The smallholder farmers of Africa know all about fiscal cliffs.
“Everybody wants money,” Leonida Wanyama despaired as she neared the precipice of her own personal cliff during the hunger season. She had no food in the house and no money, either. Many forces were pushing her to the edge. Her children were being sent home from their classes by headmasters demanding that the school fees be paid. She was running up a tab at the local pharmacy, where she picked up malaria medication on the promise of future payment. She needed to pay off her credit for maize seeds and fertilizer. Most pressing of all was the daily need to scrounge up something to feed her family now that the food from her own harvest had run out. Every morning when she awoke after a fitful night tormented by worry, she felt the cliff was just beyond the door of her mud-and-sticks house.
Leonida and her neighbors in western Kenya have been peering into the abyss long before the phrase “fiscal cliff” became a buzzword in Washington. Zipporah Biketi, another farmer in western Kenya, told me about the daily battle to pull her children back from malnutrition. The children, she said, “don’t know the hardships that their parents pass through…They just want to eat.”
For a nation like the United States, burdened with debt and budget deficits – and this applies to all of Europe as well – falling over the cliff is a scary proposition. But for the billion or so people who exist on one or two dollars a day – like the smallholder farmers of Africa – it is a daily terror.
If a deficit reduction deal doesn’t get done in Washington by the end of the year, the tumble over the cliff would trigger mandatory across-the- board spending cuts. Programs that support the poor and hungry in the U.S. and abroad have already been hit in previous budget-cutting rounds. New indiscriminate slashing will thus be disproportionately harsh for them. The cuts may be equally applied, but they won’t be equally felt.
Programs that pull people back from their personal cliffs will be devastated. That would be domestic programs like food stamps and women and infant care, and international programs like the presidential emergency AIDS assistance and food for education. The estimated $4.7 billion cut that would befall the International Affairs budget would include nearly $100 million from the President’s Feed the Future initiative, which aims to improve the harvests and profits, and thus the health and nutrition, of smallholder farmers in Africa like Leonida and Zipporah.
In my new book, The Last Hunger Season
, we see how agricultural development and nutrition programs can succeed. We see harvests double, triple, quadruple in just one season. We see family incomes rise and health improve. We see farmers suddenly adding the all-important AND to their lives. They can feed their families throughout the year AND pay school fees AND afford medication AND improve their houses AND their farms.
In The Last Hunger Season, we see farmers retreating from their personal fiscal cliffs.
So this much is clear: A deal in Washington to avoid the fiscal cliff needs to get done. And it needs to get done fairly.
America’s deficit wasn’t caused because too much was spent on poverty and hunger programs; in fact, foreign assistance is less than 1% of the federal budget. So cutting here won’t save much at all. What it would do is save fewer lives.
As Bono told a full house of Georgetown students last month, “Budget cuts shouldn’t cost lives.” In his lyrical way, he declared that we shouldn’t let “economic recession become a moral recession.” That, he insisted, would be doubly cruel.
The United States can’t step back from its cliff by pushing millions of the world’s poor over their own cliffs.
The following is a guest blog by Roger Thurow, author, senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and ONE Campaign fellow. We asked Thurow a few questions about food security. Traditionally centered around a big meal to celebrate good harvests and time with family, Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to reflect on what we’re thankful for and our wishes for the future. At the top of our list is the hope for a future in which no one goes to bed hungry. What is yours?
Exactly the same: a world free of hunger. Some may dismiss that as an unrealistic goal, but ending hunger through agricultural development is within our grasp. We certainly have precedent on our side, for we have seen agricultural development work in so many countries. Be it here in the United States, or in Europe, or in India or China or Brazil. So we know it can be done: We have the science, the technology, the experience. We know the “way”, but what has been missing is the “will”.
At this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that we are now seeing this “will” emerging in so many places. As we sit down to our traditional national feast—to celebrate our harvests and our abundance—this is the ideal time to commit to ending hunger no matter where it may be, whether here at home or in Africa or anywhere else in the world.
Even as we are seeing progress in our efforts against global poverty and undernutrition, we know there is still work to do and that we must remain focused. Why do you think this is important, and why do you think Americans should care about global hunger and food security?
First, the very word “security” is important, for how secure can the world truly be with nearly one billion chronically hungry people? During the food price spikes of 2007 and 2008, when stockpiles of major grains dwindled, prices soared, and shortages spread, we saw how quickly gaps in the global food supply can lead to widespread unrest.
Second, how stable can the world economy be when such extreme poverty keeps so many people outside the global economic and trade system? Securing the global food system is also one of the biggest—if not the biggest—challenge facing us in the coming decades. With the planet’s population expected to increase by more than two billion people by 2050, it is estimated that we need to increase our food production by as much as 60 percent to meet this rising demand. And it is important to not just focus on increasing production, but to put nutrition—growing a cornucopia of more nutritious food—at the center of our efforts as well.
