Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed Thursday for support for President Obama’s embattled global farm-aid program, saying that the reforms it was promoting had prevented the drought in East Africa from being worse.

The administration’s signature “Feed the Future” program is facing potentially steep cuts by Congress. The White House has requested $1.4 billion for the project in 2012. But a House Appropriations subcommittee recently slashed several accounts that could leave the program with about one-third less in funding.

Clinton said that Africa had seen cyclical droughts for decades and that “it would be easy to throw up our hands.” But, she said, working with poor countries to provide things such as improved seeds and extension services could save lives. Feed the Future is part of an international effort to improve the productivity of small farmers in Africa and other impoverished regions.

“While some might say that this is a conversation for another time — that we should worry about preventing food crises only after this one has passed — I respectfully disagree,” she said in a speech at the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington.

“Right now . . . we must rededicate ourselves to breaking the cycle of food shortages, suffering and dislocation that we see playing out once again in the Horn of Africa.”

She said that, because of international agriculture programs, the number of Ethiopians at risk of starvation had plummeted from 13 million in the 2002 drought to 5 million in the current disaster.

About 12 million people are in dire need of food in East Africa because of the drought and limited access to parts of Somalia controlled by the extremist group al-Shabab.

Clinton appealed to al-Shabab to drop its opposition to international aid groups bringing food to the country. The U.S. government considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization.

Clinton also announced $17 million more in U.S. emergency funding to help victims of the drought, with $12 million of it going to Somalia. That brings the U.S. contribution to the humanitarian crisis to more than $580 million.

“Famine conditions in Somalia are likely to get worse before they level off,” Clinton said.

That echoed an assessment Wednesday by the U.N. assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Catherine Bragg, who said further deterioration of the situation is likely because of the severe malnutrition in the region, poor rains and skyrocketing local food prices.