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.
Today is World Food Day. But, I wonder, do the farmers of Africa know it?
Actually, for them, every day is Food Day. Food – growing it, scraping together enough money to buy it – is their daily preoccupation, a primal obsession. Africa’s smallholder farmers – the most common occupation on the continent - rise every day to tend their plots, trying to squeeze enough out of the soil to feed their families throughout the year. Most of the time, they fail, which is why they endure an annual Hunger Season.
When their cupboards are bare, they scramble for income to purchase food on the market. There, prices march relentlessly higher as surpluses from the previous harvest dwindle. The farmers may have to save their earnings for a couple of days before there is enough to buy a meal for the family.
In the Hunger Season, far too many days are No Food Day.
I wonder if Tesfaye Ketema in the Ethiopian highlands knows it is World Food Day. I met him in during the famine of 2003; he was sitting on a flimsy mattress in an emergency feeding tent, praying that his emaciated little boy, Hagirso, would survive. The year before, Tesfaye had carried bags of surplus corn to the same village square; now he had carried his starving son. The markets failed before the weather did; the surplus production of the previous year overwhelmed the markets, triggering prices to collapse by 80% and sapping the farmers’ ability, and incentive, to sustain surplus production. Then the drought hit.
I wonder if Tesfahun Belachew in Ethiopia knows. He and I watched the water of a river flow right past his feet while his crops died in a drought. He couldn’t tap the water for irrigation, because the river flowed into Lake Tana, which fed the mighty Blue Nile, which in turn provides most of the water in the great Nile that runs through Sudan and Egypt. The international community had decided that the Nile water must flow unimpeded to irrigate a cornucopia of crops in the Egyptian desert while Ethiopia, the source of the water, begged for food aid in the drought.
I wonder if all the smallholder farmers who work the soil with their hands know. In our rich areas of the world, we make our toys with Space Age technology, but their rudimentary tools haven’t advanced since the Iron Age. It is one reason their yields are only one-fifth or one-tenth the yields of American farmers.
I wonder if Leonida Wanyama and the farmers of western Kenya who I write about in The Last Hunger Season know. They all have cellphones – Leonida’s ring tone was Flight of the Bumblebee -- which give them the ability to punch a couple of numbers and find out the prices of their crops at local markets. But unless they have access to the essential elements of farming – seeds, soil nutrients, training, and credit to pay for it all – they are unable to produce a surplus to sell on the markets in the first place.
In the twelfth year of the 21st Century, we can do better than this.
For too long, these smallholder farmers have been dismissed by governments and the private sector as too poor, too remote and too insignificant to bother with. Little innovation was applied to their farming; policies that would help them conquer the Hunger Season were rarely considered.
But with our great global challenge of needing to nearly double food production in coming decades, these farmers are no longer too poor, too remote, too insignificant. They are central to our success. It is a grand irony: the neglected have now become the indispensable.
On World Food Day, let’s acknowledge – let’s raise the clamor - that we need all of the world’s farmers, big and small, to be producing as much nutritiously beneficial food as possible.
By Melinda Gates This commentary originally appeared on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimist Blog.
At our foundation, the team that works in agriculture thinks a lot about the following contradiction: We are aiming to improve the lives of farmers in very poor countries, but we live and work far away in a very rich country. How can we—from an office building in Seattle—actually understand the aspirations of farmers in, say, Kenya?
I just read a book called The Last Hunger Season
that I believe gets me a little bit closer to understanding. The author, Roger Thurow, spent a year in Bungoma District of Western Kenya, and he chronicles the lives of four farmers struggling to support their families by cultivating a couple of acres. When the rains don’t come on time, families often face the wanjala, Swahili for the “hunger season.”
I loved the book, but it also came highly recommended by an expert. A member of our agriculture team named Tony Machacha grew up on his family’s farm in the very same region in Kenya. He wrote me in an email that the book “transported me back to the land where I grew up and brought old memories flooding back.”
Two things about the stories in the book stuck with me.
First, the terrible trade-offs farmers have to make. During a wanjala, everyday decisions take on life-and-death significance. The price of maize—the staple crop in much of Africa—skyrockets as supplies dwindle at the market and at home. Will they feed their family, or sell some to buy drugs for their child who has malaria? Will they repair the hole in the roof of their home or pay school fees? I cannot imagine having to make these decisions even once. In Western Kenya, it’s routine.
The second thing that stuck with me is the fact that small investments can change the lives of these families, whether it is fertilizer or better seeds for poor farmers. These tools, along with extra training, can sometimes be all it takes to help farmers grow the surplus they need to make this the last
This week, I’ll be in Tanzania looking at some of the work we’re funding and meeting farmers. I’ll also be giving a speech to the leaders of the African agriculture community describing why and how our foundation invests in in these farmers. I’ll be sharing the stories of what I see and learn on the ground and look forward to hearing your reactions and questions.
