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 September 27, 2017
Ireland Tops U.S. as the Country Best Able to Feed Its People

 The U.S. for the first time dropped from the top spot in a global ranking of how well countries can feed their own people, as concerns about agricultural research spending and government policy trends may make the world's top food exporter a less-certain place to get a meal.

Ireland is the world's most "food-secure" nation, improving its food affordability, availability, quality and safety while the U.S. has stagnated, according to a copy of the sixth annual Global Food Security Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit scheduled for release Tuesday.

Worldwide, food security fell for the first time in five years, largely because of increases in the number of refugees, weather disasters and a decline in global political stability. The examination, commissioned by Dupont Co., this year added metrics based on climate and natural-resource risks. Adjusting for those factors, the U.S. fell to fourth place, with Austria and France moving ahead.

"Food security is in reverse," said Robert Powell, a senior consultant with the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. "If we're aiming for zero hunger, we're going in the wrong direction."

The number of people suffering from hunger rose by about 38 million to 815 million in 2016, the United Nations said last month. Climate change is seen as a driver of increasing weather volatility which is contributing to famines in developing nations. This year, adverse weather combined with conflict was tied to famine and severe food shortages in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.

Richer nations have fewer problems providing inexpensive, plentiful and safe food to their citizens. Still, risks remain, and some are increasing, according to the study.

Wealthier countries including the U.S. and Canada have highly productive food systems, but use more water than they need to, leaving them more vulnerable to increasingly severe droughts expected because of climate change. European nations, meanwhile, may see strains caused by an aging population that pays less in taxes and demands more social services.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa clustered near the bottom of the rankings yet have opportunities to develop more sustainable food systems as late adapters to technology, the report said.

Meanwhile, some developed nations rose or fell dramatically in the rankings because of local circumstances. Austria has a relatively stable climate and very low soil erosion, aiding food production, sending its rating upward. Singapore, meanwhile, fell more than any other nation, given the threat it faces from rising sea levels, exposure to extreme weather and reliance on food imports.

The study places a high value on government support for agricultural research, which is important to keeping nutrition inexpensive and available as food needs increase, Powell said. This is where Ireland, a country where an 1840s famine led a half-million residents to migrate to America, has excelled while the U.S. has faltered, according to the report.

Ireland has outspent the U.S. in relative terms on public research and development on agriculture over the past five years, increasing farming's share of gross domestic product even as its economy has grown, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

U.S. funding as a share of GDP has declined over that same period. That, combined with concerns about U.S. governance---"the United States' hostile policy towards immigration and trade has dampened the foreign policy outlook" the report said---allowed Ireland to take the top spot.

"Ireland has roared back marvelously from the banking crisis, and their agriculture research and development has increased," Powell said. In the U.S., "we haven't seen that level of public-sector investment."

The study, first published in 2012, is used to guide corporate decisions on allocating resources, said Krysta Harden, a former U.S. Agriculture Department deputy secretary who's now the chief sustainability officer and vice president for public policy for the agriculture division of DowDuPont Inc.

Its publication is meant to aid governments, nongovernmental organizations and businesses in understanding where food struggles are greatest and where more work needs to be done even in relatively more secure nations, she said.

"Hopefully it's a wake-up call," she said. "Agriculture is an ongoing investment that cannot end and cannot be diminished."