Elevating the leadership role of the US in global food security and nutrition

It was an honor to participate in a panel at the White House Summit on Global Development this morning, that discussed Feed the Future’s progress and impact to date, and explored possible ways forward for the initiative. Also on the panel were Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and Willy Foote, Founder and CEO of Root Capital. Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, moderated this session.

The US government has contributed to various efforts in promoting global food security and nutrition. In 2009, its Feed the Future Initiative was started to support country-driven approaches to address the root causes of hunger and poverty by supporting smallholder farmers, especially women.

IFPRI research demonstrates that Feed the Future has made tremendous impacts on the ground. For example, in 4 years, within Feed the Future Zone of Influence, household incomes increased by 11 percent, poverty declined by 16 percent, hunger decreased by 26 percent, and women empowered in agriculture increased by 50 percent.

Feed the Future has provided support to international agricultural research (CGIAR) to develop high yielding, drought and flood, heat and cold tolerant, and nutritious crops. One example is biofortification, or the process of using conventional plant breeding techniques to increase the density of vitamins and minerals sufficient to impact human health and nutrition. To date, crop varieties rich in micronutrients (vitamin A, Zinc and Iron) are being grown and eaten by over 15 million people--over 100 varieties across 12 crops are available in 30 countries, and testing is underway in another 25 countries. The importance of biofortification is recognized—two weeks ago, the State Department announced IFPRI’s Howarth Bouis, Director of HarvestPlus, and other CGIAR colleagues as World Food Prize Laureates.

Biofortification has high impacts as IFPRI research shows. In India, for example, iron-rich pearl millet was 1.6 times more likely to have resolved iron deficiency among school-aged children compared with those who ate ordinary pearl millet. And in Mozambique, prevalence of diarrhea in young children was over 50 percent lower due to the adoption of orange-flesh sweet potato.

Feed the Future has been hugely supportive of empowering women through data-driven approaches. The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) is another success for which collaboration with Feed the Future played a big role. The Index aims to better understand the connections between women’s empowerment, food security, and agricultural growth. It has been used by Feed the Future for monitoring and evaluation in 19 countries, garnered widespread support from developing and donor governments, and adopted by a broad range of research and development organizations. Bangladesh, the first country to implement WEAI on nationwide scale, incorporated WEAI into its nationally representative survey carried out by IFPRI for Feed the Future.

These achievements come from Feed the Future’s unique and successful approach in using data and evidence-based research to guide its implementation. For example, the program integrated nutrition outcomes and impacts are into its results framework. In addition, Feed the Future developed its strategy, results framework, and monitoring and evaluation to enhance agriculture’s contributions to improve the incomes of small farmers, nutrition, economic growth and employment, and the welfare of women and young children.

In the context of these successes, we must keep in mind that there is still more to be done. Around 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead healthy, active lives—that’s about one in nine people globally. More than 2 billion people lack essential vitamins or minerals (hidden hunger), and 2 billion people are either obese or overweight. These multiple burdens of malnutrition are costly—11 percent of global GDP is lost due to malnutrition.

Furthermore, the global context for food security and nutrition is changing. Existing and emerging drivers of change include rising incomes, population growth, urbanization, especially in middle income countries; increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change; persistent conflicts; and migration pressures. In other words, our global food system is increasingly vulnerable and unsustainable—business as usual is no longer sufficient.

How can initiatives like Feed the Future continue to advance global food security and nutrition amidst emerging challenges? Elevating the role of agriculture is critical, but future efforts must extend beyond agriculture to other sectors. We will need to adopt a systems approach. This is key to reshaping the global food system to achieve multiple Sustainable Development Goals—in addition to food security and nutrition, synergies to achieve goals on poverty, health, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, economic growth, climate change, and resilience are also critical.

A reshaped global food system must be productive and efficient, inclusive, environmentally sustainable and climate-smart, nutrition- and health-driven, and business-friendly. To achieve this, it will be important to engage new players, such as private sector and emerging economies; and encourage multi-sectoral collaboration that enhances synergies by supporting broader, innovative partnerships, such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and Compact2025.

Also pertinent is the urgent need to promote a data revolution—more specific data for policymakers to make informed decisions and investments is not available. There must be more investments in disaggregated data, such as rural-urban or sex-disaggregated data. Initiatives such as the Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition (GODAN) initiative, which IFPRI supports, have a key role to play to facilitate sharing of data and information. Finally, innovations that can provide creative solutions must be encouraged, such as ICTs, satellite, community-based mechanisms, and new technologies for anthropometric measurements.

The leadership role of the US, especially USAID, State Department, USDA, is evolving but remains critical. The Global Food Security Act recently signed into law is an admirable first step aiming to promote global food security, resilience, and nutrition, but more needs to be done. We must work together, bringing in experts from multiple sectors, to elevate the efforts of the US. Doing this will contribute towards ensuring a healthy, well-nourished population and a planet that can be sustained for many generations to come.