Why the Global Food Security Act Matters

Participants in the Ejo Heza program show off their improved crop yields

In today’s polarized political environment, even issues that once received broad bipartisan support have become divisive flashpoints. So the recent passage of the Global Food Security Act (GFSA), signed into law by President Obama yesterday, is something worth applauding; it clearly demonstrates that the U.S. is willing to engage on the issue of food security in a productive manner. Though perhaps more importantly, it also shows a commitment to a deeper understanding of the relationship between food security and economic development.

In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has provided food aid to numerous countries at various points. While these efforts were well-intentioned and in many cases provided vital humanitarian relief, our understanding of food availability, food markets, and food security has matured considerably. We now know that food aid must be limited and targeted to the most vulnerable people. We also know that local and regional producers must be part of the solution to provide food to vulnerable or crisis afflicted people. And we now have a new understanding of how key concepts such as food security, resilience, and nutrition are intertwined; so that we may view vulnerability on a dynamic spectrum with multiple dimensions. These critical advances, which have serious, real-world implications for millions of people across the world, have been recognized and codified by the GFSA.

This is why this legislation is so exciting. It has moved us past the old view of food security, recognizing that the best way to fight hunger and food insecurity is to increase the strength and resilience of farmers, their organizations, and the range of support firms, organizations and institutions with whom they interact on a day to day basis. Food availability is a result of complex systems and value chains, which can either be strengthened or weakened by U.S. policy, actions, and investments. Famines can be lessened, or even prevented, with improved resilience to external shocks via improved techniques, financial services, or strengthened community bonds. Economies can grow, poverty can be reduced, and new markets can be established if food processors and other agribusinesses are able create more diverse, targeted and added-value food products.

One important way to provide this support, and something the bill puts an increased emphasis on, is leveraging the power and resources of the private sector to make agricultural markets more inclusive to encourage broad-based economic growth. We at Global Communities have seen the power of public-private partnerships first-hand with our work in Rwanda. There the Walmart Foundation and USAID partnered to support the Ejo Heza program (a USAID Feed the Future program). The two-year partnership helped expand farmer training to over 50,000 new farmers; it provided seeds, fertilizer, tools, and most importantly, training so that farmers — most of whom were women — were able to learn new skills to grow food for both household consumption and to be sold at the market. They would then go out into the community to share these practices with their neighbors. These improved practices dramatically increased crop yields, allowing farmers to sell more of their crops at the market and increase their overall earnings. It is innovative programming like this, combining the strengths and knowledge of private firms, governments, and NGOs, that the GFSA supports, helping us devise new ways to address food security that otherwise might not have been possible.

NGOs like Global Communities are also pleased with the heightened emphasis on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) included in the GFSA. A main cause of childhood malnutrition is illnesses that would be considered minor or routine in the developed world, but in developed countries, poor children frequently are unable to absorb enough calories and nutrients when they are sick. In poor countries, most illnesses stem from fecal bacterial contamination, which is easily prevented with appropriate hygiene practices and some simple infrastructure improvements. Global Communities has championed the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach in Ghana and Liberia with funding from USAID, which has resulted in improved hygiene practices and cleaner sanitation facilities, coupled with complementary safe-water interventions. As these communities improve their agricultural markets and ensure greater availability of food, the groundwork has been laid for ensuring that children are able to stay healthy and that their bodies are able to process nutrients properly. Ensuring that WASH is addressed is not something that occurs to many when they think of nutrition, but it is critical to fighting hunger and poverty.

Children in Liberia learn about proper hand washing techniques as part of WASH programming

We’ve come a long way from the days of food security being an issue with a single, simple solution. The passage of the GFSA recognizes that food security is a complex issue, and represents an important shift toward thinking about supporting farmers as the means to increasing access, availability and utilization of food. As a country we must be open to adopting more legislation like this that keeps pace with current realities and addresses the root of the problem so that the U.S. can continue to contribute to the critical task of ending hunger across the globe.