A mother knows.

“This child is brilliant,” Harriet Okaka says about her one-year-old son, Abraham.  She isn’t bragging, just observing.  “I can tell, just by looking at him,” she says, “the way he plays, the way he is.”

Harriet, 33, is a smallholder farmer in the northern Uganda village of Okii, near the town of Lira.  Abraham is her sixth child.

“The other children started walking by the time they were two years old.  Abraham is walking at one,” she says.  The mother has noticed things.  When Abraham sees an animal, he motions for it to come, she notes.  When he hears music, he claps and dances.  “These are indications that his brain is developing well,” she says.

On a hot afternoon, Harriet and Abraham are sitting under a mango tree, savoring the shade with a dozen other women and their young children.  A mango falls from a branch and bounces in the middle of them.  Abraham is the first to react, quickly crawling a couple of feet to grab the fruit.  Abraham takes a bite.  All the adults laugh.  Harriet beams.

“You see,” she says.

It is no mere coincidence, Harriet believes, that Abraham was born on the day in April 2012 when she and other women farmers had completed their first training session in the art of planting orange-flesh sweet potatoes and a new variety of beans.  They are crops rich in micronutrients essential for the health of women and their children: Vitamin A in the sweet potatoes and iron in the beans.  The crops – particularly beneficial during the 1,000 Days period between when a woman becomes pregnant and the second birthday of the child -- were developed by an organization called HarvestPlus, pioneers in biofortifying staple foods with higher levels of micronutrients, and deployed by the humanitarian agency, World Vision.

They were different crops for the Ugandans, especially the sweet potatoes, which are normally white or yellow and lacking in micronutrient content.  But Harriet eagerly planted and tended her fields.  The harvest coincided with the time she was beginning to supplement Abraham’s breastfeeding with complementary foods.  She fed him a mashed up combination of the orange sweet potato and the high-iron beans. 

“It’s good for brain development,” she says a week after Abraham’s first birthday. Her youngest child hasn’t battled sickness as her other children did, she notes.  She believes it must be the new crops.  

She tells the story of her second youngest child, Isaac, now 5, how he was very sick at the end of last year.  He was losing weight.  His skin was rough.  Harriet took him to the nearby clinic several times.  Tests were performed.  None of the doctors knew what was wrong.  Isaac was so thin, so weak, his mother was terrified that he would die.

At wits end, she turned to the new food.  “I just kept feeding him the beans and the orange sweet potatoes,” she says.  “And he got better.”

With the seeds and the vines from HarvestPlus, Harriet had planted a quarter-acre of beans and a small plot of sweet potatoes in 2012.  This year, convinced of the nutritional benefits, she is expanding her efforts.  She rented an additional two acres and in March covered them with the high-iron beans.  By the end of April, she waded through a lush carpet of green plants with Abraham perched on her back, wrapped in a white blanket.  While she pulled weeds, he slept.

Harriet sees a market for the beans and orange sweet potatoes; the demand in the community is high.  Everyone knows the story of Isaac, who has recovered and is once again wearing the chartreuse uniform shirt of the Good Luck Nursery School.  They see Abraham, lively and healthy.  Harriet wants everyone to share in the benefits of the micronutrient rich food.

A mother knows.  “If my children are healthy,” she says, “then the neighbors’ children must also be healthy.”

This post originally appeared on the Global Food for Thought blog.
As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.  He was a wiry 39-year-old Ethiopian farmer and grain trader when I first met him back in 2003.  The country was tipping toward a disastrous food crisis – 14 million people would be on the doorstep of starvation that year – when he invited me to see his warehouse in the crossroads town of Nazareth.  He unlocked the door and threw open its large metal panels, revealing, astonishingly, a room full of food.

