Turn the Page on Hunger

December 7, 2013 05:54 AM
Turn the Page on Hunger

A fresh take on solving global food insecurity

If you were given billions of dollars to improve the world, what would you do? While this is a hypothetical question for most, Decatur, Ill., farmer and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett was given this incredible opportunity, and he hasn’t taken it lightly.

Buffett’s father, Warren Buffett (the fourth richest person in the world) told him in 2006 that he was leaving most of his fortune to philanthropy—and that Howard G. would receive $3 billion to accomplish something great. He chose to face global hunger head on. While Howard G. wants the most vulnerable people on the planet to be well fed, he is approaching the challenge like the Illinois farmer he is proud to be.

Knowing that most folks have 40 chances to accomplish their life’s goals, Howard G. set an ambitious 40-year deadline for alleviating global hunger.

Reasons to hope. In his new book, "40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World," Howard G. and his son, Howard W. Buffett, share 40 inspir­ing stories related to the world’s hunger issues. The book speaks to every person wanting to make a difference—and provides actionable steps.

During the next four decades, he expects his namesake organization, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, to take risks, keep a long view and focus on solutions that sustain success. With this mindset, the foundation is sure to make some mistakes but will keep pushing forward for real progress.

"We need people to quit thinking so hard and start doing more," he says. "Hunger is complicated, but there are things that work. You can change people’s lives, sometimes with very little."

Howard W., a trustee for the foundation and lecturer in international and public affairs at Columbia University, says a common mistake he’s seen in many philanthropic efforts is the
assumption that what works in the developed world, primarily the U.S., will work across the globe.

In many underdeveloped countries, the majority of farmers can’t own land, don’t have access to new technology and there’s no established land-grant university system. "Many organizations use a template that is decades old: gather aid, deliver aid, leave a few years later," Howard W. says. While that provides short-term relief, it won’t solve poverty in the long-run.

A farmer’s eye. The first thing Howard G. does when he visits a new place (he’s traveled to 130 countries) is to rub the soil between his fingers.

"Soil is a farmer’s most valuable working capital," Howard G. explains. "Great civilizations have failed because they have not taken care of their soil."

Howard G. hopes U.S. farmers, who he says have done more than anyone in the world to feed the hungry, continue to adopt soil conservation methods such as no-till and cover crops.

"If we aren’t the best stewards we can be, how do we expect others to do it? We’re all in this together," he says.

Soil conservation practices are one of the hunger solutions that can be adapted and applied, in some form, everywhere.

The foundation is testing new farming techniques and technologies on research farms in Illinois, Arizona and South Africa. Many of the efforts focus on ways to build soil health and retain organic matter—in other words, turn dirt into soil. 

Watch a special Christmas Eve edition of "AgDay" for a conversation with Howard G. and Howard W. Buffett, hosted by Clinton Griffiths.


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