Essential Ingredients to Alleviate Hunger: Trade and Technology
Oct 14, 2009
Oscar Wilde once said that ambition is the last refuge of failure.
Next month, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will meet in Rome to announce the goal of eradicating hunger by 2025.
That’s an ambitious goal--so ambitious that it sounds suspiciously like a prelude to failure. It brings to mind the thought that sometimes the best way to keep a promise is not to make it in the first place.
Are we really going to wipe out hunger in the next 16 years? Don’t bet your farm on it.
Yet we must give this undertaking our best effort. I believe – along with many others –that feeding the hungry is a moral imperative.
The FAO is an institution that can help advance a worthy objective. If it’s truly serious about eliminating hunger, it will do more than provide an occasion for today’s political leaders to make grand statements that their unfortunate successors can’t hope to live up to. Instead, it will embrace two specific strategies in the fight against hunger: free trade and biotechnology.
Neither one is a panacea. Ensuring food security for all the people of the world will require success on any number of fronts, from improved irrigation in developing countries to a ready and affordable supply of fertilizer everywhere. Political stability is indispensable, too. Civil unrest is the handmaiden of malnourishment and famine.
Trade and technology are also essential ingredients. We will not enjoy much forward progress without both of them. Trade makes it possible to move food around our planet, from places of plenty to places of scarcity, without interference from the artificial barriers of import tariffs or export levies. Technology makes it possible to increase yields on existing farmland, keep food prices in check, and deliver consumer benefits.
Some world leaders have taken the current financial climate as an opportunity to turn their backs on trade. The United States may not be the worst offender, but in recent months it has avoided taking on its traditional leadership role. The current administration and Congress refuse to ratify sensible trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Their new “Buy American” rules have confounded longtime business partners in Canada. They’ve put the brakes on long-haul trucking commitments with Mexico--at the price of breaking a treaty agreement with our southern neighbors. They’ve just recently restricted low-cost tires made in China to the detriment of Americans with limited incomes.
If we’re to feed the whole planet, it must become easier for American food producers to sell their beef in Korea and their corn in Europe. We must also figure out a way to revive the Doha round of world trade talks. The existing deadlock hurts our ability to move food from country to country, especially between advanced nations and the developing world. If we don’t make substantial progress in this area, the FAO will not meet its hunger goal for 2025.
Biotechnology is no less important. Thankfully, many American officials seem to understand how much it matters. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently described our “once a generation” opportunity “to bring about transformative change” through the vigorous application of biotechnology to agriculture.
The key is to make other nations share this sense of urgency. Farmers in the Western Hemisphere have embraced biotechnology to marvelous effect. Growers in Asia and Australia are also adopting biotechnology because they see how it helps to produce more with less.
Yet resistance in Europe remains a significant roadblock. Until we get past it, biotechnology won’t begin to realize its full potential. Most of the unnecessary suffering that results will take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, which keeps the genetically modified crops at a nervous arm’s length because of Europe’s destructive attitude.
Last week, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen ... cooperation between peoples.” Reasonable people may disagree on the merits of his diplomacy. Yet there can be little doubt that his diplomacy will succeed if he can help wipe out hunger by strengthening economic and scientific cooperation between countries through free trade and biotechnology.
And if the FAO can persuade him to adopt these causes, maybe it will deserve to become a Nobel laureate as well.