It was a gobsmacking site in a country that would be receiving more than one million tons of international food aid.  Bag upon bag of Ethiopian grown wheat, corn, beans, peas and lentils were stacked in towering columns stretching toward the ceiling.  It was the bounty from the two previous farming seasons, when Ethiopian farmers reaped bumper harvests.  Those surpluses overwhelmed the weak markets and prices plunged 80% in some areas, to levels below their cost of growing the food.  It was a catastrophe for the farmers; their success had led to failure.  Without a market, the food piled up in warehouses or rotted on farms.

Just a few blocks away, though, trucks laden with international food aid, most it from the United States, raced down the main highway.  This is how I described the scene in the book ENOUGH, Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, with Jerman at his warehouse:

“He could feel the trucks rumbling in from Djibouti, massive double-load wagons stacked to the top with 220-pound white woven-plastic bags bearing the characteristic red, white and blue markings of American food intended for hungry foreigners.  The trucks came in waves….The ground shook as they rolled over the potholes.

“Jerman shook with anger whenever he saw those trucks.…(He) scrambled to the summit of one of his mountains of grain and comically posed for pictures.  “I should hold a sign saying, ‘Please send food.  In Ethiopia we have no food!’ ”  He howled wickedly.  “I don’t think Americans can imagine this.”

“No, Americans imagined their food aid arriving to save the day amid blighted landscapes of misery where everything was brown, dying and grim.  Their perceptions of the situation – and of their own best intentions – were perhaps most clearly expressed on one of the trucks that rolled up to the Ethiopian government’s strategic grain storehouse in Nazareth, groaning under the weight of American wheat and corn to be unloaded there.  The truck’s passenger-side window had been converted into a stained-glass painting of Jesus.  It was perfect imagery: Jesus, in Nazareth, bringing salvation to the Ethiopians.

“Americans certainly didn’t imagine their food aid arriving in green fields, rolling past warehouses full of local food.  They didn’t imagine African countries producing grain surpluses, certainly not those countries with all those starving people.”

It was eminently clear to me, standing there with Jerman, that something was wrong with the U.S. food aid system, which, since the 1940s, mandated that the U.S. provide American-grown food on American flagged ships.  No matter that it doubled the cost and the time of food delivery to the hungry.  There was no room, no flexibility, for American dollars to be spent buying up food that was grown locally, in the same country or the same region where hunger reigned.

It was hard to fathom.  Why not buy up the food here first?  It would be cheaper.  It was already here, so it didn’t need to sail on the high seas for months.  And it would be a great help to local farmers, who saw their own markets collapse from their surpluses.  Instead of solely shipping in surplus food from America, why not buy up local surpluses first?

It seemed like common sense.  But common sense had long ago left the U.S. food aid system.  As the years went by, U.S. business and political interests had come to wield ever more influence over food aid policy, keeping the focus on what was best for American agribusiness and for the politicians it supported rather than on what was best for the world’s hungry.  Even as American generosity grew – half of all international food aid has routinely been provided by the U.S. – so did its self-interest.

Jerman and other farmers who had gathered with him told me that they were grateful for international assistance because the need in their country was so great.  But couldn’t some of that assistance be to also help local food systems?

Again from ENOUGH:

“Jerman reported that some farmers hauling their own grain up from the south, hoping to sell it on the markets, had pulled a U-turn in Nazareth when they met the food-aid trucks coming in from the east.  They returned to their farms and stashed the grain in flimsy storage facilities, breezy bins open to the elements, where insects and pests and the heat would ruin it in a matter of months.  What kind of incentive was this for farmers to improve their harvest?  With food aid flooding into the country, what was the use of producing a surplus?”

Back then, Jerman told me: “If we take the perspective of the American farmer, it is logical to supply food aid to the world.  This is the right policy for America.  But if the main aim of aid is not only to support American farmers but to support the poor country, then the donors must do what is best for the Ethiopian farmers and the Ethiopian people.  If this is the aim, to solve the hunger problem, then the U.S. must change.  Don’t only send your food.”

