Since Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, many people have peered into the House budget plan that the Wisconsin Congressman shaped – the so-called Ryan budget -- to see what it might portend for a Romney-Ryan administration.
We did some peering back in March of this year when the House voted on the budget. There’s no mistaking what it would mean for Feed the Future, the Obama administration’s initiative to end hunger and bolster the global food supply through agricultural development. One pernicious paragraph in that document is headlined, “Eliminate Feed the Future.”
That inspired the outrage of a March 30 column, which I think bears repeating now that Ryan is hitting the campaign trail. We were both in Iowa earlier this week, but, alas, our paths didn’t cross. I would like to ask him: Eliminate Feed the Future -- do you still believe that? With the drought in the American breadbasket driving home the point that agricultural development in the poorer precincts of the world is essential for us all, that we are all in this global food chain together, that failed harvests in one corner of the world impact supplies and prices everywhere else. Eliminate Feed the Future? Really?
To keep in mind during the campaign, following are excerpts from my March 30 column, “The Return of the Budget Slashers
“No sooner, it seems, did agriculture development spending fairly well survive the budget slashing for 2011 and 2012 then it is under attack again in the 2013 deliberations. The House yesterday, working along party lines, passed a budget plan which nakedly proposes to kill the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative.
“The plan, crafted by the House budget committee chaired by Paul Ryan, includes a paragraph titled ‘Eliminate Feed the Future.’ It says:
“Initiated by the Obama administration in 2009, Feed the Future aims to end global food insecurity through investments in nutrition and agriculture abroad. While addressing the issues of poverty and malnutrition around the globe is important, the U.S. Government’s fiscal condition does not permit the expansion of U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, especially ones that overlap with existing programs. The United States currently has two other major food aid programs: Food for Peace (the primary food aid account) and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. Both of these aid programs address global food insecurity in the world’s poorest countries, including through agricultural development efforts. This budget reflects a need to consolidate our food air programs in order to eliminate associated costs with mission redundancy.”
“This is wrong on so many levels, factually, logically, morally.
“Factually. There is really no overlap between Feed the Future and the ‘two other major food aid programs.’ Feed the Future is not another food aid program; in fact, it is the opposite. It is an agricultural development program designed to create the conditions for poor smallholder farmers to grow more of their own food so food aid isn’t needed in the first place. Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole may incorporate some agricultural development efforts, but they aren’t the primary focus of those programs and they aren’t as broad and targeted as Feed the Future.
“Logically. If the House Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget plan really want to reduce food aid costs, they would line up solidly behind Feed the Future, because it will do that budget cutting work for them. The world’s smallholder farmers, ironically, are some of the main recipients of food aid. Because of the neglect of agricultural development efforts over the past three decades, these farmers struggle mightily to feed their families. The yields of Africa’s smallholder farmers are less than one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S., and much of what they do grow goes to waste because of poor storage facilities. If Feed the Future is successful, the harvests of the smallholder farmers will grow in size and nutritional quality and they will become self-sufficient. The need, and thus the cost, for food aid, will shrink substantially. The budget slashers say this is the absolute wrong time to be expanding foreign aid for programs like Feed the Future. In fact, it is absolutely the right time. ….
“Morally. Eliminating Feed the Future would indicate that the U.S. is abdicating its leadership role in a great humanitarian challenge, a role it once relished in the times of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution. Feed the Future has been emerging as one of the prime examples of the deployment of American “soft power” abroad; it puts the American people shoulder-to-shoulder with the smallholder farmers in their efforts to feed and educate their children. ….
“The budget slashers may believe that their attack on foreign aid and domestic assistance programs is a far-sighted move. But here they are wrong again. For in terms of addressing the growing hunger problem both at home and abroad and the looming challenge of feeding the future, it is horribly short-sighted.” Roger Thurow’s new book, about ending hunger through agricultural development, is “The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change”.
The London Summer Olympics have been chock full of wondrous achievements and inspiring moments: Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Sarah Attar, Oscar Pistorius, an impressive roster of African athletes rising from deep poverty to the medal platform. Just imagine the journey from Somalia or Sudan to a stadium filled with 80,000 people, flashbulbs sparkling like stars. Amazing.
But the most inspiring, significant moment of all may still await us. On Sunday, as the sporting competition winds down and the athletes gather for the Closing Ceremony and the torch passes from London to Rio de Janeiro, another competition will be joined. It is the push to make a huge dent in hunger and childhood malnutrition before the next Opening Ceremony in Rio in 2016.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Brazil Vice President Michel Temer will host the Global Hunger Event and challenge the world’s leaders – and all citizens, really – to accelerate efforts to improve nutrition and reduce the rate of stunting among the planet’s poorest children in the next four years. The unofficial Olympic event – with its Olympian ambitions – aims to identify innovative ways to tackle malnutrition and create new champions to spur a global movement.
Until the book “The Hunger Games”, those two words – “hunger” and “games” -- rarely appeared in the same sentence. Together, they form an oxymoron. Hunger, as we know, certainly isn’t a game. Now, on Sunday, we’ll have those words sharing a phrase again: The Hunger Summit of the Olympic Games.
