Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

The Hungry Can’t Eat Words

A blunt reminder of the task at hand came from Europe this week, aimed at the powers-that-be in the Group of Eight leading industrial countries, also known as the G8:

“Declarations, commitments, and speeches don’t feed hungry people.”

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agriculture Development, was speaking to more than 1,000 researchers, policymakers, farmers, donors and humanitarians from around the world gathered in Montpellier, France. The participants in the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development assembled to tell the G8 leaders -- from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Russia -- that it was time to put their declarations, commitments and speeches about attacking hunger through agriculture development into action.

Nwanze’s broadside reminded me of a plea from a speaker at an earlier conference on the future of African agriculture, this one back in 2004. The official from a West African agriculture ministry rose to say he was tired of attending such conferences in splendid convention centers. It was time, he said, that they all gathered in the fields of Africa to see how such fine words were turning into food. It was actions that counted, he said, not words.

The G8 is famous for its fine words. Last July, at their summit in L’Aquila, Italy, the G8 leaders issued a lofty statement, saying, “There is an urgent need for decisive action to free humankind from hunger and poverty. Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue on the political agenda.” They pledged $22 billion to that effort.

As the number of chronically hungry in the world has soared past 1 billion this year, those gathered in Montpellier urged the G8 to get moving on that priority and deliver on those pledges. The main focus in France: revitalize research aimed at helping the world’s small farmers, who also are, ironically, the world’s hungriest and poorest people.

Desperate numbers provided a dire backdrop to the proceedings: Agriculture development aid from the rich world to the poorest countries had plummeted from a peak of 17 percent of all aid in 1979, during the zenith of the Green Revolution, to a low of just 3.5 percent in 2004. In absolute terms, agriculture development aid shrunk to about $3 billion in 2005 from $8 billion in 1984.

The results of this negligence have been devastating: Africa’s agricultural research institutions are in shambles, rural infrastructure is crumbling, soils are barren, seeds are weak, markets are dysfunctional.

The conference stressed the importance of reviving the continent’s research capabilities, especially in the areas of soil, seeds, water use, adapting to climate change, and crop diversity to achieve greater nutrition. And it said these efforts should be focused on women, who, according to a conference report, account for as much as 80 percent of Africa’s food production but receive only 5 percent of agricultural extension training and 10 percent of rural credit. Only a quarter of agricultural researchers in Africa are women, and very few of them are in research management.

“We need action, action, action, and abolition, not alleviation, of poverty,” said Uma Lele, a former senior adviser to the World Bank and lead author of the conference report, “Transforming Agricultural Research for Development.” The report says that just to make up for the past underinvestment will require agriculture research investments more than double or triple current levels. “We need for donors to make the contributions that I know they are capable of making.”

This was a sharp prod to the G8 leaders, who will be meeting again in late June, this time in Canada. (Rather they should be meeting in the fields of Africa, to see the meager harvest -- so far -- of their fine words.) While they have often talked at these sessions about aiding Africa, the present escalation of hunger and the challenge to world agriculture is injecting new urgency. Estimates are coming from several quarters that the world will need to nearly double food production by 2050 to deal with increasing population (from 6 billion to 9 billion) and increasing prosperity of formerly hungry places like China and India. We continue to ignore the potential of Africa’s farmers to make a great contribution to global food production at our collective peril.

Those gathered in Montpellier wanted to make sure that the writing on the wall is unmistakable.

“Millions of people around the world are enduring lives of hardship and misery today. We are collectively and personally responsible for this tragedy,” said Dr. Monty Jones, an African scientist who developed a new strain of rice and was awarded the World Food prize in 2004. Despite such advances, he said, the world should have achieved far more. Swelling with emotion as he contemplated the 1 billion hungry, he added: “I am personally ashamed.”

Dr. Jones summoned the spirit of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa seed breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution who died last fall at the age of 95, still trying mightily to bring the revolution to African agriculture. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Dr. Borlaug warned that his and future generations would be judged harshly if they didn’t keep up the pace of agriculture development to defeat hunger.

“We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines,” Dr. Borlaug prophesied. “Humanity cannot tolerate that guilt.”

To that burden of negligence, Dr. Jones and the others at Montpellier shouted, “Enough.”

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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