Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

All Together Now

It’s all the same really, the clamor over hunger, climate change and environmental preservation. The common goal: improve food production and nutritional quality to feed the planet’s ever-expanding and more prosperous population while adapting to climate change and protecting delicate eco-systems.

Yet the attention of policymakers is often divided as if these are unique problems with separate solutions. At the end of last year, for instance, there were separate summits on hunger and climate change at opposite ends of Europe. The food summit in Rome got relatively little attention while world leaders stampeded to the microphones and cameras at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. One summit would have riveted attention on the two issues: the 1 billion chronically hungry people and the environmental challenges that threaten to make that number much worse.

We need to harmonize the clamor. One effort to do that is the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project. In a paper released this week, it identifies three challenges “that are central to the global conversation on hunger reduction”:

  • Unify the food security, climate change and ecosystem protection agendas;
  • Rise above conflicting perspectives on the causes and solutions to hunger;
  • Empower farmers and communities to feed themselves.

“Historically, there has been a major disconnect between policymakers focused on hunger reduction and the newer voices mobilizing around ecosystem conservation and climate mitigation and adaptation,” says Sara Scherr, president and CEO of Ecoagriculture Partners, who has co-authored a paper for Worldwatch outlining these goals.

“The various models for agricultural, food security, climate, and ecosystem conservation, and the policies to promote them, are in serious conflict, which threatens to cancel out progress on production, food security, climate or environmental goals,” notes the paper, “Agricultural Innovation for Food Security and Poverty Reduction in the 21st Century: Issues for Africa and the World.

“Yet,” says Scherr, “in the midst of all this conflict, a rapidly growing set of individuals and institutions has been exploring innovations for reconciling these objectives – for developing landscape mosaics that overcome these challenges simultaneously.”

These innovations, suggests the paper, are aiming to grow more food, mitigate climate change and conserve critical ecosystem services, such as watershed protection, pollination and pest and disease control.

However, these innovations – be they on the scientific or markets fronts, or on the ground of Africa’s small farms -- are often overlooked by governments, funders and private sector agribusiness. In the past several decades they have been more concerned with mobilizing large amounts of relatively cheap food for the global food chain of urban retail and wholesale consumers, rather than ensuring that resource-poor rural populations and people with little purchasing power in developing countries (the 1 billion hungry and others on the edge) have access to adequate food supplies and nutritional quality. This perspective was one of the factors leading to the sharp decline in agriculture development aid for the poorer countries of the world since the 1980s.

And, as we illustrate in our book Enough, these innovations are often undermined by policymakers’ self-interested adherence to practices that sap the incentive of these small farmers. Namely, food aid systems that feed the hungry through handouts rather than encourage them to feed themselves, and agriculture subsidies that are showered on farmers in the richer world and denied to farmers in the poorer precincts, particularly in Africa. The resulting uneven plowing fields of agricultural trade subvert innovation.

I have often marveled at the entrepreneurial ability of Africa’s small farmers. What they are able to accomplish with very little resources is remarkable and inspiring. But still they often fall short. Given support, they can be the leading innovators in the drive for their own food security.

These farmers don’t look at the problems of hunger, changing climate and environmental threats as separate challenges. And, in unifying our clamor to spur political and popular action, neither should we. Their goal – and we should share it -- is to feed their own families and communities despite climate changes while making sure the environment can support their farming for generations to come.

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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