Op-ed Spotlight: Drought Unites Us All

August 21, 2012 06:33 AM

thurowBy Roger Thurow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The farmer fell to his knees, landing hard on the parched soil, and raised his arms to heaven.

"God, have mercy on us," he prayed, opening his palms to his field. "Provide us with the rain, for when it rains enough, the dirt will easily break. And the seeds will germinate and push up through the soil. Hear my prayer, dear God."

An American farmer this summer? It certainly could be, as the worst drought in decades chokes the U.S. farm belt.

But this particular prayer came from Francis Wanjala Mamati, a Kenyan farmer whose worries mounted by the day as drought spread across his country and all of East Africa. I remember it clearly, for it was on my birthday in March of 2011. An intense sun, shimmering in a clear blue sky, scorched everything below. The temperature was nearing 100 degrees. And Francis, one of the farmers I portray in The Last Hunger Season, was about to begin turning the soil with his jembe, his hoe, in anticipation of the start of the rainy season. He knew his work would be wasted if the rains didn’t come — and come in a hurry.

Francis was consumed by the same anxiety plaguing American farmers this year. Oh God, where are the rains? In many places, their work – their plowing and planting and nurturing – has been wasted, with the drought ruining crops and spreading financial woe. More than 1,200 counties have been declared disaster areas.

Weather concerns unite farmers all across the world. Be they in Iowa, tilling the richest soil in the world, or in Ethiopia, scratching at some of the poorest, all farmers look to the skies. And the consequences of weather that harms their crops effect consumers all around the globe; commodity prices have now begun their inexorable rise as field after field in the U.S. farm belt withers.

This year’s droughts in the Sahelian countries of West Africa and in the states of Middle America remind us that we’re all in this together. We’re all part of the same global food chain. To succeed in our great challenge – nearly doubling global food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a population growing both in size and prosperity – we need both the mighty farmers of America and the smallholder farmers of Africa to be growing as much as possible.

But they don’t all have the same chance to succeed. There are many differences between farmers in the U.S. and Africa, but one of the greatest, and gravest, is their ability to survive a crop disaster. In the U.S., thankfully, there is a safety net for much of the damage; insurance and government disaster relief will largely compensate farmers for their losses which will allow them to plant again next year. In Africa, the farmers, at best, will get some food aid. The national safety nets, if there are any at all, are very thin and riddled with holes. In most cases, there is no monetary compensation for crop loss, no support to help farmers bounce back the following season. The consequences of one bad season can be felt for years.

It comes down to this: When a crop fails in the U.S., someone writes a check, either the government or an insurance company. When a crop fails in Africa, people die. The farmers fall deeper into poverty, their children deeper into the abyss of malnourishment and physical and mental stunting.

Francis Mamati knows the feeling. When he was born, his mother gave him a second name: Wanjala. Wanjala is the local word in western Kenya for hunger. Francis was born during the hunger season, the time between harvests when food stocks run low and meals are skipped. When the new crop is ruined, wiping out the harvest, the hunger season has no end.

After his prayer for rain, Francis "Hunger" Mamati rose to his feet and attacked the soil with his jembe, trusting that the weather would turn in his favor. From radio reports, he knew the misery that was spreading across his country and all of East Africa as the drought took hold. "So much crying, so much hunger," he said.

Then he looked at me and asked, "I think in the U.S.A. there is no drought."

Oh, there’s drought I told him. At that time in 2011, Texas in particular was suffering a lack of rain. Francis shook his head and declared a kinship for the farmers on the other side of the world.
"We must pray for them, too," he said.

And we must do the same for Francis and all the farmers of Africa. We need to raise the clamor and support the burgeoning efforts of governments, development agencies and the private sector to boost agricultural development in Africa – to widen the access to the essential elements of farming, like seeds, soil nutrients, training and financial credit, and to promote resilience through safety nets. Yes, there are pressures on budgets everywhere, but this is not the time to retreat on the promise of ending hunger through agricultural development.

Look upon the parched fields. Hear the prayers of farmers in America and Africa. And know: We’re all in this together.

Roger Thurow joined the Chicago Council as a Senior Fellow on Global Agriculture and Food Policy in January 2010 after three decades at The Wall Street Journal. In 2003, he and Journal colleague Scott Kilman wrote a series of stories on famine in Africa that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. Thurow and Kilman are authors of the recent book "ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty."

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