So yes, indeed, Americans should care deeply about global hunger and food security.
Also, it’s what America does—and does best. We are the world’s breadbasket, with the mightiest farmers. Spreading agricultural development has been one of America’s top “soft power” achievements of diplomacy and international relations over the decades. Think of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution. Now, the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future initiative continues this lineage. Feed the Future is a key piece of the U.S. Government’s effort to reduce global hunger and improve global food security. Having spent time observing Feed the Future’s work and reporting in depth about agricultural development, what do you see as different or unique about Feed the Future?
Feed the Future has set out to reverse the neglect of international agricultural development over the past several decades. Feed the Future also recognizes that food security is not just about increasing production, but increasing the nutritional value of the food as well; it focuses on not only the necessary ingredients of growing food but also on the elements farmers need to translate their harvests into profits, determined by the countries themselves. So post-harvest issues like storage and efficient markets are central to Feed the Future. It also stresses the importance of partnerships with the private sector and the governments of developing countries as well as with universities, foundations and humanitarian organizations. These partnerships were vital to the success of the Green Revolution 50 years ago.
I see two other important aspects of Feed the Future: an emphasis on long-term agricultural development (rather than solely focusing on short-term emergency food aid relief) and a focus on the smallholder farmers of the developing world. This means facilitating access to the essential elements of farming—seeds, soil nutrients, training and micro-financing—so that the smallholders can be as productive as possible. These farmers are indispensable in meeting the great challenge of food security I mentioned earlier. If they succeed, so might we all.
And they can succeed. This is the central message of The Last Hunger Season, which brings readers into the lives of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya. Let’s talk about your book. After spending time with these farmers in Kenya, what did you see as the role and importance of food security, particularly agriculture and nutrition, in their community?
It is absolutely vital. While reporting the book, The Last Hunger Season, I learned that securing enough food for their families is the top priority of women smallholder farmers in Africa. All things flow from that accomplishment. With greater harvests, these women farmers can conquer the dreaded hunger season and the malnutrition of their children, and also have a surplus that can provide income to pay school fees, to afford proper health care and medicine, and to diversify their crops for better nutrition. You’ve written two books on food security now and you often blog about it in your role at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs—what first interested you in this topic and why are you so personally invested in it?
Covering the 2003 famine in Ethiopia for The Wall Street Journal. It was the first famine of the 21st century; 14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation, dependent on international food aid. On my first day in Addis Ababa, I received a briefing about the extent of the famine by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). One of the WFP workers told me: “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul. You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.”
The next day, I was down in the hunger zones, in an emergency feeding tent filled with dozens of severely malnourished children. What I saw in those eyes did indeed become a disease of the soul; I saw that nobody should have to die of hunger, not now, not in the 21st century when more food was being produced in the world than ever before. It was a turning point in my career as a journalist. All other stories began paling in comparison. I knew I needed to stop the usual routine of a foreign correspondent—moving from story to story, place to place—and focus on this one story: hunger in the new millennium. This led me to write my first book, with fellow WSJ reporter Scott Kilman, ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty
But for me, ENOUGH wasn’t enough, so I plunged deeper into the issue of hunger and agricultural development. This propelled me to write The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change
. And I intend to continue writing, taking readers into the eyes of the hungry, spreading the disease of the soul. Do you have hope that things can change for the better? Why?
Yes, because I see a burgeoning movement, a gathering momentum, to end hunger through agricultural development. I see it in renewed American leadership, manifest in Feed the Future. I see it at universities, at faith-based gatherings, on the ground in Africa. Earlier this year, at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ symposium on global agriculture, food security and nutrition, President Obama called for an “all hands on deck” effort to end hunger in the 21st century. I see these many hands getting to work.
I often write and speak about the awful oxymoron, “Hungry Farmers.” How can the smallholder farmers of Africa suffer through an annual hunger season when every morning they rise with one task: grow food for their families?
That these farmers should battle chronic hunger and malnutrition is absurd, obscene and shameful.
But there’s another awful oxymoron that deserves our attention, particularly as we near Thanksgiving and our season of feasts. Hungry Americans.
How can anyone in this richest country on the planet, home of the mightiest farmers, breadbasket of the world, be hungry?
That millions of households here are deemed “food insecure” – unable, at some point in the year, to afford the next meal – is equally absurd, obscene and shameful.
Hunger at home and abroad are of the same cloth. Yes, the depth of the hunger and malnutrition that I have seen in parts of Africa and elsewhere in the developing world is profoundly deeper than I have seen here. Thanks to a sturdy social safety net, no one starves to death here, as far too many people do every day in the poorer precincts of the world.