Friday, September 21, 2012 By Roger Thurow
This commentary originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review.
It was in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm when Andrew Youn and I first met to talk about Africa.
“The existence of a hungry farmer is completely crazy. It’s mind-boggling. A hunger season shouldn’t exist,” Andrew told me on that frightful winter day, as the wind howled and the snow drifted beyond the windows of a bookstore where we nursed warm drinks. “Our mission as an organization is to make sure it never, ever happens.”
I was intrigued by this thin, soft-spoken, unassuming young man. He was 20 years younger than me, but I could sense from the outset that we shared many things, particularly an ambition to conquer global hunger. As he spoke about banishing the phrase, the horrible oxymoron, “hungry farmer”—and the need to do it now, and forever—I recognized his passion. For it was also mine.
I repeated to Andrew what an aid worker with the World Food Program had told me during the Ethiopian famine of 2003: “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.”
What I saw then, in Ethiopia, was 14 million people on the doorstep of starvation, being kept alive by international food aid; compounding the tragedy was that it was occurring after two consecutive years of bumper harvests in Ethiopia. It was an epic reversal, from feast to famine, that defied comprehension. What I saw was that indeed nobody should have to die of hunger. Not now, not in the 21st Century. It was that profound, soul-searing experience that led me to write the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty
with my Wall Street Journal colleague at the time, Scott Kilman. And it was what subsequently led me to leave the Journal after 30 years of reporting from many distant outposts. In the emergency feeding tents of Ethiopia, I found my passion and developed a single-minded pursuit of the story that had come to seem more important to me than any other: Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the new Millennium when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? For me and my diseased soul, Enough
hadn’t been enough.
So there I was, in a blizzard, searching for my next narrative in Africa. I was interested in portraying Africa’s smallholder farmers, who rose every morning to tend their fields yet still couldn’t grow enough to feed their families. They battled through an annual hunger season, the time between when their food from the previous harvest ran out and when the new harvest would come in. It was a time of great deprivation, when food was rationed and meals dwindled from three a day to two to one and then, on some days, to none. My idea was to follow a group of these famers over the course of a year, illustrating their ambitions and fears, failures and triumphs, and, ultimately, chronicling their potential to grow enough food to escape their personal hunger seasons and to benefit all of us as well by adding to the global food chain, which will be facing unprecedented pressure in coming decades to feed an ever-growing and ever-more prosperous world population.
As I explained all this to Andrew, I could see it matched his sense of mission and urgency. A few years earlier he had founded a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund in western Kenya to reverse the decades-long neglect of smallholder farmers by providing access to the seeds and soil nutrients and planting advice and financial credit that had never made it deep into the rural areas. The “social” aspect was to banish the hunger season; the “enterprise” part was to do it as an efficient business. Andrew believed in attacking hunger through agricultural development rather than food aid. It was a fresh impulse in the war on hunger, a challenge to the old way of doing things, to actually cater to the needs of smallholder farmers rather than giving up on them.
“I really believe,” Andrew told me, “that agriculture is the fundamental humanitarian challenge of our time.”
My diseased soul had found a kindred spirit. I was determined to see One Acre farmers in action. Out in the snow, bracing against the wind, Andrew and I shook hands.
We would next meet in the intense heat of western Kenya. Read an excerpt from The Last Hunger Season.
Francis Mamati was gobsmacked by what he heard.
Why would they say that?, he wondered.
Sitting under a shade tree in front of his little house in western Kenya, Francis had just been told that there are people who think African smallholder farmers are better off planting seeds saved from previous harvests than planting newer, fresher seeds purchased every year. The rationale behind this thinking is that these saved seeds are cheaper; annual purchases would trap these very poor farmers in a cycle of higher expenses, leaving them beholden to seed companies.
“You mean they would rather we be trapped in a cycle of hunger?,” Francis asked incredulously.
For years, he and neighboring farmers had routinely used saved seeds or purchased cheap, tired varieties that have been in use for decades. And for years they have struggled through a hunger season, unable to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year. Francis knew the misery of the hunger season all too well. In fact, his middle name, bestowed by his mother, is Wanjala
, the local word for hunger. He was born during the hunger season of 1957.
Thus, Francis and tens of thousands of other farmers in his area jumped at the chance to purchase better-quality hybrid corn seed when a social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund presented the opportunity. Crucially, One Acre also provided the financing in the form of micro-credit to enable the farmers to afford the seed, as well as tiny amounts of fertilizer. We’re not talking about the new generation of seeds called gmo’s, or genetically modified organisms – they aren’t even available in Kenya or in most of Africa -- but about seeds produced through conventional hybrid breeding techniques that adapt for disease or climate or soil conditions. The result can be harvests with double or triple yields.
