Stronger collaboration will be needed to make a dent in this chronic problem
Given how plentiful and inexpensive food is in this country, it’s easy to forget that hunger remains an enduring problem around the world. Nearly one in seven people around the globe—854 million all told—suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition, according to the World Food Programme of the United Nations. Even in the United States, 35 million people go hungry or experience of the risk of hunger each year.
Efforts to make a dent in this continuing problem are showing new signs of life. International organizations have stepped up work to promote agricultural productivity in developing countries. Non-government organizations are bringing modern farming techniques to small-holder farmers in developing nations. Seed companies, sometimes with assistance of philanthropic organizations, are developing new varieties that can better withstand conditions in arid and rainy regions. And, perhaps most important, collaboration between these interests appears to be improving.
That was the message conveyed this week at an International Agriculture and Food Security Briefing sponsored by Farmers Feeding the World, a Farm Journal Foundation Initiative, and the Senate Hunger Caucus. The discussion—which featured a presentation by Microsoft founder Bill Gates—drew legislators, congressional staffers, corporate officials, and agricultural interest groups. Speakers put politics aside to focus on the core issue: How do we help feed more people who don’t have enough to eat or the right food to eat?
"It’s true that hunger, or food security, is a moral issue," said Farm Journal Media CEO Andy Weber, kicking off the two-hour meeting. "It is also an issue that has powerful implications for US economic interests, national security, and global competitiveness."
Without further progress, many of the 2 billion expected newcomers to the world by 2050 may go hungry. A lot rides on the success of improving the plight of small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, many of whom still farm the same way their ancestors did.
"Most of the poor people of the world are farmers," Gates said, "farmers with very small plots of land, who have to deal with a great deal of uncertainty, because they don’t know what their yield is going to be, and in many years they are making just enough—or not even enough—to have the food that they expect."
"It’s my hope that this conversation re-focuses attention on hunger issues," said Ambassador Tony Hall, who moderated the discussion. Hall, a former congressman who twice went on hunger strikes to bring attention to hunger issues, said the issue needs more political attention. "We need our political leaders to develop an interest and a passion in this issue to make it an important national issue," he said.
The U.S. government used to do much more to feed the world’s hungry. In the 1960s, the U.S. exported 15 million tons of food to hungry nations. Today, despite bountiful harvests in this country, the number is closer to 4 million tons. "There’s been a real change in terms of food aid, especially as a percent of exports," said Stephanie Mercier, an ag policy consultant who wrote a white paper on the issue.
The U.S. still runs a $1.4 billion Food for Peace program that provides emergency food supplies to disaster-stricken regions around the globe. The Obama administration recently proposed an overhaul that it says may feed an additional 2 to 4 million people. Instead of shipping aid on vessels flying American flags, as is done today, the proposal would allow the government, or charities working in partnership with it, to buy food locally, closer to disaster areas. More than half the food would still have to be purchased from American farmers. A 2007 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found only one-third of program money actually goes to purchase commodities.
Development aid is another important piece of the equation. The U.S. government used to be a more active player in international efforts to improve the efficiency of private agriculture in developing countries. Most international agricultural development programs are run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which draws on funds allocated through The Foreign Assistance Act. USAID launched a new Feed the Future initiative in 2010 in response to big cutbacks in donor assistance that began in the 1980s. The program, Mercier noted, quadrupled development funding to $1.2 billion annually for each of the last three years.
Meanwhile, seed companies and philanthropic organizations have stepped in to fill a void on the agricultural research front. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, has funded research into plants that will stand up better to harsh weather conditions. "The U.S. traditionally has played a key role in agriculture research," said Gates. "What we see, though, in the numbers is that agricultural research has been flat-lined."
Jeff Austin of DuPont Pioneer, a panelist at the briefing, said the company is working to develop new seed varieties that are more tolerant of heat, drought, and pests. But with employees working in 90 countries, DuPont is engaged in a lot of other work that could improve the plight of small-holder farmers in developing nations. "We need to provide local aid," said Austin, noting that includes better knowledge transfer and collaboration. "Farmers have poor access to necessary inputs and lack access to markets so that they can move from subsistence farming."
Local aid to farmers and infrastructure improvement need to go hand-in-hand Mercier said. "It’s important to help the small holder farmer to improve his productivity. But if can’t get his grain to market, he loses the whole benefit of his gains. He’s not likely to invest in better seeds and inputs the next year."
Gates and Austin agreed that some foreign governments need to change their attitude toward seed technology. To feed another 2 billion people, given that there isn’t much more farmable land, "is going to take new and enhanced technology," said Austin, who also emphasized the need for sustainable solutions. "We need regulations to promote science-based solutions."
"Of course just getting new seeds is not enough," Gates said. "You’ve got to get into the countries and look at the land policies, the extension policies, the research policies, the acceptance of GMO techniques. And make sure every one of those things is managed in a very strong way. There’s a lot of research, a lot of benefits, that’s not getting out to the farmers who need this thing."
The problem, several speakers noted, is that much of the population gains in coming years will be urban, not rural area. David Lambert of Iowa State University noted that while the world’s population is split evenly today between urban and rural areas, by 2050 70% of the population will live in urban areas. "Are our policies keeping up with that demographic shift and what it means for the diets of children?" he asked.
"Well, you are absolutely right that the net population gain is essentially going to be in slums in poor countries," Gates responded, noting that sanitation issues are "way more problematic there. That’s why you see very high rates of Diarrhea and diarrheal deaths in urban areas."
But urban and rural areas in developing countries, Gates said, share a common problem: getting enough food. "There’s a huge budget distortion taking place in a lot of these countries where they have to subsidize food...and they are not investing enough in productivity, education, and infrastructure because food prices are very high."
Several U.S. aid programs are authorized by the farm bill, which is coming up for renewal this year. Congress has its work cut out for itself in crafting a new farm bill, indicated Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a co-chair of the Senate Hunger Caucus. The new farm bill is likely to trim assistance to U.S. farmers as Congress looks for ways to trim a massive budget deficit, he said.
"But the more we can produce, the more we can feed hungry people around the world," he said. "We need to find a balance."