But whether in Africa or America, I see the same pain, desperation, guilt and humiliation in the eyes of mothers and fathers. How will I feed my family? Where will the next meal come from? And the same longing and despair in the eyes of the children.
I think back to one of my first conversations with Leonida Wanyama, who is among the smallholder farmers in western Kenya profiled in my new book, The Last Hunger Season
. With head bowed and voice low, Leonida told me of the bleak Christmas holiday that had just passed; all she was able to offer her family was a pot of boiled bananas.
Now, in the U.S., I’m reminded of the many food pantries preparing to distribute turkeys and all the fixings to families who otherwise wouldn’t share in our great Thanksgiving tradition, and I think of the many soup kitchens readying meals for those who have no place to eat such a feast.
In both Africa and America, I have seen hunger narrow the choices of daily living.
For the smallholder farmers with their meager crop yields: feed my family or sell some of my harvest to pay school fees for my children; feed my family or buy malaria medication; feed my family or repair the hole in my thatched roof.
For those who rely on American food banks and soup kitchens: buy food or pay the rent; buy food or keep my health insurance; buy food or pay the electricity and gas bills.
Hunger, no matter where it is, is an abomination. It tears at families, communities, societies. It cheats economic development. It haunts the conscience. Or at least it should.
Scenes from my reporting on hunger, be it at home or abroad, are seared in my mind:
In Africa, severely malnourished children clinging to life in emergency feeding tents. Families struggling to make it through the day on a mere cup of tea.
In America, astonished teachers watching students stuffing their pockets with food at Friday lunch, even when that food was spaghetti, because they didn’t know if there would be much to eat at home over the weekend. Children so eager to get to school they hopped off the buses on Monday morning and raced through the hallways; they were heading to the cafeteria, for school breakfast, because they hadn’t eaten much since school lunch on Friday.
A common source of hunger, of course, is poverty. For Africa’s smallholder farmers, it is an absence of essential resources: better quality seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, financing and agriculture extension advice – the vital ingredients to grow enough food to feed a family for a year. For families in America, it is an absence of a living wage, a lack of decent paying jobs to afford food security throughout the year.
The solutions are also similar. They must be long-term, beyond the immediate aid, and include more community input, individual empowerment and innovative education. The goal is for the farmers of Africa to grow as much nutritionally rich food as they possibly can and for the food insecure in America to be as productive as possible and earn enough to buy their own food.
One more common thread: Efforts to end hunger are under siege by the global financial mess. In the U.S., both short-term safety nets and long-term solutions are threatened by budget cuts, be they food stamps or women and infant care programs or the White House’s Feed the Future initiative which focuses on improving harvests of smallholder farmers in the developing world. The mandatory spending cuts that loom at the fiscal cliff will have a disproportionate heavy impact on poverty and hunger programs, which have already been hit in previous budget slashing moves. Hungry farmers? Hungry Americans? The awful oxymoron would be extended, not ended, by such cuts.
At Thanksgiving, we know we can do better. It is the time to commit to the last hunger season.
Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire
Forward with feeding the future!
Four more years, that’s what we got last night. Four more years to solidify American leadership in ending hunger through agricultural development. Four more years to make President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative a permanent part of American policy no matter the political makeup in Congress and the White House. That was the President’s promise to the world’s poorest when he spoke at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security in May.
“We can unleash the change that reduces hunger and malnutrition,” President Obama proclaimed then. “We can spark the kind of economic growth that lifts people and nations out of poverty. This is the new commitment that we’re making, and I pledge to you today that this will remain a priority as long as I am the United States president.”
He continued: “We’ll stay focused on clear goals: boosting farmers’ incomes and over the next decade helping 50 million men, women and children lift themselves out of poverty.”
We must hold him to it.
It will take great resolve and plenty of clamor-raising. For forward also lies the fiscal cliff. Budget cuts to corral the rampaging deficit will be necessary. And that will mean increasing pressure to whack away at foreign aid and investments in development. The White House will need to rouse a strong defense to protect Feed the Future.
The best way to do this is to make global food security a shared goal, embraced by both Democrat and Republican, to remove it from the partisan realm, to project it not as an Obama initiative but as an American initiative. Because agricultural development is what America does, and does best. Eliminating hunger was at the heart of two of America’s greatest diplomatic and development achievements: the Marshall Plan, which secured the peace after World War II by aiding the European recovery, and the Green Revolution, which conquered famine in many parts of the developing world.
Last night in his victory speech, President Obama spoke about a generous and compassionate America. Feed the Future is the face of this America to hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.
So forward with feeding the future. Forward with securing the global food supply to meet the demands of a growing population. Forward with creating the conditions for all the world’s farmers to be as productive as possible. Forward with vastly improving the planet’s nutrition. Forward with ending child stunting. Forward with banishing the shameful oxymoron “hungry farmers.”
Forward to a world with no hunger season.