It was in the scary days of the Cold War when Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder from small-town Iowa, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. An odd choice, perhaps, given the nuclear standoff at the time, but the Norwegian committee bestowing the award had a good reason:
“The world has been oscillating between fears of two catastrophes: the population explosion and the atom bomb. Both pose a mortal threat,” said Aase Lionaes, the head of the Nobel Committee, in presenting the award. “In this intolerable situation, with the menace of doomsday hanging over us, Dr. Borlaug comes onto the stage and cuts the Gordian knot. He has given us a well-founded hope, an alternative of peace and of life – the Green Revolution.”
These words came rushing back to me this week as U.S. President Obama and Russian President Medvedev met in Prague to sign a new treaty that reduces the number of weapons in each country’s nuclear arsenal. President Obama said the pursuit of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons would “make the United States, and the world, safer and more secure.”
So one mortal threat was diminished, but another – the one Dr. Borlaug had defused, only temporarily it turns out, back in the 1960s – still hangs over us more menacingly than ever. While the number of American and Russian nukes pointed at each other shrinks, the number of hungry in the world swells; while the nuclear weapons threaten to kill millions, hunger actively does.
That’s because the momentum of Borlaug’s Green Revolution quickly ebbed after the 1970 celebration. The world became complacent in its pursuit of agriculture development; the small farmers at the center of Borlaug’s efforts to end famine were neglected. The agriculture transformations of the 1960s and 1970s that boosted the economies and reduced the hunger in Asia and Latin America never came to Africa. While constant vigilance held nuclear destruction at bay, the forces of hunger re-gathered with a vengeance. Today, more than 1 billion people are chronically hungry, more than before the Green Revolution.
The widespread hunger that destabilizes societies and rocks our conscience remains a great threat to world peace today. As Borlaug often said, “You can’t build peace and democracy on an empty stomach.”
This is the driving calculation behind the Obama administration’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative. Notice the word Security. The program’s mission is to reduce hunger through agriculture development, particularly development that will create the conditions for Africa’s small farmers to grow as much food as possible to feed their families and their communities. And thus ensure a more stable, secure world.
Hunger’s “mortal threat” was perhaps best described by another American president as peace settled in following World War II (and the Cold War approached). Herbert Hoover, the former president, had been asked by then-President Harry Truman to serve as America’s roving hunger envoy. He traveled more than 35,000 miles, visiting 25 countries in Europe, Asia and North Africa, to gauge the extent of the hunger problem, which threatened to undermine the peace after World War II. He found starvation not only among the ruins of the war in Europe, but also where drought was choking farming efforts in great swaths of the world beyond.
Hoover reported back to the American public, framing the need for an assault on hunger (which was central to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe) in security wording. With haunting relevance to today, this is what he said in a radio broadcast from Chicago’s Sherman Hotel on May 17, 1946:
“Along the 35,000 miles we have traveled, I have seen with my own eyes the grimmest spectre of famine in all the history of the world.
“Of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the one named War has gone – at least for a while. But Famine, Pestilence and Death are still charging over the earth…
“Hunger hangs over the homes of more than 800 million people – over one-third of the people of the earth. Hunger is a silent visitor who comes like a shadow. He sits beside every anxious mother three times each day. He brings not alone suffering and sorrow, but fear and terror. He carries disorder and the paralysis of government, and even its downfall. He is more destructive than armies, not only in human life but in morals. All of the values of right living melt before his invasions, and every gain of civilization crumbles. But we can save these people from the worst, if we will.”
If we will.
President Truman saw that “grimmest spectre” as threatening the hard-fought peace after World War II and launched the Marshall Plan and then backed the initial work of Norman Borlaug and colleagues that would bring forth the Green Revolution. He told his fellow Americans that the effort to conquer hunger was “a battle to save our own prosperity.”
As Scott Kilman and I wrote in our book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty:
“After World War II, eliminating hunger was seen to be a bulwark against the extremism of the day: international communism. Today, eliminating hunger would be a bulwark against the extremism of the 21st century: global terrorism.”
As President Obama was on his way to Prague for the signing of the nuclear treaty, his agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, was in Tokyo, rallying support for the administration’s Global Food Security Initiative -- the two “mortal threats” of Borlaug’s time, as defined by the Nobel Committee, still clamoring for action.
In Tokyo, Vilsack summoned the echoes of Hoover and Truman:
“Food insecurity is first and foremost a moral issue. We should all feel a humanitarian imperative to take on the challenge and ensure that children do not go to sleep hungry. But it goes beyond that…
“Working to eliminate food insecurity across the globe will provide incredible economic benefits to developing and developed countries alike. It will increase political stability in conflict and poverty-stricken regions, and put these countries on a path to future prosperity…
“In the coming decades, ensuring global food security will only become more difficult. We face the reality of a world population that is growing by 79 million people each year, the equivalent of six Tokyos. Future food demand is expected to increase by 70% by 2050 – challenging our capacity to grow and raise enough food… Growth in agricultural productivity faces increasing threats from scarce water supplies and competition for energy resources from industry and urbanization. Climate change also promises to have an outsized impact on the global food supply…
“In the coming years and decades we must give the world’s poor a reason for hope by tackling food security with a renewed commitment to agricultural development. The world’s economic and political stability, and the prosperity of our two nations, depends on how well we meet this challenge.”
If we will.
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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