With the political world fixated on the Republican National Convention that was then unfolding in Cleveland, President Barack Obama quietly signed into law one of the most significant food security initiatives of his career.
There was no carefully orchestrated bill signing with cameras and beaming benefactors at the White House, and other than a few press releases it largely went unnoticed. But the measure was no small feat in this bitter and gridlocked election year — and a pivotal victory for Georgians who helped shape and shepherd the legislation.
The measure, known as the Global Food Security Act, seeks to leverage public and private money to help poor nations learn from U.S. expertise on how to grow and maintain their own, more resilient food supply.
The effort was years in the making and brought together disparate political forces, including Republican Party elder U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson; Michelle Nunn, the Democrat who mounted a rough-and-tumble but unsuccessful campaign to join him in the Senate two years ago; and a pair of agricultural labs at the University of Georgia.
A group of Georgians also stood on the opposite side of the debate, with nearly all the state’s GOP congressmen voting to reject the effort twice this year. They cited concerns over cost and the process under which the bill was considered.
The legislation felt like a true election year anomaly — a bill pushed by the president that not only sailed through the Republican-led Congress with deep bipartisan support, but divided Georgia’s typically unified Republican delegation.
The new law aims to coordinate the government’s already existing food and nutrition programs abroad, compelling federal agencies to come up with a unified strategy for helping fight malnutrition and food insecurity and making them more accountable to Congress, proponents say. Some of those pre-existing programs take American expertise in agriculture — such as drought-resistant crops — and share them with poor farmers, including women.
Obama first announced the initiative, Feed the Future, in 2009 after a major increase in global food prices, building off work from the George W. Bush administration. The White House said the initiative reached nearly 18 million children in 2015 and boosted farmers’ incomes by more than $800 million.
Congress approved funding for the initiative but never explicitly authorized it, so getting it passed into law was a major priority for Obama, who wanted to make sure it would stay in place after he leaves office.
Isakson, meanwhile, got involved as a lead sponsor in the Senate after several trips to Africa as a senior member of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee panel. In an interview, he framed the legislation in terms of national security, making the case that chronic hunger can ultimately lead to international conflicts.
“A lot of people looked at this originally as just another one of those programs where you’re sending money overseas, trying to throw money at a problem, when in fact what we were trying to do is develop a protracted solution to a real challenge, which is food security in Africa and really food security for the rest of the world,” said Isakson, who is running for a third term in the Senate this November.
The effort allied Isakson with Nunn, who lost her 2014 bid for an open U.S. Senate seat and now leads the Atlanta-based humanitarian organization CARE.
“We really have seen it as an opportunity to be more effective, more transparent and more accountable around U.S. investments in food security,” Nunn said of the bill.
Another advocate was the University of Georgia, home to two Feed the Future-funded labs that focus on peanuts and climate-resistant sorghum.
“The big thing is that we didn’t really know where the funding was going to come from in the future,” said James Rhoads, assistant director for UGA’s peanut lab. “With agriculture research, you really need long time horizons, especially overseas, to develop relationships with people … so to have guaranteed another cycle of funding, to have it so it’s not just a presidential initiative, that’s a big deal in terms of maintaining some stability that we can count on.”
The effort took years to wind its way through Congress, and the biggest roadblock might have been a turf battle with the lawmakers who oversee the government’s international food aid — the American commodities that are sent abroad on U.S. cargo ships to hungry nations. The proponents of the Global Food Security Act ultimately had to steer clear.
One of the most vocal opponents was the conservative group FreedomWorks, which is focused on lowering taxes and shrinking government.
The group sharply criticized the bill for the $7.3 billion in spending it greenlights through 2021 and said there is “compelling evidence” that global food security and resiliency programs do not work. In a bulletin urging lawmakers to reject the bill, FreedomWorks cited homegrown food problems and the country’s $19 trillion debt.
“The United States is hardly in the position to promote global food security and economic reforms when our federal government is severely failing to promote free market reforms at home that can reduce domestic food insecurity and address our bankrupting level of debt,” the group wrote. It also raised concerns about the limited public debate the bill received on the floor of the House and Senate.
All 10 of Georgia’s Republicans in the House voted against an earlier version of the bill in April — nearly one-third of the overall opposition to the measure, which ultimately cruised through the chamber on a vote of 370-33. Some opponents listed concerns similar to FreedomWorks’, while others cited a more economic argument.
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans, said “we have got to begin to bring our business home.”
“Obviously, we’ve got to help other folks, but we’ve got a $19 trillion debt fixing to be $20 trillion and we have to be very aware,” he said, leaving a meeting with GOP nominee Donald Trump. “And I think Trump’s message is that we’ve got to look after America first.”
Some small tweaks were made to the bill, after which it cruised through the Senate unopposed. Isakson managed to persuade two Georgia Republicans in the House — Austin Scott of Tifton and Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville — to vote for the measure when it returned for a second time earlier this month. He wasn’t disappointed about the outcome.
“I’m very proud of the vote we got,” Isakson said. “I don’t complain when I win.”