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How Federal Climate Change Actions and Inactions on Food Security Affect the Department of Defense

Marc Kodack PhotoBy Dr. Marc Kodack

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has an interest in what other federal agencies are doing to address climate change risks in their programs because some of these programs assist DoD in lowering its’ current and future deployment and operational risks, including risks to the health and well-being of its force. This is particularly the case regarding climate change impacts on food security.

In this context, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) conducted a broad review of climate change adaptation programs across the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last summer that included (but was not limited to) food security, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audited the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on how USAID reports direct and indirect climate change adaptation actions.

The CRS Review of USDA’s Climate Adaptation Programs

The CRS review of USDA concentrated on major agencies within the department, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Economic Research Service, the Farm Service Agency, and the Risk Management Agency. The geographic focus of these agencies is almost exclusively the U.S. The Foreign Agricultural ServiceT (FAS) is another agency within USDA, but CRS did not include it in its review.[1]

While FAS’s programs have relevance to international food security, an area in which DoD has a strategic interest as well as a supporting role (see here), domestic food security in the U.S. is also important because it ensures that the U.S. has the food resources it needs to feed its’ own population. For some military families, for example, attaining food security is already a challenge (see here and here) and may become more challenging under adverse climate change conditions, such as forecasted increases in the occurrence of regional droughts or flooding that disrupt agriculture production, processing, and/or transportation. For those in the military who deploy, worrying about their U.S.-based families obtaining sufficient food may be a significant concern that can seriously affect morale and readiness.

The NRCS has the largest role of any of the agencies mentioned above in climate change adaptation. It provides locally-tailored, conservation-related, technical, and financial assistance to privately-owned farm, ranch, and forestry landowners. All participation is voluntary. Conservation efforts can include reducing soil erosion and nutrient run-off, improving water quality, and increasing organic content in soils. The Agricultural Research Service examines a broad variety of science-based topics including how climate change affects both U.S. and foreign agriculture. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture provides grants to ensure the future of U.S. agriculture/food and to support agricultural science. A number of these grants are indirectly related to climate change adaptation. The Economic Research Service provides policymakers with strategic insights into future trends and issues in agriculture and food, including climate change (example here). The Farm Service Agency provides loans to farmers and ranchers, assists with conservation, provides commodity price supports, and assists with disaster recovery. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) assists farmers and ranchers with risk management tools, including crop insurance.

CRS concludes their review by offering several areas that Congress may want to pursue, which would also affect USDA’s food security programs. These include questioning the efficacy of voluntary programs, such as those that NRCS offers, for meeting USDA’s climate change adaptation objectives, given that the rate of adoption of adaptation recommendations is slower than desired. It also suggests changes in USDA’s existing risk management programs, such as the RMA’s, to better address current and future climate change and associated risks.

The GAO Review of USAID’s Climate Adaptation Programs

GAO focused its review of USAID’s programs for several fiscal years (2014-2018; 2020) that were related to climate change adaptation and the kinds of risk management activities that occurred. USAID, which sits in the State Department, is the primary foreign development assistance agency within the U.S. government. USAID provides assistance to other countries across multiple sectors including economic growth and trade, water and sanitation, environment and climate change, agriculture and food security. Development is one pillar of U.S. foreign policy along with diplomacy and defense. Thus, DoD’s ability to successfully perform its world-wide national security mission is enhanced by USAID’s programs and their climate change adaptation efforts. Together, the three pillars promote U.S. interests around the world.

Direct funding for climate change adaptation was intermittent or unavailable within the fiscal years that GAO included in its review. When direct funding was available, USAID used the funds for projects to increase a community’s resilience and decrease their vulnerability to climate change. Each project was required to perform climate risk management, the process to manage and assess climate change effects. The process includes determining key climate risks, the assignment of a risk rating to each identified risk, and a description of how each risk would be addressed. GAO found that almost all (95%) of the projects in priority countries for USAID’s climate change adaptation efforts had completed this process. For programs in which climate change adaptation was not the primary focus, but was indirectly addressed, GAO found that funding for indirect climate change effects was not consistently reported by USAID. GAO determined that this inconsistent reporting did not meet the State Department’s foreign assistance guidance or GAO’s internal control requirements for federal agencies. GAO made one recommendation to USAID— that all missions and bureaus need to provide funding data for all projects that have indirect climate adaptation effects. USAID concurred with the recommendation.


Domestic and international food security is important because it can have widespread effects across political, economic, and social systems. When food security is weakened or disrupted, such as through climate change, one or more of these interconnected systems can be undermined. Risks can increase to having sufficient calories, proper nutrition, and health. USDA has multiple programs that are related to food security. These programs are almost all focused on the U.S., but there are a few overseas programs. These programs have direct and indirect climate change adaptation elements that DoD can leverage as it examines where it has or may experience climate change risks for its home-station or deployed personnel as well to its operations.

The lack of information on USAID projects with indirect climate change adaptation benefits prevent strategic planners within geographic Combatant Commands from knowing the full extent and types of these projects in USAID’s priority countries who may also be of importance to national security, e.g., Mali, India, Vietnam. Any defense relationships and programs that may be created or are on-going can build on USAID’s work. Having data on where USAID completed projects that included climate change adaptation elements would complement DoD’s military-to-military programs.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

[1] One of FAS’s programs is to assist developing countries with their agricultural programs, such as providing educational assistance to people involved in local farming. FAS assists USAID in operating food aid programs.

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