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Published July 26, 2011, 09:31 AM

Head of Global Harvest Initiative says food program should focus on ending corruption

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s “Feed the Future” initiative should focus more on fighting corruption and the rule of law in Africa, according to a former Republican Agriculture Department official and lobbyist who now heads the Global Harvest Initiative.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s “Feed the Future” initiative should focus more on fighting corruption and the rule of law in Africa, according to a former Republican Agriculture Department official and lobbyist who now heads the Global Harvest Initiative.

“Feed the Future should take a greater look at fighting corruption and making a legal system” that works in Africa), Bill Lesher said in a recent speech to the American Soybean Association’s Washington conference.

Lesher said Africa, which is not producing enough to feed itself, needs to increase production because there will be more food needed all over the world in the future.

African countries need investment, Lesher said, and agribusiness companies are looking at Africa as the last frontier of development, “but they’re not going to invest in countries that are corrupt.”

Feed the Future is the Obama administration’s signature program to improve global food security through development programs and food aid. It is run by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

One of the program’s stated goals is to “create an enabling policy environment for agribusiness growth,” but its program focuses on collecting data, analyzing market information, strengthening land rights and encouraging entrepreneurship, and not specifically on fighting corruption. Feed the Future does work through governments, however, and demands accountability from them.

“The African governments have to take some responsibility,” Lesher added.

He said Global Harvest Initiative leaders hope to take their case on the corruption and legal issues to Obama administration officials soon.

Lesher started his career in Washington as an aide to former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and served as the assistant secretary for economics at USDA from 1981 to 1985. He said he finally has become convinced that the issue for the future is more likely going to be the need for production rather than oversupplies of farm products.

Noting that he spent much of his career in government worried about surpluses and land idling programs, Lesher said it took a while to convince him that the days of overproduction are gone.

But he said, “The undeniable fact is that we are going to have to double output. You are going to be constrained in bringing in land and water.”

Investment in ag research

More investment in agriculture research is needed now, he said, because “research projects in the laboratory may take 10 to 15 years” before they are put into use. He urged more research on salinity and reducing post-harvest losses, which he described as “the low-hanging fruit” in increasing the availability of food.

Farmers using modern methods are going to produce most of the food for a growing world population, Lesher said. He noted that some people in developed countries do not like what he considers to be scientific methods of production and prefer buying local, but said, “You’ve got to give modern agriculture some love and attention, too.”

Not all farmers attending the soybean meeting agreed with Lesher’s view that the age of overproduction is over. One farmer noted that bankers had told farmers the same story in the late 1970s and encouraged them to borrow money that they later had a hard time paying back.

Lesher acknowledged that “there will be ups and downs,” but replied that the situation is different this time, unless officials at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization are wrong by 75 percent in their predictions about world population growth.

On the subject of climate change, He seemed ambivalent, saying he gets “terribly confused” about the debate. Lesher has degrees in economics from Purdue and Oregon State University and a doctorate from Cornell, but he said, “I am not a physical scientist. I listen to both sides. You’ve got to be prepared for volatility.”

The Global Harvest Initiative was established in 2008 by the Archer Daniels Midland Co., DuPont, John Deere and Monsanto to address the challenge of feeding an expanding and more affluent global population even as land, water and habitat for animals become scarcer.

While it is viewed as a voice of corporations that would increase their profits through international sales of their products, it has partnerships with Conservation International, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, the TransFarm Africa Corridors Network, the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Congressional Hunger Center.

Initiatives

Global Harvest has produced a series of reports on agricultural issues around the world. June 27, it released a series of issue briefs on what it said are policies that will have the greatest impact on improving the rate of growth in agricultural productivity to address global food security and hunger by:

- Improving agricultural research.

- Removing barriers to agricultural trade.

- Strengthening and streamlining development assistance programs.

- Embracing science-based technologies.

- Enhancing the role of the private sector in agricultural and rural development.

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