The Global Context of Food Security: My Experience at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Food Symposium

Twenty undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students were selected from around the world to attend the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’s Global Food Symposium as part of the Next Generation Delegation. Photo credit: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

By Isabelle Foster, a junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public policy with a minor in economics. Foster is concentrating in development and growth policies and is concurrently pursuing the Ford Dorsey International Policy Studies master’s degree.

“Food security.”

When people first hear this phrase, they often question what the term “food security” truly means. Food security encapsulates a wide variety of topics including insufficient nutrition, access to economic markets, national trade policies, and political stability. To most effectively work in this space, it is important to note that food security is a complex issue that requires an interdisciplinary awareness. Public policy, economics, culture, and the environment are just a few of the subject areas necessary for understanding what this topic entails.

Each year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs — a think tank established in 1922 — hosts its Global Food Symposium. By bringing together leaders from a range of worldwide organizations — including non-profits, governments, research institutions, and private companies — the Council creates a unique environment for the discussion of many pressing challenges related to food security. This event also marks the release of the Council’s annual Food Security Report and reviews many of the most important findings from the previous year’s research.

Left, a panel at the Global Food Symposium. At right, the group of student delegates in front of Freedom Plaza and the Economic Development Building in Washington, DC. Photo credits: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

This year, I had the privilege of attending the event as part of the Council’s Next Generation Delegation. As a public policy student interested in international development, this conference provided an illuminating opportunity to better understand many of the critical components of food security and how influential policy can be. Two main themes that stood out from the conference were: 1) the importance of public-private partnerships and 2) the need to encourage youth to return to agriculture.

The Importance of the Public-Private Partnership

One key recommendation made in the 2017 Annual Food Security Report was to strengthen the partnership between the public and private sectors. While both groups can have a tremendous impact on their own, they can have an even larger impact when they work in concert. During panel discussions, it was frequently mentioned that there must be an ‘enabling environment’ that allows for the entry of the private sector into a particular region. The private sector can transform a community, through activities such as providing loans and building roads, but it often will not do so unless there are economic incentives. In order for these incentives to arise, the government must implement policies that allow for this ‘enabling environment.’ For example, government leaders must be aware of the local market and how policies they create — such as creating an export ban — can have large consequences. It is by working together that policy-makers and the private sector can maximize the effectiveness of their efforts and contribute towards a more food secure community.

Necessity of Attracting Youth to Agriculture and Agribusiness

Worldwide, there has been an increase in the number of young adults who leave rural family farms to pursue what they believe to be a more lucrative future in the city. The United Nations has estimated that there will be a rapid increase in the percentage of the world’s population living in urban centers — increasing from half to nearly three-quarters of the overall population by 2050. However, many often do not find employment in these urban centers, and this migration away from the farm makes it harder to produce enough local food for the rapidly increasing population. One of the major challenges associated with attracting youth to agriculture is that the profession is challenging and often not very profitable. It was emphasized that it is often the farmers themselves who are the most food insecure. Until this dynamic is changed, it will be extremely challenging to convince youth to return to the countryside.

At the same time that youth are leaving the city, there is also the emergence of a phenomenon called the ‘youth bulge’ in Africa and South Asia. According to the Council’s 2017 report, Africa alone has 200 million individuals who are between 15 and 24 years old — a number that is expected to double in the next 30 years.

Pages 26–27 of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2017 Report “Stability in the 21st Century: Global Food Security for Peace and Prosperity.” This figure shows the “youth bulge” countries — where the average age of the population is 24 or less.

These young, physically-abled, and creative individuals have the potential to transform the society by working in the agricultural sector. By returning to rural areas to pursue farming or become involved in agribusiness, young adults can help develop ‘agricultural supply chains’ and stimulate the local economy. The Council also estimates that nearly 60% of Africans who are unemployed are young people, thereby demonstrating the potential that the agricultural sector has for providing job opportunities and economic independence — but only if the industry can become more profitable.

Overall, the symposium stressed that food security efforts must focus on the smallholder — or individual — farmer. As co-chair of the report’s independent task force Dan Glickman emphasized, one of the most important steps for making agriculture more attractive is to make farming more profitable for the farmer. To attract youth to farming or to create the ‘enabling environments’ necessary for public-private partnerships, farmers must make money — enough money to not only ensure a food secure household, but also enough money to allow these individuals to stimulate and participate in the local economy.

Pictures of sessions at the Global Food Symposium, courtesy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

It was an honor to attend the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Food Symposium this March. While there is a lot of work to be done to overcome hunger and malnutrition, it was encouraging to see that many passionate individuals and organizations are working to make a chance. My reflections and the lessons I learned will be important in guiding my future research, and I hope to share this information with others. My hope is that this article can help inspire others to learn more about this topic and start to work together to create a more food secure world.

For more information about the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, please visit their website. Additional information about the 2017 Global Food Symposium can also be found online.