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Why Is the Obama Administration Suddenly So Interested in African Farms?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, our Organic Transitions page, and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

This week, President Obama is making his first major visit to Africa since taking office. One topic that's likely high on his agenda: US investment in African agriculture.

With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the Obama administration is pushing hard to use foreign development funds to expand farming in the developing world, and especially in Africa. Since 2009, when Obama made a pledge at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to devote massive resources to global "food security," Congress has committed more than $3.5 billion to an agricultural development program called "Feed the Future." Congress has since renewed the initiative's funding.

"After decades in which agriculture and nutrition didn't always get the attention they deserved," Obama said in an address last year, "we put the fight against global hunger where it should be, which is at the forefront of global development."

But the US government's motivation for investing such a large sum in Feed the Future isn't entirely altruistic. Here's a look at some of the other reasons behind the sudden enthusiasm for agriculture in the developing world.

I've heard that hunger had something to do with the Arab Spring. Is that true?
Possibly. The impetus for Feed the Future goes back to the food price crisis of 2007-08, when prices for basic commodities like corn rose dramatically all over the world. Among middle-class consumers in the United States and Europe, the spike in prices went largely unnoticed. But in developing nations such as Côte d'Ivoire and Haiti, where families typically spend a large portion of their incomes on food, it led to riots. Some observers theorized that the price spike hastened the start of the Arab Spring.

At a May 2008 hearing on the food price crisis, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) predicted that shortages of food "are likely to recur frequently if the United States and the global community fail to open up agricultural trade and invest in agricultural productivity in the developing world." The damage of the food crisis, he added, "likely would have been ameliorated if more of the world's poor farmers had access to better technology, titled land, small loans, extension support, and accessible markets."

Do US businesses stand to profit from all this new farming development in Africa?
Absolutely. Broadly speaking, the idea behind Feed the Future is to grow more food than ever before by making it easier for global agribusiness companies to invest in poor countries. As USAID head Rajiv Shah indicated at the official unveiling of Feed the Future in 2010, the agency could advocate on companies' behalf to make investment easier in partner countries.

"If you're from the private sector, tell us what countries and donors can do to reduce constraints on business operations," he said.

The US government appears to already be doing this, as a recent analysis of dumped embassy cables found that the State Department had lobbied governments around the world to adopt policies allowing for the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

"[S]ome may see our work in Africa as philanthropy, but it's much more than that," said General Mills CEO Ken Powell at an event hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. "It's about creating shared value, and for our African partners, it is about unlocking opportunity—business opportunity—through knowledge-sharing."


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