Ambassador John Negroponte
Ambassador John Negroponte points to the importance of agriculture to national security.

WASHINGTON — The United States needs to stay a step ahead of key challenges faced by its agriculture sector, especially resource scarcity, the threat of bioterrorism and greater productivity as world population expands from about 6 billion people in 2015 to 9 billion by 2050, said Ambassador John Negroponte, former U.S. deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, in hearings on American agriculture and national security before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture.

Mr. Negroponte noted the United States plays a critical role in global agriculture as the world’s largest producer of beef, soybeans, corn and poultry and a top exporter of a diverse group of foods such as almonds, apples, raisins, sorghum, pork and wheat. He also said the United States may need to be able to secure the safety and availability of food supplies of important allies such as Japan.

Mr. Negroponte said rising competition among countries and regions for finite resources such as water and arable land could hurt political stability and force U.S. military priorities to shift. He pointed to Syria and Iraq as currently being vulnerable to water scarcity because rivers, canals and dams are military targets.

“Over time, these and other resource constraints along with pressure from climate change could slow down increases in productivity,” Mr. Negroponte said. In the decades ahead, “water could become to global strategy what petroleum is today, since declining food security could contribute to large-scale political instability and conflict.”

As for biodefense, Mr. Negroponte said a successful attack by parties intent on hurting the United States may result in economic damage or threats to food safety and public health. He recommended stronger surveillance, monitoring and tracking as well as creating nationwide laboratory networks to ensure the safety of food and water.

Mr. Negroponte emphasized that, in order to feed a growing middle class, especially in developing nations, and a world population of about 9 billion by 2050, greater productivity in food production was essential.

“Unfortunately, funding for vital research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has stagnated … This needs to change,” he said.

Other important approaches to keeping domestic food supplies available, affordable and safe included keeping infrastructure up to date and fully functioning.

“Reducing the chances of attack will likely require increased investment in vulnerable or aged infrastructure and a continuing evaluation of new and emerging threats,” he told the house agriculture committee.

Mr. Negroponte also called for support of international agriculture that could reduce “the vulnerability of political systems to weather, conflict and other shocks.” He recommended 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.”

Tammy Beckham, dean of the college of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, also testified before the House agriculture committee and emphasized that food insecurity caused by any reason often leads to negative social and geopolitical consequences.

“In fact, it is well documented that, although the Arab Spring was not about food insecurity, it is likely that the rapid rise in international food prices caused middle class urban populations in these regions to experience acute food insecurity, which provided the necessary motivation for the people to generate unrest,” she told the committee.

She urged the U.S. government to increase efforts to control any outbreaks of disease affecting livestock and/or poultry as well as attacks to disrupt food supplies or human safety through the intentional introduction of a biological agent into domestic agricultural systems.

“Despite interagency agreements that exist, the coordination of a comprehensive biodefense program against agricultural and human health threats is lacking,” Dr. Beckham said. “To date, an organized, multi-year, well-funded strategy and commitment has not materialized.”