U.S. Aid to Agriculture: Shifting Focus from Production to Sustainable Food Security

11 February 2015

Since the 1960s, agriculture has waxed and waned as a key theme of U.S. international development assistance. In the 1970s, the United States and other donors focused on “growing the pile of food” through the use of high-yielding cereal grain varieties, mineral fertilizer, and synthetic pesticides in developing countries—the Green Revolution. This led to huge productivity increases and lower food prices in Asia and Latin America. But donors paid less attention to questions of equity, environmental sustainability, and gender equality. Due to increased food availability at lower prices, the United States and other donors reduced their focus on aid to agriculture from the mid-1980s until the escalation in global food prices of 2007-2008. The latter crisis led to hardship and protests in many countries. In 2009, the G-8 Summit in L’Aquila pledged $22 billion to support agriculture in developing countries. President Obama established the Feed the Future (FtF) Initiative to fulfill the $3.5 billion U.S. pledge at L’Aquila. In contrast to the Green Revolution approach, FtF focuses on sustainable production and income gains among smallholder farmers, improved nutrition linked to agricultural development, and empowerment of women. Although this more holistic approach is welcome, there have been some issues with FtF implementation: insufficient attention to sustainable gains once aid ends; inadequate consultation of beneficiary farmers regarding program design; and in some instances, the skewing of benefits to relatively well-off farmers. A more consistent effort to draw on farmers’ own knowledge and problem definitions would give program participants a greater sense of buy-in, thereby increasing the likelihood of sustainability.