of Americans involved in getting food from our farms to our tables and to the millions and billions of others around the world tilling the soil, tending the nets, striving not just to survive but to thrive.

Family farming is not unique to small farms in less-developed countries; family-run businesses dominate U.S. agricultural production, accounting for almost 98 percent of U.S. farms. It is the hard-working men and women around the country, growing, harvesting, researching, moving, selling, and preparing the food we eat that form the backbone of our economy. It is the innovation of our scientists and businesses that keep our productivity so high. As we prepare for the World’s Fair next year in Milan, with innovation as a core theme, we should celebrate the contributions and investments that America makes at home and abroad to feeding the world.

Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution” and the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate often said that you can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery. And yet, there are 800 million people who are going to bed hungry every night. It’s a tragedy when children starve or when hard-working families cannot afford to meet their most basic nutritional needs. Options may seem limited, but we have seen what happens when a spike in food prices plunges tens of millions of people into poverty—riots break out; conflicts for scarce resources cost lives; economies falter; instability increases.

On the other hand, investing in agriculture is one of the surest ways to reduce poverty, expand economic activity, and grow the middle class. Ending food insecurity is very much in the interests of the United States. And that is why President Obama has made food security a top priority in our global development efforts.

Focusing on more money or more aid to address food insecurity will not be enough. We also need to do better at delivering those resources. This requires better technology, better agricultural practices, better coordination among partners and better policies for enabling agricultural innovation.

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Adán Trujillo creates raised beds in the high tunnel at El Rincon Farm in Chimayó, New Mexico. Photograph courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

It is particularly important that we make an impact in fragile and conflict-affected states, where poverty and hunger are most extreme and populations are most vulnerable. The U.S. and other donors spend much more money responding to humanitarian disasters than in investing in building more resilient communities. In fact, we see this cycle of responding to crises playing out in West Africa right now in response to the Ebola outbreak.

Furthermore, we have to confront the growing impacts of climate change on our ability to feed ourselves. For agricultural societies, even small changes in climate matter a great deal.  Crop yields are extremely sensitive to changing rainfall patterns, the intensity of storms, and temperature extremes. Scientists from the International Food Policy Research Institute predict that climate change will have a major impact on staple crops like wheat, corn, soy, and rice. This is not only bad news to the farmers who will suffer, but also to the millions of consumers who depend on the crops that the farmers grow.

We need to ensure that agricultural innovations like drought-resistant seeds and improved fertilizers are widespread and we must ensure that best practices become routine. Advances in data collection should provide farmers with better information about which seeds are best suited to their soil. Mothers should be able to access nutrient-rich foods to feed their children. And agro-ecological practices that foster wise management of plant pests and diseases, build healthy soils, and that reduce the need for agricultural inputs must become the norm.

We must resist the urge to focus on one approach as holding the answer to the challenges sustainably feeding a growing planet. As José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization, recently stated “We need to explore these alternatives using an inclusive approach based on science and evidences, not on ideologies.”

Helping to feed the world will contribute to peace and stability, which is in all of our interests. It also happens to be the right thing to do.

Jack Bobo is senior advisor for biotechnology at the State Department. Chris Hegadorn is director of the State Department’s office of global food security.

This story is part of  National Geographic’ s special eight-month Future of Food series.