It’s taken 10 years, but finally change may be coming, pending approval from Congress.  There have been modest moves toward what is called “local purchase” in past U.S. budgets, but they have been tentative pilot projects.  Now the President was proposing that nearly half of America’s $1.5 billion food aid budget could be used to buy local food when that food was available in hunger areas.  Just like Jerman had pleaded a decade ago.  Imagine that.

Roger Thurow - Friday, May 13, 2011 - SOMETHING TO CUT

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

Now, a word – just a single word -- on what to cut.  Subsidies.

Not all the agriculture subsidies, especially those that help keep smaller farmers afloat or help maintain our food security.  But those billions of dollars in subsidies that end up in the hands of people who never get soil under their fingernails (but may own a piece of land eligible for the payments) or in the coffers of corporate farms – mainly those who don’t need the taxpayer-funded subsidies to spur greater production – or in the accounts of an ethanol industry that turns some 40% of the U.S. corn crop into fuel for cars while the world faces the looming challenge of nearly doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demand of a growing population and the growing prosperity of that population.

For decades, the ever-expanding agriculture subsidy programs of the U.S. and Europe have constituted one of the supreme hypocrisies of geopolitics and world trade.  As their subsidies grew, the rich world countries, and the international development agencies they control, were directing African governments, for the sake of fiscal austerity, to get out of agriculture and to stop subsidizing their farmers.  This created a huge imbalance in the global trade of agriculture goods; subsidized farmers were cushioned from the impact of falling commodity prices, while the unsubsidized farmers in the poorer precincts of the world suffered mightily from declining prices if their products, like cotton, were sold on the world market.  The result was that the farmers of Africa were left tilling terribly uneven plowing fields; they were left to fend for themselves in a global trading system increasingly tilted against them.

The subsidy schemes in both the U.S. and Europe had been initiated with good intentions during times of much poverty and desperation, especially for farming communities.  But, as Scott Kilman and I wrote in the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty:

“Over the years (the subsidies) became entrenched.  The political will to scale them back grew ever dimmer as farmers became wealthier relative to the rest of society and better able to finance powerful lobbies in Washington.  In fact, although America and Europe were tight allies in the arms race with the Soviet Union, they furiously battled each other in an escalating farms race by subsidizing the prices that foreign customers paid for commodities such as wheat.”

The American subsidy payments were fiercely defended by the agriculture lobby during negotiations over the Farm Bill, which became the best example of Darwinian evolution in legislation.  Nothing could kill it, or even pry it open for reform.

In the battle over the 2008 Farm Bill, a number of organizations from across the political, religious and humanitarian spectrums formed the Alliance for Sensible Agriculture Policies to campaign against the subsidy system.  It looked like they were making progress, even winning converts in the Farm Belt, but in the end they were badly outgunned.

From Enough:

“The Farm Bill that was finally enacted in June 2008 had 672 pages, 60% more than the 2002 Farm Bill.  According to Congressional Budget Office forecasts, the federal government will spend about $104.2 billion during the life of the five-year bill on programs that put money into the bank accounts of farmers.  The amount covers everything from crop-price support payments to land idling checks to crop insurance subsidies.”

But now, as negotiations over the fiscal 2012 budget heat up and the parameters for a new Farm Bill are shaped, some members of Congress are saying that subsidies shouldn’t escape the budget-cutting scrutiny, that some tightening and reform should be considered.  “We shouldn’t be giving corporate farms, these large agribusiness companies, subsidies.  I strongly believe that,” Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, told a gathering of reporters last week.

Even some farm groups acknowledge that the time is ripe for a recalibration of subsidies.  With prices of many staple commodities rising to a higher plateau, and with farm incomes up, the need for price support fades.  And many farmers have been supporters of Congressional candidates clamoring for overall budget cuts and debt ceilings.  Also, the impact on farmers in the developing world is being better understood; if those farmers are to contribute to the doubling of food production in coming decades, they need incentives to produce surpluses, which means level plowing fields in the global trading system.

Still, the budget warfare will be fierce.  As we quoted an official of a subsidy watchdog group in Enough: “The staying power of subsidies is remarkable.”