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.