Michael Robach of Cargill speaks at the Atlanta Summit on Global Health and Hunger. 

Tackling the daunting challenge of food security will require engaging Africa productively and encouraging open markets around the world, a Cargill Inc. executive said in Atlanta May 20. 

With new advances in genetics, fertilization and harvesting technology, crop yields are higher than ever before. The problem now is smoothing out disparities in access across borders, said Michael Robach, vice president for corporate food safety and regulatory affairs at the international food giant. 

“We are producing calories at an all-time high, but the bounty is not evenly distributed or evenly available,” Mr. Robach said during his luncheon keynote address at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta‘s summit on global health and hunger. 

“Because global food supplies fluctuate much less from year to year than local harvests, trade makes consumers less vulnerable to local shortages and higher prices caused by bad weather, crop disease or civil disorder,” he said. 

He cited a simple fix propounded by an 18th-century British economist: Each country should grow the crops best suited for its soil and climate and then trade with other countries, Mr. Robach said.  

Protectionism leads to a slimmer global food supply overall and encourages price volatility from country to country, while a “trust-based” system of global food trade can connect farmers with “reliable global markets,” Mr. Robach said. 

Last year’s historic drought in the United States, a key exporter of grains, caused corn harvests 4 billion bushels short of earlier projections, showing that stable supplies are not a given.

In developing countries, Mr. Robach advocated a long-term move away from subsistence farming toward cash crops, though he noted that in the meantime Cargill is working to plug farmers into international markets through a variety of programs like the Grow Africa partnership, a collaborative initiative among companies and governments to spur private investment. 

Cargill is also working with Atlanta-based CARE, a main organizer of the May 20 conference, on education and health projects in cocoa-producing communities in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, where it has major sourcing operations. 

The company hopes to do more in Africa, but unclear property laws in many countries have discouraged agricultural investment, Mr. Robach said. 

“This is an important point, because it’s essential for farmers in Africa or any other part of the world to have clarity around their property rights. They must be able to own their land and pledge it as collateral if they are expected to reinvest and raise their productivity over time,” he said.  

Still, the “potential is huge” if Africa can overcome the challenges of technology, governance and infrastructure that have caused it to lag productivity gains in other parts of the world over the past half-century. Africa has vast amounts of arable land and could become a net food exporter with the right tools and investment, he said. 

“While the challenges of Africa seem daunting, there’s more momentum today than ever before to tackle these issues,” he said. 

Mr. Robach also addressed biofuels, which have driven food prices up, saying market forces should determine their rates of cultivation, not government mandates or subsidies. 

View a Cargill infographic on food security and world trade policy here

For more on the World Affairs Council, including upcoming events, visit www.wacatlanta.org

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...