TALKING TO THE CORN GODS: What does agriculture have to do with national security and foreign policy?

*This piece originally published 12/1/2020 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: By 2050, the demand for food worldwide is anticipated to increase by 59 to 98% and America is not prepared. With a massive decline in American farmers and climate change set to negatively impact the US but actually help our great power competitors, major domestic and foreign policy changes are needed to manage an inevitable crisis.

What is so political about corn? I did a presentation about this once in my American Presidency class in undergrad. To spare you the godawful PowerPoint presentation, here’s that #BLUF: the Iowa caucus may not predict who the President will be but it has been a good indication of party nominee frontrunners. Since Caucus inception in 1972, more than half of the winners have gone on to become their respective party’s nominee, but only three of those have gone on to become president — Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And what does corn have to do with this?

Well, according to Iowacorn.org (yeah, that’s a real site), Iowa has approximately 86,900 farms, 97% of which are family-owned. And do you know what Iowa ranks number one in producing? Soybeans, hogs, eggs, and you guessed it… CORN (and ethanol, also made from corn).

So, Iowa has a lot of corn and corn is used in a biofuel called ethanol. And in 2005, a federal rule called the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) started requiring gasoline refiners to blend billions of gallons of biofuels — mostly ethanol — into their products each year in an effort to promote renewable energy and fight greenhouse gas emissions. Experts now say RFS is doing basically nothing to help climate change and thus now has some bipartisan support to abolish it, but the RFS has been wildly good for states like Iowa because, CORN. Thus, it really isn’t any surprise to anyone that Pete ButtigiegElizabeth WarrenBernie Sanders (a one-time critic of biofuels), and Joe Biden all endorsed biofuels during their Democratic presidential campaigns.

K, so corn = White House, but does it also = national security and foreign policy?

Short answer? Hell yeah.

Turns out, farming in America is much more than just a box to check when you’re looking to get elected to the highest office in the Land of the Free. Food security, crop cycles, droughts, climate change, exports, imports, tariffs, etc., all of this is directly linked to national security and foreign policy. Like 2015 House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway said, “Agriculture and national security are intertwined in many different ways — whether it is ensuring that food is available to meet nutritional needs for both those within our own borders and those around the world, or insuring that food coming into our borders is disease- and pest-free, or guaranteeing that farmers and ranchers have the needed policy tools in place to continue producing food and fiber.”

FOOD SECURITY MEETS CLIMATE CHANGE MEETS GREAT POWER COMPETITION

According to USAID, food security means having, at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. Seems simple enough maybe now but did you know that by 2050, the demand for food worldwide is anticipated to increase by 59 to 98%? Yikes.

And remember that whole thing about corn/ethanol to fight climate change? Yeah, well none of that is going well because climate change — in addition to limited land to farm and limited access to water in some places — is necessitating urgent changes to current farming at home and abroad in order to meet those anticipated demands. These changes may include finding new methods to increase crop yields, precision and urban farming, a focus on renewable resources, and multilateral efforts, just to name a few.

And while America is producing near-record agriculture exports now, we likely will need to have some real “come to Jesus” talks to adjust to this changing landscape. Because I got news for you, it ain’t looking good. According to the Harvard Business Review, “the Midwestern US and Eastern Australia… may also see a substantial decline in agricultural output due to extreme heat,” while “some places are expected to (initially) benefit from climate change. Countries stretching over northern latitudes — mainly China, Canada, and Russia — are forecasted to experience longer and warmer growing seasons in certain areas.”

FARMERS ARE STRAIGHT GIVING UP, WITH THE US LOSING MORE THAN 100,000 FARMS BETWEEN 2011 AND 2018; 12,000 OF THOSE BETWEEN 2017 AND 2018 ALONE.

If your alarm bells aren’t going off right now, they should be. Why? Because everywhere you look, experts have dubbed China and Russia America’s biggest strategic threats and global competitors (see hereherehere, and here).

Former Congressman Collin Peterson (D-Minn) said, “A strong agriculture sector and stable food supply are critical to national security. And agriculture has an important role to play when it comes to our country’s national security interests — something I don’t think a lot of people really understand.” Well, ain’t that the truth. The USDA, National Sustainable Agriculture Association, and others have said that America needs more farmers and drastic changes in policies and trends to meet America’s food demands, for example, the average age of farmers has increased considerably, at just shy of 60 now. In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee,  National Guard Maj. Gen. Darren Owens said that without a strong American agriculture sector, we would be dependent on other nations. With only about 1.3% of the US population working in farming today and concerning stories from family-owned-farms, the vulnerability of our nation’s food supply is something we don’t often hear about in the news, but maybe should be taken more seriously in prime-time conversations.

And it’s not just Americans who depend on agriculture produced by our farmers at home. It’s also necessary to provide both crops and training abroad to minimize potential conflicts over resources, a phenomenon that has already begun and is likely to be exacerbated by climate change and increased food demands. Army Maj. Gen. James Sholar outlined eloquently in a riveting testimony before Congress how peace and conflict are intrinsically linked to food abundance and shortages, respectively.

Hypothetical scenarios for consideration:

  1. Imagine for a second that America has an alliance with X country, and provides that country with crops. Because of climate change or policy changes, the US can no longer provide X country with a particular food source. Not only do US farmers suffer from either loss of crop or loss of income, but that alliance becomes strained. If country X is a strategic ally in a geopolitical region, like say near a major port/base/waterway, and a great power competitor provides that crop instead, the US hasn’t just lost a strategic partnership, it’s lost international strategic ground and impacted its domestic population.
  2. Imagine for a second that America, due to climate change, is unable to produce enough crops to provide food security at home. Now it has to rely heavily on subsidized food imports. With limited options for imports in this scenario, the US might be forced to depend heavily on a strategic competitor, say China or Russia, for food.

