Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Impatient Optimists

Bill Gates calls himself an “impatient optimist.”

Would that we all shared his optimism and, especially, his impatience.

Testifying last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he injected a dose of urgency into the task of improving global health and agriculture development:

“I am optimistic because aid works. I am also impatient. We know how to save lives, we have low-cost tools, but children are still dying because we can’t reach them all with the interventions that we have. Solutions won’t solve anything if they can’t be delivered. Every human life is precious, and every death is tragic, and this gives me a sense of urgency to create and deliver what is needed.”

His testimony was welcomed by Sen. Dick Lugar, the committee’s ranking member and co-author, along with Sen. Robert Casey, of the Global Food Security Act. That bill, which would provide the political support and financial backing for the Obama administration’s ambitious Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, was first introduced in 2008 and passed by the committee, but it has languished in the legislative land beyond, overshadowed by the domestic health care debate and an array of foreign policy “hot spots.”

But can there be any more urgent task for the world than combating the rising hunger problem and securing enough food for the future? Sen. Lugar has his own surplus of impatience, an urgency to strike while the White House and State Department press American leadership in the fight against hunger. Opening the committee hearing, he prodded:

“I believe we have an opportunity in the coming months to achieve something close to a consensus and pass a global food bill that would have major benefits for international health and stability, as well as for U.S. foreign policy.”

Another volley of warnings of the need to move quickly was unleashed yesterday with a new batch of studies by the Global Harvest Initiative on necessary agricultural innovations to sustainably meet growing food demand.

It is certainly not an academic exercise. With more than 1 billion people chronically hungry today, hunger and malnutrition are already the biggest risk to health. And the roll call of the malnourished is constantly increasing. Projections on the growth of population (from less than 7 billion to more than 9 billion people) and prosperity (a six-fold increase in households with annual incomes above $16,000, meaning much more money spent on food consumption) point to food demand across the world nearly doubling by 2050.

One of the studies in particular presents a sober assessment of what’s at stake if we don’t act now. In “Agriculture from 2000 to 2050 – The Business as Usual Scenario,” Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, explores the agriculture and food production systems needed to achieve food security by 2050 and still have a livable planet.

He asks, “What will happen if we do nothing between now and 2050 that changes the basic trajectory of food production?” And then he adds, “We know that humans will adapt … but without concerted effort it is unlikely that those innovations will permeate to the extent and in the time frame necessary to make any real difference in overall global performance by 2050.”

In his introduction, Clay highlights the stakes:

“Global food demand is expected to double by 2050. The question is whether there will be enough food to realize this demand. If sufficient food is not available, the question then becomes what that does to global food security. More importantly, if there is insufficient food, who will get it? At the individual level, will there be a rise in infant mortality and malnutrition, an increased number of children who do not achieve the mental capacity they would have had with adequate nutrition, and an increase in the incidence and severity of disease because of the compromise of people’s immune systems? At the level of societies more broadly, will development be held hostage to food shortages; will further social equity gains be held hostage by efforts of a few to maintain their consumption levels; and will social conflict, famines and food refugees increase?

“The challenge of feeding more than nine billion people is daunting. If global consumption doubles as many predict, the challenge is even greater. From an environmental perspective, what may or may not have been sustainable land use and farming practices with six billion people will certainly not be sustainable with more than nine billion. At the level of farming, the challenge is just as daunting. Today, half of the world’s billion farmers cannot feed themselves. The remainder produce enough surplus to feed 10. By 2050, as many as three-quarters of farmers could well not feed themselves, but the remainder will need to feed 20, each consuming more than twice the levels at this time.

“However, if current trends continue, by 2050 there will not be enough food to meet the expected needs of the combined demand posed by anticipated population and consumption increases. If this happens, either population or consumption will not increase as anticipated, or the number of people who are malnourished will increase. Moreover, if insufficient food is produced or if it is not distributed equitably, then the environment will suffer. The deterioration of key environmental parameters will reduce, in turn, the ability to produce food in the future. The chronic erosion of the resource base required to produce food creates a vicious cycle. The question is how do we prevent this from occurring?”

The answer: We have to get moving. With the government and philanthropists and corporations and grassroots organizations all bringing a focus on reducing hunger through agriculture development, we have arrived at a moment of great opportunity. Or, rather, potential opportunity. Congress needs to act, to support the lead of the administration.

And we all need to crank up our impatience to bring the concerted action to the farms, particularly the small farms of Africa, that will generate the momentum and the optimism that this can be the singular achievement of our generation.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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