“We will all pay more for seeds if they give us much better harvests,” Francis explained. “Who wouldn’t? It doesn’t cost anything to be hungry. Starvation is cheap! You mean these people would rather we not spend money and be content with low yields?”
He continued: “We’ve come to discover that the seed you save in your house and use year after year doesn’t perform as well as the hybrid seed. One, it is too easily attacked by disease; no changes have been made to resist new disease. Two, the cobs are smaller than with hybrid seed.”
“Look,” he said, “life is going on. There is new technology in the world. So you should follow the technology rather than hold on to old customs that are leaving you hungry. We look forward to our better harvests.”
I write about this conversation in my book The Last Hunger Season
. And I repeat it here because as I speak about the horrible oxymoron of “hungry farmers”, of the need to end hunger through agricultural development, a frequently asked question is the very one that was put to Francis: are we somehow trapping farmers in the expense of buying seed every year?
My reply: Listen to the famers.
Listening should be the most cherished skill of anyone doing international development work. Ask and listen. Don’t assume. Don’t dictate. Don’t impose your notions of what is best.
I thought of Francis while watching former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democrats’ convention this week. “Arithmetic!,” Clinton shouted when revealing the secret of balancing the national budget.
Arithmetic was also key to Francis’ farming rationale. He acknowledged that hybrid seeds cost more than the traditional varieties, a couple of hundred shillings per half acre more. But he said it was well worth the cost if he could harvest an additional five or six bags of corn, each worth more than 1,000 shillings (and perhaps as much as 4,000 shillings, depending on the time of year and the market price). Who, he asked, wouldn’t make that transaction, particularly if their children were hungry?
Listen. There is wisdom in these voices.
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.
Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire - From Aids To Agriculture
As we have heard during this week’s international conference in Washington, D.C., there has been wondrous progress on the AIDS treatment front since President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) nearly a decade ago.
At that time, there were only about 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving the life-saving drug therapy. By last year, thanks to the work of a global alliance attacking AIDS, that number had soared to an estimated 6.2 million. There is much work still to be done; barely half the people in need of treatment in Africa are receiving it, and there were still more than 300,000 pediatric HIV infections last year. But the progress spurred by PEPFAR over the past decade is a remarkable achievement; it stands as a cornerstone of America’s global health programs and a pillar of the nation’s foreign policy.
Now there is another presidential initiative that holds the potential of achieving another set of remarkable results in Africa. President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future initiative seeks to end hunger through increasing investment in agricultural development, particularly for the vast legion of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Because of the neglect of agricultural development over the past four decades, these farmers are woefully behind, producing only one-tenth to one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the rich world. They are often unable to grow enough to feed their families throughout the year. As a result, they and their children endure the misery of an annual hunger season. Hungry farmers – what a horrible oxymoron.
Feed the Future aims to reverse this neglect by boosting investment in agricultural development on a wide front – African governments and donor countries, the private sector and philanthropic foundations and humanitarian agencies – and across a broad range of endeavors, from seed research to crop storage. Promises to do so have been made from the G8 countries and from the G20 assembly and from a chorus of CEOs. President Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” effort.
Particularly critical is fostering smallholder farmer access to the essential elements of farming that for so long have been beyond their reach: better quality seeds, soil nutrients, training, financing, improved storage facilities. Just as access to treatment has been critical in the fight against AIDS, so is access to these basics of agriculture critical to conquering hunger. Just as with the “Lazarus effect” of AIDS medication, these farming innovations can transform lives from barely surviving to robustly thriving. ONE’s appropriately named Thrive campaign calls on African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to implement smart agriculture and nutrition plans that can move tens of millions of smallholder farm families out of extreme poverty and hunger.
Central to this movement is that Feed the Future and U.S. leadership to end hunger through agricultural development become a cornerstone of American policy no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress. Here, PEPFAR’s path to a unity of purpose is instructive.
After President Bush announced his initiative in early 2003, it was embraced and authorized by Congress in an unusual display of bipartisan support. When the president signed into law the United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003, it was hailed as the largest commitment by any nation to an international health initiative. In 2008, with another burst of political unity, PEPFAR was reauthorized by Congress. And the Obama administration has continued to make it a centerpiece of the nation’s development work.
Feed the Future is worthy of similar bipartisan support and unity of purpose. It can stand alongside PEPFAR as an example of what America does in the face of crisis and great need. There would be no political bickering over agricultural development spending, no calls from budget cutters (as can be heard now) to eliminate the program. It is that important to improving vast numbers of lives in the developing world. And it is that important to all our lives as well, as demands increase on the world food supply, be they from a growing global population or from extreme weather conditions ruining harvests from Indiana to India. It is very clear: If the smallholder farmers of Africa succeed, so might we all.
Then another international conference can convene in Washington to hail the progress on agricultural development: the number of rural families who moved from dire poverty, the decrease in stunting from malnutrition, the emergence of food powers in Africa. The last hunger season would finally be at hand.