In both of these hypothetical scenarios, America’s national security cards are compromised and foreign policy is put on the dining room table front and center. This is where those cornhuskers in Iowa, apple farmers in Washington, and peach growers in Georgia become more than just votes, they become strategic chess pieces.

Keeping the water flowing, temperatures steady, land fertile, markets open, and tariffs low for American farmers ensures that our domestic tables and borders are taken care of. But to do that, we need to have good foreign and domestic policies, trading partners for our exports, treaties that combat climate change to curb the impacts on American crops, and technological advancements (ideally from home but possibly from abroad) to enhance our farming techniques whenever/wherever possible. All of these efforts require strong foreign policy and diplomatic relations.

So what can be done? The bad news is the situation is pretty dire and we (as a global collective) really are running up against a clock. The good news is there are options. Here are just a few:

  1. Ask American farmers what they actually need: According to an absolutely depressing TIME expose, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies were up 12% in the Midwest from July of 2018 to June of 2019, and up 50% in the Northwest. Farmers are straight giving up, with the US losing more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018; 12,000 of those between 2017 and 2018 alone. As discussed earlier, a lot of this is a result of trade wars (cough foreign policy issue), climate change, globalization, and the rise of corporate farming and the fancy technology that comes along with it. According to the expose, “technology has made farms more efficient than ever before. But economies of scale meant that most of the benefits accrued to corporate farmers, who built up huge holdings as smaller farmers sold out.” And according to John Newton, the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau, global food production has increased 30% over the last decade with more international farmers coming into the market lowering overall prices. This all sounds great in theory and it is for the anticipated increase in food need over time but it also reduces the income seen by individual farmers, especially for those small family farms whose costs aren’t falling with prices and who aren’t always able to use expensive new technologies. Turns out a lot of family farmers agree on what led to this situation and what can be done about it. “In the years after the New Deal, they say, the United States set a price floor for farmers, essentially ensuring they received a minimum wage for the crops they produced. But the government began rolling back this policy in the 1970s, and now the global market largely determines the price they get for their crops. Big farms can make do with lower prices for crops by increasing their scale; a few cents per gallon of cow’s milk adds up if you have thousands of cows.” The ideal solution for these farmers would be to have the government enforce antitrust laws, meaning that grocery stores and food processing facilities would either be prohibited from consolidating or those consolidated businesses would be prohibited from buying food from farmers. These antitrust laws exist but many argue have gone unenforced.
  2. Encourage a focus on international agriculture: One suggestion has been to support and participate in international agriculture — or focus on solutions to global food production and distribution — by examining agricultural economics; comparative agricultural systems; international agribusiness and law; third-world development studies and global applications of climate, soil, water resources, etc. Ambassador John Negroponte, former US deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush said international agriculture could reduce “the vulnerability of political systems to weather, conflict and other shocks,” recommending the development of “market-oriented systems that improve the operation of agriculture as a business by working with farmers, host governments, investors, civil society and private industry.”
  3. Cooperate on biodefense: According to Dr. Tammy Beckham, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, food insecurity, no matter the cause, often leads to negative social and geopolitical consequences. She argues that even though “the Arab Spring was not directly about food insecurity, it was likely the rapid rise in international food prices that caused middle-class urban populations in these regions to experience acute food insecurity, which provided the necessary motivation for the people to generate unrest.” Dr. Beckham urged the US government in testimony to take a hard line of defense to control any outbreaks of disease of livestock and/or poultry, including attacks targeting the disruption of food supplies or human safety through “the intentional introduction of a biological agent into domestic agricultural systems.” According to Beckham, there are interagency agreements in place but “the coordination of a comprehensive biodefense program against agricultural and human health threats is lacking… To date, an organized, multi-year, well-funded strategy and commitment has not materialized.”
  4. Take climate change seriously: There really isn’t a place for an only America policy when it comes to climate change (and agriculture). If America is going to survive this at worst and thrive at best, we need to jump headfirst into multilateralism on both climate and ag. This isn’t opinion, this is fact. To meet the needs of American farmers, consumers and global demands impacted by science-backed climate change, a massive rethink is needed for ag and farming that considers the effects of science-backed climate impacts. This rethink includes a shift to focus on conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, and renewable energy. According to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “agricultural adaptation occurs autonomously at the local level as farmers adjust their planting systems to climatic change.” But, “planned adaptation occurs at the sectoral and national levels and includes policies such as addressing changes in food insecurity, identifying vulnerabilities, reassessing agricultural research priorities, and strengthening agriculture extension and communication systems.” A global mindset shift toward planned adaptation and action is one of the only ways America and its allies will be able to overcome the inevitable crisis we know lies ahead.

All of this is literally just the tip of the corn husk if you will. And because this all started with corn it might as well end there. American lawmakers, whether believers in climate change or not, worshipped the corn gods enough to back RFS — a law that, while ultimately sort of a bust, was a win for both small town cornhuskers and climate change advocates at the time. A similar approach here — AKA recognition that American farmers and climate are in need, big corporations should pony up to assist not hinder, and that there is no time for partisanship — is the kind of thinking we are going to need to address what I hope you now understand is inevitable. Next time you shop local produce, be sure to thank your farmer and then call your representative to see what the hell they are doing about the intersection of agriculture and national security.

That’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just THE BABES BLUF.

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