It ought to be a natural combination, the Games and Hunger. I covered 10 Olympics – 5 Summer and 5 Winter -- for The Wall Street Journal, and I wrote many stories on how the noble ideals of supreme human endeavor and fair play were often soiled by a venal self-interest and tawdry commercialism surrounding the Games. Now, though I am far from the fields of play in London, it is good to be able to write the words “Olympics” and “ending hunger” in the same sentence. Well done to the prime minister for convening the summit, and to athletes such as soccer star David Beckham and Mo Farah, the Somalia-born British long-distance runner who won a gold medal in London, for participating. The International Olympic Committee and the organizing committees of each set of Games should take note and also join the movement to raise the clamor and end hunger.
For conquering malnutrition and stunting should be the very essence of the Olympic movement, giving every child the chance to fulfill his or her potential, physically and mentally. With some 200 million children stunted from insufficient nutrition during the early years of their lives, who knows how many Olympic moments have never materialized? The damage that malnutrition in the first 1,000 days does to a child’s brain and body can’t be undone in later years. It is fine for the Olympics to rattle on about “faster, higher, stronger,” but they are hollow words for far too many who can’t even get to the starting block. Where’s the fair play in that?
Hopefully, we’ll see some truly Olympian traits emerge from the Global Hunger Event. Traits like vision, dedication, ambition, urgency, momentum and focus. These should also apply to the quest for global food security; the Olympics have been unfolding against a backdrop of worsening global malnutrition, severe droughts in several parts of the world, dwindling food stockpiles and rising food prices.
Hopefully, the summit won’t be a one-off talk fest, a performance that appears every four years and then falls from view, like some of the sports that only capture our attention during the Olympics. Hopefully, the UK government can keep the focus on hunger and malnutrition through next year’s G8 meeting that it will host, and beyond. Hopefully, the Brazilians can keep hunger and malnutrition a top priority of the G20 nations. Focus, focus, focus – the mantra of every world-class athlete.
Athletes are also all about momentum, and there has been plenty of momentum building in the fight against malnutrition. The Scaling Up Nutrition and the 1,000 Days movements, the G8’s recently launched New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition, President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, ONE’s THRIVE campaign and the expanding efforts of a number of humanitarian organizations to end hunger through agricultural development, the World Health Assembly’s new target to reduce the number of stunted children by 40% by 2025. Keep it going, don’t let up.
Finally, every Olympian – and every Olympic Games – desires to leave a shining legacy. One motto of London is: “Inspire a Generation.” That’s wonderful. But let’s not leave the inspiration solely in the athletic realm and the scope of individual growth and success. The Olympic Global Hunger Event can inspire a generation to achievements bigger than themselves.
Faster, higher, stronger not for one, but for all.
Are we paying attention now? The shriveled corn and wilting beans and severely parched soil of the U.S. farm belt are trying to tell us something: focus on the global food chain.
More than half of U.S. counties have been declared disaster areas as the drought chokes the farm belt. On the nightly news, we see the food supply shrink. In the grocery stores, we watch the food prices rise. Take heed, Mother Nature is warning us: tend to agricultural development.
Or else. Turbulence in the food chain will become the new normal; perhaps it already has. We first noticed this five years ago, when shortages of the main staples and subsequent rising prices triggered riots in dozens of countries in the developing world. The ranks of the hungry swelled. Global food stockpiles fell to their lowest levels in decades, and prices rose to their highest levels ever. In the U.S., the escalating grocery bills prompted a flash of panic because for so long we had enjoyed the comfort of a long era of reasonably low, stable prices.
A flurry of corrective activity ensued. The World Bank called for an about face of the disastrous policies that ignored agricultural development. President Obama, new to office, focused the minds of world leaders to prioritize “global food security” – riots and turbulent prices will do that -- and his administration began to form Feed the Future, an initiative designed to reduce hunger and strengthen the global food chain through agricultural development, particularly among the smallholder farmers of Africa whose yields were far below potential.
And then… And then, things stabilized. Prices came off their highs and we seemed to get comfortable with at a new plateau of food costs. Problem solved, right? Wrong.
That’s what we also thought after Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his pioneering work developing new strains of wheat that led to the Green Revolution. The Nobel committee hailed Dr. Borlaug for cutting the “Gordian knot,” for relieving the doomsday scenario that the planet, with an increasing population, would run out of food. The world congratulated Dr. Borlaug and slapped itself on the back. Well done, problem solved. But Dr. Borlaug knew better. He warned us to pay attention, not to lose focus, to continue investments in agricultural development, to help farmers around the world, especially the smallholders in the poorest of countries, to be as productive as possible. If we turned our back on this, if we permit future famines and allow hunger to persist, he said, “We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation.”
And yet, there are those, plenty in number, who still aren’t paying attention, who call for the elimination of Feed the Future and other initiatives to secure the global food chain. Such wrongheadedness is right there in a budget proposal that came out of the House of Representatives earlier this year. Agricultural development is too expensive at a moment of budget cutting, it was said. This isn’t the right time to begin such programs, it was proclaimed.
If the hunger crisis in east Africa last year or the suffering in West Africa this year hasn’t grabbed our attention in the U.S., maybe the drought in our own farm belt will. As the members of Congress head home for summer and the campaign trail, they will surely get an earful of advice from their constituents. And, hopefully, they will also behold the shriveled ears of corn and pay attention to what they are saying.