Hunger is complicated and there are no quick fixes, but it isn’t stopping farmer and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett from devoting his namesake foundation and much of his time to putting an end to the problem. Buffett, who is president of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, shared his passion for fighting hunger and increasing agricultural productivity around the globe at the 13th Farm Journal Forum held this week in Washington, D.C. The event, which focused on securing global food security solutions, was sponsored by Buffett’s Foundation in association with the Farmers Feeding the World initiative.
Buffett began his keynote remarks to the crowd that included farmers, agribusiness executives, hunger relief advocates and lawmakers by sharing that he farms 14,000 acres in Illinois, Arizona, Nebraska and South Africa. Each of those acres is somehow devoted to fighting hunger— whether it is growing crops for the proceeds to be donated to non-profits dedicated to feeding the hungry or to research to increase sustainable food productivity.
Like all farmers, Buffett knows that the productivity of soils is a fundamental building block for yields and is one of agriculture’s most important assets. Knowing that and witnessing the soil erosion taking place in the U.S. has him keenly focused on protecting the soil as a weapon in fighting hunger. "Soil loss is an economic and production problem now, but some day it will be a food security problem," he explained.
As a farmer devoted to philanthropic efforts that follow the hand -up approach, Buffett believes that production systems must be developed specifically for farmers in other regions of the world. On his farm in Africa, they are not only using the latest technology available in North America, but they are also developing systems that utilize oxen instead of tractors because not many farmers in Africa have the means to purchase machinery. Research dedicated to discovering systems that work is key according to Buffett.
"Improved yields don’t mean much if you can’t get them out of the field," he says. Food security, he shared, is more than yields and requires sustainable systems developed regionally to allow farmers to maximize their yield potential and allows them to harvest that potential as well.
Technology and immigration are on the forefront of agriculture issues in America today. An avid supporter of technology in agriculture, Buffett emphasized the importance of manual labor in agriculture without discounting technology advances. "Technology is wonderful but it can’t replace people," he noted.
Manual labor, he said, is extremely important to food production especially in specialty crops and developing countries. Lack of manual labor affects nearly every state in America according to the American Farm Bureau. Buffett says that often corn and soybean farmers have a hard time grasping the need for manual labor and the impact that crops requiring it have on the nation’s economy.
In a touching vignette that illustrates that hunger happens behind closed doors in the U.S., Buffett told a story of an elementary school boy who had lots of friends but wasn’t ever willing for them to come to his house because he was self-conscious about never having dinner on the table. The young boy relied on the school lunch program at his school for his main meal of the day, and often relied on visits for his friends for additional meals. Buffett explained that this is a common scenario around America and although you might think this little boy lived in an urban area, he actually lives in Decatur, Ill., home to some of the largest grain processing facilities in the country. "There are families going hungry in the middle of food production land," he said. "Often we think of hunger as malnourished kids in Ethiopia, but the same thing is happening here behind closed doors."
Buffett invited farmers to engage in fighting hunger. "A farmer would never allow a neighbor to starve, but the truth is, that’s happening," he said. "We [the agriculture community] have a responsibility towards a food secure world and hunger free America."